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June 5, 06

NEWS / Kremlin succession fight in open as top prosecutor fired

MOSCOW ??Ē Kremlin watchers awaited Russian President Vladimir Putin??ôs next move after his surprise announcement on Friday that he had replaced the country??ôs hardline chief prosecutor.

The announcement showed a growing rift in the Kremlin over succession ahead of Russia??ôs presidential elections in 2008.

In a significant reshuffle, prosecutor general Vladimir Ustinov was relieved of his duties by the Duma at the request of the president.

The axing of Ustinov, who oversaw the cases that crippled Yukos, comes as Putin tightens his grip on power before he retires in 2008, by preparing the way for a hand-picked successor.

After the announcement Putin ???thanked Ustinov for the large amount of work accomplished???, in a one-sentence statement on the Kremlin??ôs website.

Ustinov became acting prosecutor general under former president Boris Yeltsin in 1999 and was confirmed in 2000.

Putin??ôs pledge to stamp out corruption signalled an intensifying of the struggle to choose a successor to Russia??ôs popular president, analysts said.

Ustinov??ôs demise may weaken his ally, Igor Sechin, the Kremlin deputy chief of staff blamed by Yukos??ô Mikhail Khodorkovsky for orchestrating government attacks on the oil company.

???It??ôs a sign certain groups within the Kremlin have become more powerful in the run up to the coming elections,??? said Roland Nash, head of research at Moscow investment bank Renaissance Capital. ???The Sechin-Ustinov bloc has been weakened,??? he said, pointing out that Ustinov??ôs son had married Sechin??ôs daughter. Neither Ustinov nor Sechin were available to comment.

Putin said last month he had not yet decided who he wanted to succeed him, leaving the race open to competing factions within the Kremlin.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has been reported as the most likely contender by the Russian press.

Medvedev was not available to comment.

???This is part of the political battle between Medvedev and Sechin over who will replace Putin,??? said Stanislav Belkovsky, an analyst at the Moscow-based Institute for National Strategy.

His report in 2003, warning that Putin faced a ???creeping oligarchic coup??? was followed by government attacks on Yukos.

Former Yukos chief Khodorkovsky, once Russia??ôs richest man, is serving an eight-year jail sentence in Siberia on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Khodorkovsky denied the charges against him, saying they were a punishment for his opposition to Putin.

Putin has said the cases against Khodorkovsky and Yukos were carried out by independent prosecutors.

Sechin is also chairman at Rosneft, the state-run oil com-pany that gained Yukos??ô biggest production unit at the end of 2004.

Russia??ôs president said in May that corruption must be stamped out as citizens did not trust Russian business or public servants.

Ustinov, in charge of implementing Putin??ôs anticorruption drive, warned this year that the fight against graft remained urgent.

???Don??ôt be surprised if you see new, major cases opened soon,??? Ustinov said in Minsk.

Putin fired 14 officials on May 12 in connection with a probe at the Federal Customs Service, including three from the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

The president also took the service away from Economy Minister German Gref, prompting speculation about Gref??ôs future.

Gref may be fired ???by the end of summer??? after the prime minister said the government may split Gref??ôs portfolio to create a separate trade ministry, Vedomosti reported on Saturday.

Putin nominated Ustinov as prosecutor general on May 17 2000. The day before that nomination, Federation Council members said the president had initially planned to name Dmitry Kozak, an ally from Putin??ôs home town of St Petersburg.

The decision to put forward Ustinov, who had been acting prosecutor general for the previous eight months, was regarded as helping businessmen who had gained control of some of Russia??ôs biggest firms under Yeltsin, including Boris Berezovsky.

Ustinov then oversaw campaigns against some of Russia??ôs most prominent businessmen, including Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky, who both fled Russia after criminal investigations were opened against them.

Tags: criminal investigation,


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