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Russians Take Alleged Oil-for-Food Graft in Stride

The scandal concerning the United Nations' oil-for-food program in Iraq has been under investigation for some time and stretches in a web through many countries. Caught in the web, according to a U.S. Senate panel investigating the program, were several prominent Russian politicians. The scandal is not sending any shockwaves through the Russian establishment.

Allegations that some Russian politicians might have benefited personally from their ties with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein surfaced before the U.S. Senate panel report implicated several Russians in the U.N. oil-for-food program.

Perhaps that is why the recent Senate report received a muted response when it was released.

One politician who did react quickly is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party who traveled to Iraq numerous times and considered himself a friend of Saddam Hussein. In a radio interview, he said he never got anything: no money, no contract. He said he never saw any Iraqi oil, not one single drop.

Mr. Zhirinovsky admits having contacts with many officials within Saddam's government, and says he did some consulting for U.N. officials as a result. But he insists there was nothing illegal in any of this.

The other senior Russian official implicated is Alexander Voloshin, who served as chief of staff under both former President Boris Yeltsin and for current President Vladimir Putin. He also denies charges that he received oil rights worth several million dollars in exchange for trying to get the sanctions against Iraq lifted, as alleged in the Senate report.

Mr. Voloshin is no longer working in the Russian government.

There was no official Russian response, and Victor Ilyukhin, chairman of the Security Committee in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, says that's part of government strategy. He says the government thinks the best defense is not to say anything, because if someone responds an argument over the issue becomes public and attracts attention. He says for this reason the position is not to speak, not to deny, but simply maintain silence.

Mr. Ilyukhin, who is a member of the opposition Communist party, says his committee did raise the oil-for-food profiteering issue as part of investigating corruption but the probe was blocked by the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party faction that has a clear majority in the Duma.

President Vladimir Putin has pledged to tackle official corruption, but his critics say he hasn't delivered and that graft remains a standard practice.

Yulia Latynina is a journalist and commentator. She says that some Russian officials were working with the United Nations to implement the oil-for-food program, but adds that there's little doubt they also benefited personally. She maintains the Kremlin opposition to the war in Iraq was based more on personal interests of government officials than on Russia's national interests.

"Russia's position in the Iraqi case was determined not by our national interests but by personal interests, and by bribes given by Saddam Hussein," said Ms. Latynina.

But neither she nor the Senate report implicates President Putin personally in the illicit payments by Saddam to Russian officials.