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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Has Wife-Beating Entered Political Fray?

If you can't beat your political opponents, then beat their wives.

That's the message Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev are getting. Both are leading members of a new anti-Kremlin political alliance, and both of their wives have had to fend off corruption allegations.

The AiF Novosti news service reported Friday that Yakovlev's wife, Irina, was the subject of a criminal investigation. Yakovlev called the accusations "an absolute lie."

Just last month, Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, found herself the subject of a Federal Security Service probe into her business activities. At the time, Luzhkov accused the FSB, then run by Vladimir Putin, of carrying out "a political provocation" against him through his wife.

When President Boris Yeltsin named Putin prime minister on Aug. 9, observers said one of his main tasks would be to lean on regional leaders who were quickly abandoning the Kremlin and rallying around Luzhkov.

In his former jobs as St. Petersburg's deputy mayor, deputy Kremlin chief of staff and FSB director, Putin earned a well deserved reputation for playing hard ball with regional leaders and other political opponents.

And although elected regional leaders enjoy immunity from prosecution in Russia, their top aides and inner circles f as well as their families f are vulnerable.

"It has already become a tradition to try to victimize people through their relatives," Luzhkov was quoted as saying in the current issue of the Argumenty i Fakty weekly newspaper.

The daily newspaper Segodnya reported Friday, for example, that in an effort to convince Gazprom chief executive Rem Vyakhirev to step down, the FSB f now run by Putin's loyal deputy Nikolai Patrushev f is threatening to prosecute Vyakhirev's son.

Putin also was a Kremlin insider when an infamous tape was broadcast in March on national television showing now suspended Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov f who was trying to investigate Kremlin corruption f frolicking in bed with two prostitutes. Putin has implied that he was in a position to know that the tape was genuine.

Even before this season's political battles started heating up, analysts say that Putin f as head of the Kremlin's General Control Office and later the FSB f was busy terrorizing regional leaders.

"In the FSB, Putin worked with regional leaders by using blackmail," said Nikolai Petrov, a specialist in regional policy at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "He would gather compromising material on them and threaten to use it if they didn't behave as the Kremlin wished."

According to Petrov, Putin was the driving force behind corruption investigations over the past year in Magadan, Kursk, Krasnodar, Krasnoyarsk, Tula, Voronezh and in the prime minister's native St. Petersburg.

Just this year, for example, five members of the St. Petersburg city administration were charged with various offenses ranging from illegal weapons possession to taking bribes.

Last June, two of Kursk Governor Alexander Rutskoi's deputies f Yury Kononchuk and Vladimir Bonchuk f were arrested and charged with corruption, in relation to the disappearance of 12 million rubles (then $2 million) in state funds. And in the Voronezh region, an investigation by Putin's FSB resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of three deputy governors last year.

Russia's regional leaders, many of whom run their provinces like feudal lords, are easy targets for corruption probes. The message from the Kremlin has been clear: if you are loyal, be as corrupt as you like; but cross the Kremlin and every skeleton available will be dragged out of your closet.

"This was an effort to frighten regional leaders and show them that even though they are well connected and have immunity from prosecution, they can't protect their closest associates," Petrov said.

So, as soon as the AiF report began to circulate, politicians and observers immediately suspected Putin f although none would say so directly and on the record.

And although the media in Russia's second city has long written about corruption among Yakovlev's inner circle f including allegations against his wife f Friday's report was widely seen as political, coming as it did shortly after the Fatherland-All Russia alliance was formed.

"This is clearly a political provocation," said St. Petersburg-based investigative journalist Alexander Gorzhkov, adding that he "did not exclude" the possibility that Putin's hand may have been behind the AiF report.

Luzhkov's Fatherland joined up earlier this month with the All Russia movement of regional leaders, which is now headed by Yakovlev. Analysts say the alliance, which also includes former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, could prove unbeatable in December's parliamentary elections.

The AiF report claimed that Irina Yakovleva heads a Russian-Turkish construction firm called ATA, which it said received payment in the form of real estate from Yakovlev's administration for work it never completed. It also claimed that the prosecutor's office was opening a criminal case against Yakovleva.

It was unclear whether a criminal case has been opened. In a classic non-denial denial, St. Petersburg deputy prosecutor Nikolai Vinichenko said the report "has no validity," but added that his office was looking into the allegations nonetheless.