The Investigations Committee – not so much Russia’s FBI, more a Kremlin watchdog

On 23 September, President Medvedev announced that the existing Investigations Committee of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (SKP), responsible for all preliminary criminal investigations, would become a standalone body reporting directly to him, simply known as the Investigations Committee (SK: Sledstvenny komitet). Four days later, he submitted a new draft federal law On the Investigations Committee of the Russian Federation to the State Duma.

The SKP was formed by Putin in 2007 in a move which reflected both the former president’s project to construct a ‘power vertical’ and also a problematic aspect of Russian law which provided great scope for corruption. Until then, prosecutors carried out both preliminary investigations and also initiated and conducted prosecutions. Especially in major organised crime cases, this bred massive corruption. With very little effective oversight, corrupt prosecutors could either squash cases before they came to court or else set up the case such that it was bound to fail on procedural or evidential grounds.

The creation of the SKP divided the roles of investigators and prosecutors. While part of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (GPRF), the SK was essentially autonomous. Its head, Alexander Bastrykin, held the rank of deputy general prosecutor, but was appointed by the president, subject to parliamentary ratification, and his budget came from ringfenced funds outside the Procurator-General’s control.

Although Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika appears to have held private doubts about what was an undoubted dilution of his powers, he had no option but to move quickly to establish the SKP under pressure from Putin, who also hand-picked its head, Bastrykin. He was a classmate of Putin’s at Leningrad State University and after a career teaching within the university sector and the GPRF’s training institute, Bastrykin then worked for the Interior Troops (1996-98) and Justice Ministry (2006). A well-regarded scholar with a background in criminalistics, he had had little practical experience but thanks to Putin’s personal patronage enjoyed the kind of rapid rise shared by so many favourites: from head of the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for the Central Federal District (appointed June 2006) to deputy prosecutor-general (October 2006) and then chair of the SK.

The core rationale for this reform was ostensibly to streamline the investigative process and reduce the extent to which it was distorted by corruption and the concerns of prosecutors (who have a vested interest in seeing only more straightforward cases with good chances of successful convictions brought to trial).

However, from the first it was also about power, a further centralisation of the legal system, permitting the weapon investigation it to be (mis)used by the Kremlin where before it was often (mis)used by local elites. After all, the key problem had been in local prosecutor’s offices, which tend to be especially susceptible to pressure from regional governments, themselves frequently close to criminal and business interests. While the SK still worked through local agencies, the hope was that magistrates whose careers were dependent upon Moscow rather than local interests would be harder to corrupt. This could help break the tightly-connected circles of criminals, businesspeople and politicians dominant in the provinces, and would certainly help the Kremlin.

In other words, even the creation of the SKP further brought law-enforcement into the direct control of the presidency. Indeed, as the SKP also had the right to open cases against those who normally have immunity, such as parliamentarians and senior state officials, it was a useful weapon at the national as well as local political level.

The majority of the SKP’s work was, though, in conventional criminal cases, especially serious and organised crimes. Here its record has at best been patchy. Georgian godfather Tariel Oniani may be behind bars, but more politically well-connected organised crime leaders and networks, such as Moscow’s Solntsevo and Izmailovo groups or St Petersburg’s Tambovskaya, seem to remain untouchable: some high-profile raids and arrests have markedly failed to lead to convictions.

Although when they ratified his appointment, law-makers hoped that the SKP would tackle organised crime as a priority, Bastrykin instead chose in his first pronouncements to highlight the possibility of further attempts to prosecute the millionaire Boris Berezovsky, a persistent critic of Putin’s, and criticised the British government’s attempt to extradite a former Russian security officer for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. In short, he demonstrated more interest in political than criminal policing.

He also demonstrated that traditional bureaucratic vice of empire building, immediately expressing a hope to see “all law-enforcement agency investigation bodies empowered to conduct preliminary investigations united in a single committee.” This would have entailed the SKP taking over the investigations arms of the Interior Ministry, the Federal Drug Control Service and the Federal Security Service and create an extremely powerful new agency.

Under Medvedev, the SK – still under Bastryrkin – appears to be on the rise. Essentially, it is the old SKP, simply shifted fully out of the GPRF. However, Medvedev has himself raised the prospect of the kind of expansion Bastrykin floated. While saying that the “investigation bodies at other departments will remain independent for the time being,” he gnomically added that “in the future, other decisions may be made, including giving all or most cases to the Investigative Committee. Time will tell what path we’ll take. The main thing is not to ruin the current balance.”

Why is this? The SKP investigated some 600,000 cases, of which about half were referred for further investigation. But there seems neither hard evidence nor anecdotal sense that it led to any fairer, more responsive or honest law enforcement. A cynic might suggest that as the 2012 presidential elections loom, Medvedev might want to bring an agency which could be a great engine for gathering and using kompromat – compromising material (or slander) – more tightly into his grasp, especially if he could use this to undermine agencies such as the MVD and Federal Security Service (FSB) closer to Putin.

In this case, though, why confirm Bastrykin in post, considering that he is generally seen as Putin’s man? The most Machiavellian answer would be that this was the price Putin demanded for supporting the move: he is happy to see the SK subordinated to the President on paper, because he believes that with Bastrykin at its helm, it is beholden to the Prime Minister in practice. Maybe, but this doesn’t work for me. Relations between the two men aren’t (yet, maybe) quite so confrontational and in any case, I’m not sure if Bastrykin can wholly be considered Putin’s proxy.

Fragmentary and frankly often anecdotal evidence suggests that Batrykin and Medvedev actually have a considerable degree of common ground. For a start, they both think of themselves as lawyers in a way that Putin – who also studied law at Leningrad State University – certainly does not. Furthermore, Bastrykin’s concept of law seems closer to Medvedev’s; I’ve written elsewhere that in the context of the new law on the FSB, they both believe in a more codified form of statism: the state ought to have sweeping powers, but defined ones. I am not certain quite where Bastrykin’s loyalties would fall if forced to make a choice between his old and new patrons.

More broadly, though, I think the further elevation of the SK reflects a wider struggle between centre and regions, one in  which – witness the sacking of Moscow mayor Luzhkov, as well as the efforts to unseat Chechen warlord Kadyrov – Putin and Medvedev feel they have uniting than dividing them. There may be a new flurry of arrests relating to organised crime or the murders of journalists, for appearances’ sake, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in the medium term instead we saw arrests and investigations targeting local elites (political, business, etc) in such a way as to remind them that Moscow still matters. (Unsurprisingly, the SK has opened preliminary investigations of Luzhkov and his wife.) Sure, there may well be a political struggle in 2012 between Putin and Medvedev (although I think this is more likely to be resolved behind closed doors rather earlier, so that the election can instead be a coronation), but the localities need to understand that this will be settled in Moscow, and their role will then be to cheer on the victor. And the SK will help remind them.

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