Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 71

Several leading members of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament of regional leaders, have come out in favor of giving former President Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s first and last president, life-long membership in the body. Yegor Stroev, the Federation Council’s speaker and governor of the Orel region, said over the weekend that he viewed the idea of giving both Yeltsin and Gorbachev permanent Federation Council membership as being “moral from all points of view,” adding that the “civilized form of transferring power,” rather than the practice of “humiliating or insulting” former heads of state, should be turned into a tradition in Russia. He indicated that such a move would be supported by the parliament’s upper chamber (Russian agencies, April 8).

Stroev’s view was seconded by Mikhail Prusak, governor of the Novgorod region, who said that it was also shared by a number of other Federation Council members. Prusak said that Gorbachev should also get life-long Federation Council membership, and that the status should apply to President-elect Vladimir Putin, once he is out of office, and all future presidents. Prusak’s focus, however, was on Yeltsin. “Yeltsin did a lot to establish morals in society, he was the first person since the time of the Moscow kingdom to relinquish power peacefully,” the Novgorod governor said. “It is also important that when he stepped down, Yeltsin apologized in front of the people for his mistakes.” Along with Prusak, Vladimir Platonov, a vice-speaker of the Federation Council who is also head of the Moscow City Council and an ally of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, came out in favor of the proposal (Russian agencies, April 9).

It is not quite clear what motivated Stroev and Prusak to push the idea of life-long Federation Council membership for ex-presidents just now. Late last month, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) and other leftist factions in the State Duma, the parliament’s lower chamber, tried to pass a motion requesting the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the decree signed by Vladimir Putin last New Year’s Eve, immediately after he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as head of state. Putin’s decree gave Yeltsin immunity from prosecution. The KPRF motion challenging the legality of the decree failed to pass, although its sponsors can send a separate request to the Constitutional Court if it is backed by ninety Duma deputies (see the Monitor, March 30).

It is worth noting, however, that the same day as the vote in the State Duma concerning Putin’s decree granting Yeltsin immunity, a Russian newspaper published the comments of an investigator with the prosecutor’s office in Geneva, Switzerland. The investigator said that the Swiss authorities were ready to arrest Pavel Borodin–a long-time Yeltsin associate who until earlier this year headed the Kremlin’s “property management” department–for allegedly laundering, in Switzerland, kickbacks received from a Swiss engineering-construction firm in return for lucrative Russian government contracts. The investigator added that it was “more than possible” that the Swiss authorities would announce charges against other Russian citizens in connection with the case (see the Monitor, March 30). Borodin and Mabetex officials have repeatedly denied all of the allegations of bribery and money laundering.

According to reports in the Russian and Western media, Mabetex, the company suspected of paying the kickbacks, allegedly provided Yeltsin and his two daughters with credit cards through a Swiss bank, paid tens of thousands of dollars in bills from these cards and transferred US$1 million to a Hungarian bank for the use of Yeltsin and his daughters during a trip they made to Hungary in 1994 (see the Monitor, September 9, 1999). The Kremlin has denied all the allegations. It cannot be ruled out, however, that the Swiss authorities are ready to bring money laundering charges even against Yeltsin himself. This could explain why some of the governors have suddenly begun pushing the idea of giving Yeltsin life-long Federation Council membership, which comes with an immunity from criminal prosecution that can only be overturned by the Federation Council members themselves.