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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Petersburg Police Chief Gets Sacked

ST. PETERSBURG -- St. Petersburg's colorful police chief Anatoly Ponidelko has been fired amid accusations of unprofessionalism and politicizing his office.

Ponidelko, 53, who has been in the job for a year and a half, was sacked Saturday and immediately replaced by Viktor Vlasov, formerly the head of the transport police for northwestern Russia.

Appearing with First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov at a news conference Monday, Vlasov, 54, named four priority targets for fighting crime in the city: the manufacture and sale of illegal narcotics, the manufacture and sale of bootleg alcohol, protection rackets in the city's markets, and corruption in big business and banking.

Vlasov also vowed to stay out of politics, adding a pledge of loyalty to his superior, Interior Minister Viktor Stepashin.

"In the Interior Ministry, there is only one politician, the interior minister, the rest of us are professionals," he said.

Ponidelko, a flamboyant official who has maintained a high profile, said Monday that he might move into official politics, announcing plans to run for a seat in the State Duma in the elections scheduled for December 1999.

Ponidelko's frequent allegations about the influence of organized crime in City Hall were seen as an attack on Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. Ponidelko has been touted as a potential gubernatorial candidate.

Asked Monday if he intended to run for Yakovlev's job in 2000, Ponidelko said, "I will run if the people ask me to -- time will tell."

Declaring war on organized crime at his first news conference in December 1996, Ponidelko dramatically announced that he had a list of city officials with ties to the notorious Tambov mafia. He has never revealed these names publicly, and on Monday Ponidelko would say only the list had 12 names but its contents were a "police secret." Ponidelko has said he turned the list over to Yakovlev. He also said he has received threatening telephone calls regarding the allegations.

In sacking Ponidelko, the Interior Ministry relied on an April report by the General Prosecutor's Office criticizing the city police's record on solving crimes during his time in office. Ponidelko was removed from his post as chief of the St. Petersburg and Leningrad regional police forces at a Saturday meeting in Moscow chaired by Stepashin -- who in March replaced Ponidelko's friend and classmate Anatoly Kulikov.

Ponidelko was accused of unprofessionalism, politicizing his office, massaging crime figures and breaking Interior Ministry regulations regarding staff decisions. The most embarrassing failure was his inability to solve the murder last year of St. Petersburg Deputy Governor Mikhail Manevich.

However, local political figures said that the charges used to fire Ponidelko were politically motivated.

Ponidelko was sacked simply because Stepashin wanted to create his own team, said Arkady Kramarev, chairman of the Legislative Assembly's law and order commission. He also served as police chief from 1991 to 1994.

"What was in the prosecutor's report can be said about any regional Interior Ministry head. The real reason was the change of interior ministers," Kramarev said.

Kramarev also called Vlasov an "experienced and honest" law enforcement officer who was "the best choice among the possible candidates."

Vlasov, who is married and has a son and daughter, has served with the northwestern transport police for 12 years.

Defending his record, Ponidelko said his firing was the result of resistance to his efforts to reform the police force.

During his 18 months in office, Ponidelko fired about 1,500 police officers -- including about 70 percent of the force's leadership. Last fall, he also publicly apologized for widespread police brutality.