High Income Of Chubais Shocks People

The Russian parliament was occupied with two problems last week that had nothing to do with legislative activities. They were President Boris Yeltsin's health and Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais' money.

But if the question of Yeltsin's health is not exactly new, Chubais' money is an absolutely fresh subject for parliamentary debate and public attention.

Until recently, Chubais' most virulent opponents accused him of everything under the stars -- from robbing the people to ruining the economy -- except financial crimes or misappropriation.

Even in confidential conversations with bankers and entrepreneurs, who do not shy away from speaking of the high-level officials in their pay, I have never once heard Chubais' name mentioned in this connection. Of course, businessmen are not always telling the truth about bribes. But the fact that they did not even lie about Chubais is telling.

This explains the unusual interest in Chubais' income. The State Duma deputies from the security committee, who were aroused by Alexander Minkin's poorly substantiated article last Monday on Chubais' failure to pay income tax, made an appeal to Yeltsin to dismiss the head of the administration.

Given that the Duma was making plans to remove Yeltsin from office, one can suppose that the deputies proposed an exchange. If the president fired Chubais, then the Duma would not insist on Yeltsin's dismissal.

But the proposal to dismiss Chubais was not even put forward for discussion in the Duma. Chubais had already handed in a tax declaration Jan. 6, and Jan. 20 he received an official form from the tax authorities saying that more than 500 million rubles ($89,000) in taxes had been paid in full.

I met with Chubais for an interview he gave to Izvestia in his Kremlin office Jan. 21, at the height of the scandal. He was absolutely calm and said his opponents would be disappointed when they learn that they can't catch him over nonpayment of taxes.

But it cannot be said that Chubais has come away from this situation unscathed.

The lack of legal grounds against him did not lessen the shock of many citizens, especially outside Moscow, at his high income. Chubais said he earned more than 1.7 billion rubles during a six-month period. Given that the average yearly salary of an official is 8 million to 10 million rubles, Chubais' announcement could not have gone down well.

Chubais must now also suspect that bankers who supported him are ready to betray him. His bank information could have been stolen from MOST-Bank, whose head, Vladimir Gusinsky, is considered close to the Kremlin and Chubais. Moreover, the journalist who "exposed" Chubais, Minkin, is a longstanding friend of Gusinsky's. But if Gusinsky was involved in revealing the information, this would reflect badly on MOST-Bank. Who would want to do business with a bank from which private information can be stolen?

The only good thing to emerge from this story is that it has drawn attention to the income of officials. The president even asked that government employees make public their earnings. But this request is in direct violation of the law on government service that says the declarations of income and property that officials must make to the state personnel department should remain secret.

Mikhail Berger is economics editor of Izvestia.