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Once St. Pete's Star, Sobchak Now Fears Arrest Russia Bars Lukashenko From Flying To Regions

Former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, once the star of Russia's second city, says his phone is being tapped, he is under surveillance and he fears he may soon be arrested over what he calls trumped-up charges.

"Of course I'm afraid they might arrest me. I have no idea what to expect from these people," Sobchak said in an interview Thursday.

Prosecutors say they have been investigating corruption in Sobchak's administration for two years, but they have never officially acknowledged that Sobchak may be a suspect, instead describing him only as a "key witness."

But Sobchak clearly feels he is more plaintiff than witness, and compared the investigation against him to the case of St. Petersburg environmentalist and accused spy Alexander Nikitin, whose case has been taken up by human rights organizations around the world.

"[The old hard-liners] wanted a coup and a return to the totalitarian, communist past. They were bitter at me for my role in reform and my anti-communist writings, so they invented these allegations and set the prosecutor against me," he said. "It's all totally political, just like the case against Nikitin."

Sobchak said he is routinely tailed by agents of the Federal Security Service and that his home telephone is being tapped.

"We constantly have to be wary not to discuss sensitive issues over the telephone and we have to talk in code. And for weeks at a time, we see the same car parked across the street from our building," he said.

The remarks followed his surprise appearance at an emotional press conference called by his wife, State Duma Deputy Lyudmila Narusova, at which they lashed out at the "yellow press."

Newspapers have been full of speculation about Sobchak's fate.

Monday's edition of the Moscow weekly Novaya Gazeta quoted unidentified sources in the Prosecutor General's Office as saying a warrant has been prepared for Sobchak's arrest and that the warrant was awaiting an authorized signature.

That signature would have to come from Deputy Prosecutor General Mikhail Katyshev, who is heading up the investigation but who the paper reported is on vacation.

According to the paper -- which published a damning article about theformer mayor last July -- Sobchak would be arrested for alleged bribe-taking and participation in several housing scams that said to have taken place while he was in office from 1991

to 1996.

On Thursday, Sobchak called the Novaya Gazeta articles "lies," "slander"

and "fantasies" that he said are part of a campaign waged by fervent

Russian conservatives bent on discrediting democratic reforms in Russia.

Speculation in the local and national media has suggested that

Sobchak has been hiding out in London to avoid arrest. Sobchak confirmed that he recently returned from abroad, but denied he was in London or hiding out. Instead, he said, he was in Italy, France and Finland, working on a new book -- "Just the usual university professor's life. I wasn't running

from anyone."

Alexander Zvyagintsev, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General's Office in

Moscow, again vague Thursday about Sobchak's place in the investigations. He would neither confirm nor deny Novaya

Gazeta's report.

"It is not our policy to come right out and say whether we are about to

arrest somebody. It's actually against the law to say so," Zvyagintsev


He did confirm that Katyshev -- whose signature would be

required on the warrant Novaya Gazeta described, if it exists -- was on

vacation until Oct. 17.

Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov said in June that Sobchak's name

figured in a corruption investigation of the former St. Petersburg

administration, though he has never elaborated. In July, police

arrested an adviser to Sobchak on housing issues, Larisa Kharchenko,

and charged her with shuttling bribes to unspecified members of Sobchak's administration. Her trial begins later this month. "Kharchenko was just a modest unofficial functionary," Sobchak said Thursday. "I don't know what prosecutors think she could know."

According to Novaya Gazeta, Sobchak would be arrested for allegedly

accepting a bribe from a real estate agency to permit the illegal privatization of a building at a prime location near central St. Petersburg's Tavrichesky Gardens.

The article also said he would be accused of selling off apartments

owned by the city housing commission at bargain prices to political

cronies, local newspaper editors and wealthy pop-music stars.

Sobchak repeatedly has defended the apartment sales, citing a decree -- written and signed by himself -- that gave him sole discretion over the fate of city-owned real-estate while in office.

According to Duma Deputy Alexander Shishlov of the Yabloko faction, who investigated the scandal last year, the apartment sales cost the city $2 million in lost potential revenues.

Novaya Gazeta has led the investigative charge against Sobchak with a

vengeance, granting journalist and former Kremlin spokesman Pavel Voshchanov ample room to lay out a case against the former mayor.

Last year Voshchanov took a crack at Sobchak in Komsomolskaya Pravda --

alleging, among other things, that he had documents from the Federal Security Service proving Sobchak had been detained in London's Heathrow Airport with a suitcase containing $1 million in cash. Voshchanov alleged this was bribe money.

But in January Sobchak sued Voshchanov and won a settlement of 20

million rubles ($3,480). In a second suit over the Komsomolskaya

Pravda publications, which began in June, Sobchak is seeking a much

heftier settlement of $1 million.

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