Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin fired the daughter of former president Boris Yeltsin from her post as a senior Kremlin adviser today, apparently seeking to distance himself from the previous first family and its coterie of sometimes controversial associates.
The Kremlin gave no explanation for the removal of Tatyana Dyachenko, who wielded enormous power in the past 3 1/2 years, almost entirely from behind the scenes. She is under investigation along with her husband for possible financial irregularities. In separate decrees, Putin named two other top Yeltsin aides to different Kremlin jobs and dismissed a third.
Putin owes Dyachenko much: Many analysts credit her with helping to engineer his rise and with persuading her father to resign six months early to help elect him. But to be publicly linked to her now is a liability for Putin.
Dyachenko was the head of a tiny, closed circle of Kremlin aides and businessmen dubbed "the Family" that often seemed more in control of the country than did the president. Interviews with voters over the past few days showed that while they like Putin's decisiveness and energy, some fear he is this group's creation, and will do their bidding once elected.
Putin's decision to jettison Dyachenko helps counter that perception. But Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst, said in an interview that Dyachenko has lost only her official title. "Putin is a creature of the presidential entourage," he said. "How can he break off from these people? He is completely dependent on them--at least until after the election."
In another development, a judicial official hinted that presidential elections may take place sooner than March 26, the date now expected. That would be a clear plus for Putin, whose poll ratings have soared with his so far successful prosecution of the war in separatist Chechnya.
After meeting with Putin, the chairman of the Russian Constitutional Court, Marat Baglai, said Putin can ask the upper house of parliament to schedule elections "any time during the next three months."
Baglai said "it is unclear" whether they should take place on March 26 or earlier, according to the Interfax news agency.
Although he has said he wants to govern, not campaign, Putin has at his disposal all the political resources of the Kremlin. He also has some of the baggage, including the fact that without people like Tatyana Dyachenko the Russian public would never have heard of him.
Dyachenko, 39, has been the subject of increasing public criticism in recent months as questions have arisen over her and her husband Leonid's finances. Both of them figure in criminal investigations by foreign authorities.
U.S. authorities are investigating the source of more than $2 million that bank officials said Leonid Dyachenko kept in offshore accounts at the Bank of New York. In Switzerland, investigators alleged that Mabetex Project Engineering, a Kremlin contractor, paid tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills for Tatyana Dyachenko, her older sister Elena Okulova and Yeltsin. Former Russian prosecutor Yuri Skuratov has also charged that Tatyana Dyachenko improperly speculated in government bonds and that his inquiry into that and other alleged Kremlin misdeeds led Yeltsin to fire him last spring.
The Kremlin has said Yeltsin and his family have not accumulated any wealth illegally. A lawyer for Belka Trading Corp., the company that employs Leonid Dyachenko, said the money in Dyachenko's offshore accounts belongs to Belka, and comes from legitimate business deals.
So far, Russian prosecutors have provided little help to the foreign investigators, and few analysts expect them to become more aggressive while Putin is acting president. One of Putin's first acts after Yeltsin's resignation was to sign a decree giving him immunity from prosecution. While that immunity does not appear to extend to members of Yeltsin's family, the wording is somewhat ambiguous.
Tatyana Dyachenko's role in boosting Putin was typical of her time at the Kremlin; no one spoke openly of the extent of her participation, but every political analyst concluded it was major. Her power has grown steadily since her political debut as an adviser in her father's 1996 reelection campaign. She edited Yeltsin's speeches, accompanied him on his official trips abroad and advised him on whom to nominate as prime minister.
Sergei Zverev, who worked briefly in the office of presidential administration last summer, said recently in an interview that "not a single serious decision" was taken without her input.
Tatyana Dyachenko's critics, some of them former Yeltsin aides, said she ignored the potential dangers of associating too closely with tycoons such as Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, who stood to benefit from government favors.
Alexander Korzhakov, whom Yeltsin fired as security chief during the 1996 campaign, recently said Berezovsky is influential because Tatyana Dyachenko "effectively has been, is and probably will be supported by him."
The spotlight turned this fall on her husband Leonid with the disclosure that he had more than $2 million in accounts with the Bank of New York's branch in the Cayman Islands. Interviews with Leonid Dyachenko's business associates show that his income rose greatly in the Yeltsin years, but an attorney for the firm that has employed him since 1995 said he earned it all legitimately.
Dyachenko was making less than $50 a month as an engineer at a state lab when Yeltsin was first elected. He prospered under the wing of Viktor Khrolenko, whom Yeltsin hired in 1994 as the literary agent for his autobiography. Khrolenko first set up Leonid Dyachenko as director of an enterprise that sells wood panels for steel doors. Although the firm sold no more than a few hundred dollars' worth of merchandise each month in its first year, Dyachenko was able to deposit a $100,000 certificate of deposit at a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in the United States.
He went on to sell oil products and negotiate investments for Belka, according to Belka's lawyer, Anton Drel. One deal in which he participated--minimally, according to Drel--caught the attention of Yuri Schekochikhin, a member of parliament's anti-corruption committee.
Schekochikhin said he was investigating whether a major shareholder in a small Russian oil firm was being illegally forced to sell off his shares when he got a call from a representative of the buyer, Urals-ARA, Belka's trading and investment partner. "Regards to Yuri Petrovich [Schekochikhin] from Belka," said the caller. "He knows who Belka is."
Schekochikhin said the meaning of the call was clear to him: Don't meddle in the Yeltsin family's business. The caller has denied mentioning Belka, but the shareholder refused to cooperate further, and Schekochikhin's inquiry died.
CAPTION: Yeltsin's daughter Tatyana Dyachenko wielded power behind scenes.
CAPTION: By firing Tatyana Dyachenko, Vladimir Putin appeared to distance himself from the Yeltsin inner circle.