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Stepashin Turns Up Heat on Ministers By Alla Startseva Audit Chamber chief Sergei Stepashin on Monday turned up the heat on embattled Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, fueling speculation that the Yeltsin-era insiders career is over and a wider war on corruption is under way. Stepashin said an audit by the chamber, the State Dumas budget watchdog, uncovered some $370 million worth of "misappropriations" and "inefficient use of funds" -- diplomatic speak for embezzlement -- by Aksyonenkos ministry last year alone. "These funds are, strictly speaking, allocated [from the federal budget] to solve ... problems" like upgrading infrastructure, Stepashin told NTV on Saturday. "But instead [the ministry] builds hotels, holiday residences, soccer clubs, stadiums and so forth." Stepashin, a longtime ally of President Vladimir Putin, said the chamber is still probing the Railways Ministry, but the opening phase of the investigation was completed in July and the findings forwarded to Putin and the government. The Prosecutor Generals Office has already filed criminal charges against Aksyonenko for other illegalities revealed by the chamber last month. These include abuse of office that resulted in the loss of 70 million rubles ($2.3 million) in government funds. It also is looking into the nonpayment of $370 million in taxes and the use of Railways Ministry money to build homes for individuals with no connection to the ministry. Aksyonenko has denied the allegations, and has accused prosecutors of playing political games. He also vowed to take his case straight to the Kremlin -- but after the deputy head of Putins administration, Dmitry Kozak, said such a move would be "absolutely wrong," Aksyonenko agreed to a request from prosecutors that he not leave Moscow. He also pledged not to hinder the investigation and officially went on vacation until Dec. 7. Stepashin and Aksyonenko are longtime rivals. Both were considered potential prime ministers when former President Boris Yeltsin tapped Stepashin for the job in May 1999, while promoting Aksyonenko to deputy prime minister. And news repotes at the time suggested Aksyonenko was behind the firing that August of Stepashin, who was replaced by Putin. The probe may or may not have a personal element to it, but Stepashin has made it clear that no one in the government is above the law. Stepashin accused the State Fisheries Committee of being responsible for robbing the budget of $4 billion to $5 billion in revenues every year. "I believe this is a crime," he told NTV. And he said the Prosecutors General Office current investigations of the Emergency Situations Ministry, the State Customs Committee and the Press Ministry are based on Audit Chamber reports. Stepashin also said that the Audit Chamber is "very seriously" checking the Natural Resources Ministry and the presidential property department. Political observers said that the sudden burst of activity by Stepashin has political overtones and is being carried out with the blessing of Putin, who convinced Stepashin to take the Audit Chamber job instead of running for St. Petersburg governor last year. Stepashin confirmed that the investigations had been started at Putins request: "Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin knows about all this," he told NTV. Andrei Ryabov, political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the anti-corruption operation began as a hunt for internal financial resources. "However, during the operation it was discovered that the resources are managed by Yeltsins people," Ryabov said. He said the main targets are Aksyonenko, former Kremlin property chief Pavel Borodin, Natural Resources Minister Vitaly Artyukhov and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin, who last week unexpectedly went on vacation after the Audit Chamber began looking into his ministrys activities. "This shifted the whole anti-corruption process into a political campaign," Ryabov said. "This chain of events is the first real try by Putin to part with the old Yeltsin team," said Alexei Zudin, a political analyst at Center for Political Technologies. He said the fact that it hadnt happened early is just Putins "political style." "This is the revenge of the chekisty," said Tom Adshead, chief political analyst for investment bank Troika Dialog. "Chekisty is a nickname used for the KGB and has connotations of a pure servant of the law, somewhat humorlessly serving the nation. They are not against reform, but they despise the way in which it has been abused for personal enrichment, especially by those in government," Adshead wrote Monday. "The chekisty have sent countless messages that the corruption of the Yeltsin years will no longer be tolerated. However, many individuals in government have been unwilling or unable to change their ways. It may be that they are greedy, or they have already made commitments to others that they cannot walk away from," Adshead wrote. Adshead, Zudin, Ryabov and Vyacheslav Nikonov, head of the Politika foundation, all predicted that Aksyonenko would not retain his post when his vacation ends. Media reports and analysts say the favorite to replace Aksyonenko is Alexander Kuznetsov, a former first deputy presidential envoy in the Northwest Federal District who was recently appointed head of the Transport Ministry department in charge of coordinating all kinds of transportation systems with the Railways Ministry. Both Prime-Tass and Interfax quoted sources within the government as saying that Kuznetsovs appointment could be "a springboard for being appointed Railways Minister." Kuznetsov was the ahead of the October Railroad, a unit of the Railways Ministry that oversees, among other things, the St. Petersburg-Moscow corridor. But Kuznetsov, who was a close ally of Putins when Putin was in the St. Petersburg administration, was fired by Aksyonenko early last year. Transport Ministry spokesman Alexander Filimonov said Kuznetsovs predecessor quit last week to take up a "good offer" in the private sector. "Kuznetsovs connection to the St. Petersburg team dramatically increases his chances of replacing Aksyonenko," said Zudin. Analysts also said that the surprise support given to Aksyonenko over the weekend by Anatoly Chubais, head of another natural monopoly, Unified Energy Systems, suggested that Chubais might be Stepashins next target. "Chubais knows he will be next," said Ryabov. "Chubais, being a smart man, understands the logic of this process."
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