Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin has finally spoken. And all around him, the plot is thickening.
Following a day of silence after he was publicly accused of threatening the life of Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor of the opposition newspaper "Novaya gazeta," Bastrykin issued a curt denial in an interview with the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia."
As I wrote in my last post, "Novaya gazeta" Editor in Chief Dmitry Muratov alleged in an open letter on June 13 that Bastrykin's security guards forcefully took Sokolov to a forest outside Moscow where their boss was waiting -- and where he threatened to kill the journalist.
Earlier, Bastrykin and Sokolov had argued over "Novaya gazeta's" coverage of the Investigative Committee's work. Sokolov has since left the country, according to Muratov.
In his "Izvestia" interview on June 14, Bastrykin admitted that he and Sokolov had argued heatedly while both were attending a security conference in Nalchik last week. But he called the allegation that he later threatened Sokolov in the woods "the delusions of a fevered mind." Bastrykin added that he didn't "even remember the last time I was in a forest. My job is so demanding that there is no time for trips to the countryside."
Later in the day, after meeting Muratov and other journalists, Bastrykin apologized for what he called an "emotional breakdown" during his meeting with Sokolov in Nalchik. It is still unclear, however, whether he admitted to the incident in the woods.
For his part, Muratov said he received "safety guarantees" from Bastrykin for Sokolov and other "Novaya gazeta" staff. Sokolov will, presumably, now return to Russia.
So all's well that ends well, right? Well, not so fast.
If this twisted tale worthy of a Quentin Tarantino film looked murky when it first came to light, it seems even more opaque now. So what just happened?
The daily "Vedomosti" suggested in an editorial that the security services have received carte blanche to go after the Kremlin's opponents and "are having the time of their lives" in doing so:
Irritated by protests, the Kremlin apparently told the siloviki to go after the president's political enemies. And the siloviki did. Carrying out the order, they arranged a manhunt this May when pedestrians were taken in without a cause, much less a courtesy of explanation or excuse afterwards, when draconian fines were adopted for protesters, protesters themselves were bagged, and opposition leaders' apartments ransacked in a thoroughly humiliating manner. In short, this May and June the Russians found themselves living in a police state. There's no use waiting for a reprimand for Bastrykin, much less his resignation. Life teaches us that he will probably be decorated or even promoted instead.
But while the siloviki-run-wild theory may be the simplest explanation for the "forest scandal," it isn't the only one out there.
Media reports have suggested that this week's scandal could be part of an ongoing struggle for power, access, and influence between Bastrykin's Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor-General's Office.
Some Kremlin-watchers see it as a harbinger of a new "Siloviki War" similar to the one that broke out in 2007 between different factions of the security-service veterans surrounding Vladimir Putin. That dust up, which actually got bloody, occurred as Putin's second term as president was drawing to a close and various clans in the elite, nervous about the succession, were furiously jockeying for advantage.
Those analysts who see a larger game going on point to the fact that on June 11, two days before Muratov's letter, Aleksandr Khinshtein, a State Duma deputy from United Russia, wrote on his Twitter feed that "an unprecedented scandal awaits Bastrykin." (You can view Khinshtein's Twitter feed here. Scroll down to June 11 to see the tweet.)
Khinshtein, who is very plugged in to the ruling elite, tweeted this comment as the Investigative Committee agents were searching the apartments of opposition figures -- including Aleksei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak -- and a week after Bastrykin and Sokolov argued in Nalchik.
Of course, the Siloviki War scenario is not incompatible with the siloviki-run-wild theory. Both could actually be correct. The Investigative Committee has clearly taken the lead in the Kremlin's crackdown against the opposition, and their methods appear to have other parts of the elite recoiling.
"Vedomosti" quoted Russia Today Editor in Chief Margarita Simonjan as saying that "a man from the upper echelons of state power, someone I cannot in all earnesty call a liberal, told me the other day that he was frequently befuddled by the logic of the Russian Investigative Committee."
Of course, it's all speculation at this point. But as I noted, the last time the elite was behaving like this was in late 2007, amid the uncertainty that prevailed just before Putin left the Kremlin. If this is indeed what is going on now, it suggests the ruling elite is just as nervous today, little more than a month after Putin's return to power.
-- Brian Whitmore
(Be sure to tune in to this week's edition of the Power Vertical podcast, where I will discuss this topic with Kirill Kobrin, managing editor of RFE/RL's Russian Service, and special guest Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and an expert on the Russian security services.)