AS President Boris Yeltsin and his opponents find themselves deadlocked in a bitter political struggle, the warring sides have turned to corruption allegations in an attempt to topple each other.
Mr. Yeltsin wants to promulgate a new constitution and hold early parliamentary elections to remove opposition to his reforms, particularly rapid privatization and a tight fiscal policy. The hard-line opposition has stalled Yeltsin's constitution and election initiatives, but has not reoriented reform as much as it would like.
With compromise out of the question, both sides are now resorting to personal attacks. Corruption charges have become the main weapon, and there appears to be plenty of ammunition.
Government graft has been the subject of discussions for months, but the issue has now exploded, with much finger pointing, references to secret documents, and even an alleged murder plot.
Already there have been a few political casualties on both sides, but no one has been caught with a smoking gun, and no criminal charges have been brought stemming from corruption allegations.
The latest act began at a news conference last week, when members of the Yeltsin-appointed Interdepartmental Commission on corruption alleged that Vice President Alexander Rutskoi funneled state funds into a personal bank account in Switzerland.
The Commission also accused Russian Prosecutor General Valentin Stepankov of abusing his powers, and called for his resignations. One Commission member, lawyer Andrei Makarov, said he possessed documents proving Mr. Stepankov had plotted his murder with a former KGB operative now living in Canada.
Mr. Rutskoi, a leader of the anti-Yeltsin forces, has denied the Commission's allegations against him. Stepankov, likewise, has refused to resign. He also denies discussing a plan to murder Mr. Makarov, characterizing the sketchy transcript of a supposed assassination phone conversation as a "political provocation."
That Yeltsin and his supporters would target Rutskoi and Stepankov is not surprising. It was Rutskoi who first turned government corruption into a political issue, announcing in Parliament last April that he had "suitcases" full of evidence on Cabinet wrongdoing. And Stepankov's office in July initiated a graft probe against both First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Shumeiko, a vital reform supporter, and Yeltsin lieutenant, Mikhail Poltoranin.
Now, with the Commission on his back, Rutskoi is counterattacking. At a Monday news conference, he waved a document that supposedly showed that Yeltsin and his aides conspired to smear their political opponents with corruption charges. But he refused to reveal the document's exact contents or its source.
He claimed Yeltsin ignored warnings that his government was corruption-riddled and suppressed graft-related information.
Only lately have Yeltsin and his supporters taken action. Late last month Security Minister Viktor Barannikov was suddenly fired for alleged unethical activity.
And Foreign Trade Minister Sergei Glazyev tendered his resignation last weekend. The Commission alleged corruption was rampant in the Foreign Trade Ministry. But some observers say Mr. Glazyev was targeted not for being corrupt, but for being neutral in the political battle.
GLAZYEV blamed "mafia bands" for his resignation, reasoning the ministry's attempt to regulate raw materials exports threatened organized criminal activity.
Whether Glazyev's allegation is accurate or not, organized crime groups have become increasingly brazen. Reports of rub-outs, gun battles, and daylight robberies are now featured daily in the Russian press.
Some observers say organized crime poses a far greater threat to economic recovery than government corruption.
"This talk of corruption in the top echelons of power is just an extension of the political struggle," says economist Otto Latsis. "It has only an indirect effect [on recovery efforts] in that the Parliament's work has become an obstacle for economic reform.
"The Mafia is a danger," Mr. Latsis adds. "It's diversified ... and gives rise to insecurity because everyone starts wondering whether this or that businessmen is honest, or a swindler."