Jury Still Out on Putin's Graft-Fighting Zeal

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President-elect Vladimir Putin may have convinced Russia's lawmakers that there's a new sheriff in town, but that isn't giving those accused of corruption much cause for alarm. Putin on Wednesday succeeded where President Boris Yeltsin had twice failed — by getting Russia's upper chamber of parliament to dismiss general prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, Moscow's equivalent of the attorney general. But getting rid of Skuratov, who had refused to back down on an investigation into corruption inside the Kremlin — and then was publicly humiliated by a video showing him in bed with prostitutes — may be a sign that Putin's power won't necessarily translate into an aggressive campaign against graft. "This is a move that primarily protects Yeltsin and his former top aide Pavel Borodin, who originally brought Putin to work in the Kremlin," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "It now looks as though the investigation of the Mabetex affair, the biggest scandal of the Yeltsin administration, which involved allegations of Kremlin officials taking bribes from a Swiss construction company, may be buried along with Skuratov's career. Unless, of course, they're taken forward by the Swiss magistrates investigating them."

Putin, who visited Britain last week and has scheduled a June summit with President Clinton, has taken other measures to postpone any potential cloud of scandal hanging over his image-building campaign in the West. He also recently pressured the Duma to put off historic hearings into the Bank of New York scandal scheduled for last week until June. "It was to have been the first ever investigative hearing by the Duma, and a number of U.S. congressmen were due to attend," says Meier. "Putin may also be trying to quiet down that one, at least until after his inauguration in May." Last week's endorsement of the START II treaty confirms the impression that, unlike Yeltsin, the new president has disciplined the Duma into doing his bidding. But it's not yet clear how, and in whose interests, he plans to use that authority.