Moscow, December 31st 1999



1999 had been a truly turbulent year in Russia but none of us had foreseen today’s announcement. We had gotten together in my apartment in Moscow, a group of work colleagues foreign and Russian to have drinks, piroshky and zakusky before heading down Tverskaya towards Red Square at midnight to dodge the champanski bottles, watch the fireworks and hear the Kremlyovsky Chasy sound in the new century. I had expected the millennium bug to dominate the evening’s conversation, a number of the girls were adamant that they would not fly tomorrow as plane’s would get lost and fall from the sky but all anyone was talking of was the announcement at lunchtime by Boris Nikolayevich that he was stepping down and in the process the Prime Minister of some 5 months, the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin, would with immediate effect become acting President. Under the Constitution this in turn started the countdown for a new Presidential election to be held within 90 days.

Speculation had been rife as to who would contest the Presidential election originally set for June next year with early front runners being the respected and statesmanlike Yevgenny Primakov, fired earlier in the year from the post of Prime Minister by Yeltsin, and the effective and pragmatic Mayor of Moscow Yury Luzhkov. Now there was a third contender and one who today had received a public endorsement from the outgoing President, the first man to voluntarily transfer the leadership in Russian history albeit in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and his family. Many Russians, particularly the working and professional classes and the elderly, were desperate for a change from the ailing Yeltsin whose policies had deprived them of their standard of living and national pride.

As usual Steve was forthcoming with an opinion wrapped in an explanation and contained in a conspiracy. “You see it all fits together Mabatex and the credit card scandal, Bank of New York and the missing IMF funds, Berezoksvky, the Skuratov incident, even the Moscow bombings….” Steve paused, not from a lack of reasons but he had run out of bottles to arrange on the kitchen table to demonstrate his thinking. Some in the room scoffed, particularly my younger Russian friends, some simply found the array of empties and accompanying arguments too obscure but Steve had recalled some alarming events of 1999. The so called Mabatex affair under the jurisdiction of the Kremlin Property Department had at the beginning of the year reached the door of the President and his daughters following a drive by Chief Prosecutor Skuratov and Swiss officials, and was now being linked to a much greater embezzlement of IMF funds sent to Russia and being laundered back through the Bank Of New York. Skuratov, who had also launched an inquest into Berezovsky accusing him of defrauding Aeroflot, had in return been dismissed following an alleged scandal in which he was supposedly filmed with two prostitutes. Berezovsky had fallen further from grace when dismissed from his post of Executive Secretary of the CIS, so losing immunity from prosecution, after criticizing the increasingly popular Primakov and was now residing in France. Primakov’s own dismissal followed shortly after the President narrowly survived impeachment proceedings by the Duma in May and he was duly succeeded by Sergey Stepashin, a former Interior Ministry Director also with a reputation for anti-corruption. Unfortunately for Stepashin, newly resurgent separatist rebels in Chechnya made significant inroads and territorial gains into neighbouring Dagestan under his watch, which resulted in his downfall that August.

Since then Russia had witnessed a yet bigger disaster during September with a series of deadly bombings in apartment blocks first in Dagestan but then in Moscow and Volgadonsk. Although the official line was that these were separatist terrorist attacks, there was considerable speculation in the press surrounding two unexplained events. The first was a statement read out and recorded in the Duma by Deputy Seleznov on September 14th that a bombing had just occurred in Volgadonsk. In fact no bombing had occurred, but one did take place two days later on the 16th. The Deputy subsequently refused to provide an explanation for his untimely report. Even more bizarre was an event on September 22nd in Ryazan, south of Moscow. A bus driver returning home had seen men carrying sacks into the basement of his apartment block and had called the police. They in turn mobilized a bomb squad who defused an attached timer and reported that their portable gas analyser indicated that the sacks contained Hexogen, the same explosive used in the previous bombings.

“There is a common thread here you see” said Steve, positioning a newly drained piece of logic on the table, “there is one player who was at the Kremlin Property Department, who took over at the FSB when the Mabetex investigation was dropped and is now… “ before Steve could deliver his checkmate the others dragged us to our feet and urged us to grab our coats and hurry out into the cold night air. It was 23:45 and we had to get to the Square before the real fun started. A sullen Steve had the last word as we marched down Tverskaya: “I just hope no bloody airplanes fall on our heads.”