War of prosecutors suggests tension within Russian elite

He or she who controls the prosecution has a lot of power. Prosecutors provide impunity and revenue for you and your allies, and the law for your enemies. Security expert Mark Galeotti notices an upsurge of high profile squabbles in Russia about positions in the departments of justice, secret service and internal affairs. It suggests tension and uncertainty within the Russian elite, preparing for a post-Putin succession struggle.

by Mark Galeotti

‘For my friends, everything,’ goes the quote attributed to Peruvian field marshal and president Óscar Benavides, ‘for my enemies, the law.’ This certainly has become something of an unofficial motto of the Putin state, as applicable at the top of the system as the bottom.

It is not true to call Russia some lawless mafia state, nor yet to regard the legal system as wholly an executive arm of a corrupt and self-interested elite. There are many police officers, investigators and judges who are genuinely committed to doing their jobs as honestly and effectively as possible, and most court cases are not determined by bribes or patronage but the facts presented and the laws applying.

Yet what does characterise the current regime are two processes that one could call elite exceptionalism and the justice market. Everything proceeds as it should, right up to the point when someone with the necessary resources – money, connections, rank – chooses to intervene. The exceptionalism of the elite is precisely that the laws are there for everyone else. Then the justice market takes hold, the outcome of the case becoming instead the subject of haggling between interested parties.

What makes this especially uncertain and often opaque is that not only may participants call in other allies to their cause, but each time an exchange rate between different kinds of resource is being set. If it just a case of two parties vying to bribe the judge in rubles, then this is easy. But does the promise of giving the judge’s son in law a lucrative job outbid the threat of turning to the regional court chair, who is an old university friend?

For this reason, investigators, prosecutors and judges are at once powerful agents in their own rights in the squabbles within the elite, as well as vital instruments of their masters and patrons. It is not just ‘the Kremlin or ‘the FSB’, ‘the Interior Ministry’ (MVD), ‘the Investigatory Committee’ (SK) or ‘the General Prosecutor’ – all of which are themselves compounds of many, affiliated individuals and interests’ – but all kinds of different players, at every level, which seek to cultivate and conquer the structures of the judiciary. When Igor Sechin went after Minister for Economic Development Alexei Ulyukaev, he did so through his tame FSB general, Oleg Feoktistov, after all.

As a result, times of particular tension and uncertainty within the Russian elite tend also to manifest themselves in ‘wars of the prosecutors’, squabbles over precedence and control of judicial assets. And what have we seen recently?

Foreshadowed in July, it has been confirmed that Moscow city prosecutor Vladimir Churikov is leaving his position. Having managed to alienate Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, Moscow mayor Sergei Sobyanin, and his own subordinates (who saw their bonuses go to buy apartments for his cronies), Churikov’s departure was perhaps inevitable. However, it again means that a plum prosecutor position is up for grabs. The front-runner is his deputy, Oleg Manakov, Sobyanin’s choice.

Powerplay by Moscow's mayor

This will require Chaika’s approval, and this is likely to be granted, not just because Manakov has poor relations with the Investigatory Committee, currently Chaika’s bête noire, but also to consolidate what some suggest is an emerging alliance with Sobyanin. This would remove one of the remaining constraints on the mayor’s power in the capital. As people quietly and deniably prepare for the eventuality of a post-Putin succession struggle, Sobyanin is looking stronger. The current programme of massive housing construction and demolition have given him great opportunities to reward his friends with building contracts and deals on prime real estate, and the capacity to protect them through the city prosecutor’s office is a powerful extra advantage.

sobyanin moscowMoscow's mayor Sergey Sobyanin (left) intiated a massive building programme. Photo Mos.ru

Meanwhile, Major General Timur Valiulin, head of the MVD’s department for fighting extremism – which to a large extent means cracking down on anti-Kremlin opposition – is being forced to resign. Notionally because of the revelation that he owned undeclared property in Bulgaria, given that Valiulin had been pushed onto the MVD by the FSB, which sees that division as its own outpost within the police, his departure may start a new tussle over its control. Interior Minister Kolokoltsev is a relatively small-time player, but of late he has been trying to build his political profile – not least with his unexpected (and possibly illegal) attendance at last week’s United Russia congress – and so may make a bid to bring the political investigators more closely under his own control. This would not only be a blow back against the FSB, it would give him more stake in future wider political manoeuvres.


In St Petersburg, the new acting head of the Investigatory Committee’s Leningrad Region Colonel Pavel Vymenets, is busy purging his own command. Vymenets is a close ally of SK chief Alexander Bastrykin. Indeed, this is something of a family business: Bastrykin was also a patron of his father, Sergei, and is the godfather Pavel’s child. By all accounts, his main charge has been to bring the region’s scattered network of local departments under tighter control, after years of drift, under the guise of clearing out corrupt officers. This means breaking them free from the influence of local officials, the FSB and, especially, the General Prosecutor’s Office. Maybe as many as half the 23 regional heads may be forced to resign or be dismissed.

However, what is interesting is that whereas Vymenets formerly enjoyed very positive media coverage, suddenly he is coming under serious, even hostile scrutiny. This has even extended to his wife, Irina, who is a deputy prosecutor in Pulkovo District, who is being attacked for her decision to annul a case against a fraudulent travel company. The suspicion is that this and other stories are being fed to the press by Bastrykin’s rivals, perhaps Chaika’s people, or the FSB, to undermine this campaign.

Indeed, spreading kompromat – compromising materials and information – is a time-honoured tactic of these wars. It has even reached the state that columnist Oleg Kashin has accused anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny of basing his expose of the alleged corruption in the National Guard – and by its head, Viktor Zolotov in particular – on information leaked by the FSB.

These are just a few of the highest-profile recent cases of collisions between SK, General Prosecutor, FSB and MVD, usually also linked with wider political and factional interests. There has also been a purge of prosecutors in Bashkortostan (officially reckoned to be the most corrupt region in the Federation), pushed by the FSB after Chaika sat on detailed allegations from whistle-blowers for almost four years. (It was also the FSB that arrested the head of the SK’s Moscow department, Alexander Drymanov, in July.) And so the list extends.

Control of prosecutor assets is always an advantage, as they provide impunity and revenue for you and your allies, the law for your enemies. There is thus regular turn-over and local competition for positions. Yet there has been a distinct uptick in such struggles, and they are connected with the most powerful locations and serious sources of revenue. No particular bloc is at present clearly ‘winning’ or even ‘losing’ – there are many battles, but the outcome of the war is still uncertain. But the battles are again getting more bloody and more frequent. One could almost think that people feared or suspected change might be coming, and were looking to build up their war chests and their legal arsenals, just in case.

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