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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Perplexing Search for Scapegoats

President Boris Yeltsin's decision to fire Moscow's prosecutor and police chief as a first response to the murder of Vladislav Listyev is perplexing to say the least. While it is understandable that Yeltsin should wish to vent his frustration and anger on the nearest available target -- if only to be seen to be doing something -- it seems hardly fair to lay the blame for the killing at the door of these particular two officials.

It would also be patently absurd to suggest that their sacking will have the slightest effect on the lamentable state of law enforcement and crime prevention that allowed Listyev's assassins to act with impunity. Responsibility for the deplorable decline of law and order goes far beyond Moscow city officials.

There is a disturbing suspicion that the firing of the two officials in fact had nothing to do with the killing of Listyev, and that the murder merely provided a pretext to get rid of them at the behest of some influential figure they had managed to offend. One hesitates to suggest that Yeltsin would have connived in such a cynical act, especially as his speech otherwise conveyed a convincing impression of genuine outrage. But given the murky background of some of the president's close associates, the possibility cannot be ruled out.

Whatever the motive, to dismiss the chiefs of the Moscow police and prosecution service -- the two organizations directly charged with investigating the murder and bringing Listyev's killers to justice -- at the very start of this task simply defies logic. While shortcomings can doubtless be identified in both organizations, which presumably employ their fair share of incompetent and dishonest officials, it should also be pointed out that one of their biggest problems is a dire shortage of personnel and resources to fight soaring crime. Why make their job even harder?

If, however, Yeltsin really felt he needed scapegoats, he could at least have aimed higher. If he had really wanted to demonstrate his concern with law and order, the people to bring to book would surely be those ultimately responsible for maintaining it: Interior Minister Viktor Yerin and Federal Counterintelligence Service chief Sergei Stepashin. Not that their removal would necessarily improve matters, but it would at least show the public that Yeltsin was serious.

But if Yeltsin is really anxious to establish the rule of law, he must start by cleaning up his own house. The powers and favors granted unelected advisers, the cover-ups and lies provided to senior officials for past services, the whole system of patronage and coercion that starts at the Kremlin and goes down to the lowest bureaucrat must be rooted out if there is any hope for a civilized society to emerge.