Showing Russians who's boss

Prime minister boosts image with anticorruption drive. Eye onpresidency?

With a bold new anticorruption drive and an agreement to limit the president's power launched last week, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has sent out the message that he wants firm control over an unruly Russia.

While President Boris Yeltsin recovered from his latest bout of illness, Mr. Primakov sent out police to raid a major tycoon and warned that he was emptying the jails to make room for economic criminals who drain the country of billions of dollars a year.

"Our government is taking all measures to strengthen stability in the country, both political and economic," Primakov told reporters yesterday.

This flourish of dynamism not only strengthens Primakov's position in case he wants to run for president next year (sooner if Mr. Yeltsin should die or leave office early for health reasons), but also further sidelines Yeltsin.

And the initiatives give Primakov a moral authority that many Russians crave at a time of economic crisis.

"Mr. Primakov is very slowly but clearly strengthening his position.... Finding scapegoats is a clear tactic to prepare for the [2000] electoral campaign," says Sergei Kolmakov, deputy director of the Politika Foundation, an independent think tank in Moscow.

Primakov, a former spymaster and ex-foreign minister, is a consummate politician who since Soviet days has survived several regimes in Russia's ruthless and fickle corridors of power. He was appointed in September as caretaker premier, but has since broadened his influence, culminating in an accord Friday that blocks the capricious Yeltsin from firing him without consulting parliament.

Yeltsin's hallmark during his seven years in power has been abrupt dismissals of officials, including firings of two Cabinets last year that drove the country to the brink of political and economic disaster.

His inability to come to grips with corruption has long been a source of frustration for Russians. But the sense of impotence was broken last week with an array of actions on cases that have been under investigation for some time.

The salvos included the arrest of former Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov, who is accused of embezzlement, police raids on the businesses of oligarch Boris Berezovsky, and revelations about shady practices at the Russian Central Bank.

A report by the prosecutor general's office that the Central Bank secretly transferred $50 billion of reserves to an offshore account on the British island of Jersey follows criminal proceedings already under way against several former bank officials. The officials are accused of cheating on expense accounts, money laundering, and illegally shifting money out of the country.

The greatest fanfare centered on moves against Mr. Berezovsky, a political rival of Primakov and Russia's most visible tycoon. Once a confidant of the Yeltsin clan, Berezovsky epitomizes for many Russians the small group of financiers who profited from the transition from socialism, buying up state firms for a song.

Police in black ski masks last week raided his oil company, Sibneft, and firms doing business with the Aeroflot airline, in which he controls a large stake. It was another blow to the fading financial empire of Berezovsky, who also lost a big stake in the Transaero airline and control over the ORT television channel, which has been placed under temporary state administration.

While the campaign against Berezovsky is motivated partly by politics, it also has a strong financial component as Russia slides toward bankruptcy.

An International Monetary Fund team left town over the weekend with no promises of further aid, leaving the government desperate to mobilize other resources to stave off complete default.

BEING seen as acting decisively as a crisis manager of the economy would win Primakov plaudits from Western creditors, who have demanded results on the anti-corruption front.

"This sends the right signals at home and abroad," says Boris Makarenko, a political analyst at the Political Technologies Center, a Moscow-based think tank. "It sends a strong signal to the political elite that this government will no longer tolerate merciless corruption, and it may also help win back some foreign confidence."

Even before the recent moves, a semblance of stability was restored with Primakov at the helm, despite his inability so far to rescue the economy and win new loans.

The prime minister's popularity in public opinion polls is rising, prompting speculation that he could win if he decides to enter the 2000 election. Primakov denies presidential ambitions, but most political observers believe this is mere posturing.

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