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Moscow Times
November 5, 2001
Chubais Leaps to the Defense of Railways Minister

Anatoly Chubais, the chief of Unified Energy Systems, stepped forward over the weekend to defend Railways Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, who is under criminal investigation.

"I do not understand how the authorities can treat ministers in such a manner. The authorities must treat members of the government more gently," Chubais said Saturday at a news conference in St. Petersburg, Interfax reported.

The Prosecutor General's Office opened a criminal investigation into the Railways Ministry on Oct. 9. On Oct. 19, Aksyonenko was charged with abuse of office that resulted in the loss of 70 million rubles ($2.3 million) in government funds.

The charges were reported to have been based on the findings of the Audit Chamber.

Chubais said the complaints against Aksyonenko, particularly that he over-staffed the ministry and rewarded his employees, "can provoke nothing but a smile." Aksyonenko, who is one of the last members of former President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle to retain a post in the government, has been accused of using state funds to buy apartments for ministry employees.

Chubais called Aksyonenko "one of the strongest leaders in the country." "Losing him would be very, very serious," he was quoted as saying.

It was unclear why Chubais suddenly chose to publicly defend Aksyonenko, with whom the UES chief has never seemed to have a terribly friendly relationship.

As national monopolies, both UES and the railways play an important role in the economy in terms of the tariffs they set, and the two monopolies are interdependent. A hike in the price of electricity causes a hike in transport tariffs and vice versa.

UES and the Railways Ministry have been involved in series of disputes over their debt to each other. The railways are a major consumer of electricity, while UES depends on the railways to transport fuel to its power plants.

Some Russian media have speculated that Oleg Deripaska, who heads Siberian Aluminum, was somehow behind the charges against Aksyonenko. Electricity accounts for 33 percent of the operating costs of aluminum smelters, and Deripaska has protested against Aksyonenko's tariff policy and his plans to restructure the ministry. Deripaska has denied playing any role in the case against the railways minister.

Some Russian media have read the charges against Aksyonenko as a further move by President Vladimir Putin to reduce the influence of Yeltsin's inner circle in the government.

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