* Putin keen to show he is fighting corruption
* Transneft run by Putin’s close ally
* Critics dismiss measures as election stunt
By Gleb Bryanski
MOSCOW, Dec 30 (Reuters) - The government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, hoping to win a return to the Russian presidency in March, on Friday launched a probe into the oil pipeline monopoly Transneft in a bid to counter accusations that it has been soft on fight corruption.
Putin’s deputy Igor Sechin, who oversees the energy sector, told Putin a number of executives had been sacked and said an enquiry would examine allegations of corruption among Transneft managers.
A wave of protests since this month’s parliamentary election have, among other things, focused on the government’s failure to deal with rampant corruption.
Putin told a cabinet meeting on Dec. 19 that half of all managers in the state-controlled power sector had links to offshore firms that collected client payments.
Sechin read out to Putin a list of top managers who had left FSK, the world’s largest traded power transmission firm, and the power grid firm MRSK, and said a number of criminal cases had been launched.
“Probes into similar cases with regard to some others among the largest infrastructure firms, such as Transneft, have been initiated,” Sechin told Putin, according to a transcript of his remarks posted on the government’s website.
The anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International rates Russia as the world’s most corrupt major economy. It was ranked 143rd out of 183 nations in TI’s latest corruption perceptions index, although TI noted some improvements in 2011.
The popular anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the post-election protests, the biggest of Putin’s rule, accused Transneft managers of embezzling $4 billion during the construction of a $25 billion pipeline.
Putin promised an investigation a year ago, but it had not materialised until now, with just over two months left before the presidential election.
Transneft, which is run by Putin’s close ally Nikolai Tokarev, an ex-KGB officer, has denied Navalny’s allegations and said on Friday it was ready for the investigation.
“We have nothing to hide,” said spokesman Igor Dyomin.
Other state firms, including the gas export monopoly Gazprom and the state-controlled banks Sberbank and VTB are due to report back to Putin in two months on anti-corruption measures they have taken.
Critics said that, unless people in Putin’s inner circle were included in anti-corruption investigations, only small fish would be caught.
“Look at his previous campaigns, he did the same thing but it led nowhere. The people in power are not interested in taking such cases to court,” said Yelena Panfilova of Transparency International.
Putin’s personal wealth has long been the focus of opposition speculation, as have his links with a group of businessmen whose fortune has grown rapidly during his time in office.
Since the protests, Putin’s approval rating has dropped to 51 percent, its lowest of the year, from 61 percent in November.
The rapid fall raises the possibility that he might not win an outright majority in the first round of the presidential election, though he remains hot favourite ultimately to be elected to his third term as president.