The politics of Russian law enforcement may at times seem faintly surreal, more about reorganizations and rebranding than about meaningful progress. However, they do offer insight into the concerns of the senior leadership. The transfer of the powerful Investigative Committee from the Prosecutor-General's Office to direct subordination by the president is just such an indication.
On September 23, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the Investigative Committee would become a standalone body reporting directly to him. Four days later, he submitted a new draft federal law on the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation to the State Duma.
The committee was originally established in 2007-08 by then-President Vladimir Putin. Its job is to coordinate major cases and carry out preliminary investigations to decide which cases merit further investigation by other law-enforcement agencies. To date, it has looked at 600,000 cases, half of which were taken further. But it has had little success bringing the most serious criminals to court. While Georgian godfather Tariel Oniani may be behind bars, he was an outsider -- and a troublesome one at that. More politically well-connected organized crime leaders and networks, such as Moscow's Solntsevo and Izmailovo groups or St Petersburg's Tambovskaya, seem untouchable; high-profile raids and arrests have markedly failed to lead to convictions.
This should not surprise, though. The first public statement from Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin largely ignored organized crime and instead raised political cases. In this, Bastrykin, a former classmate of Putin's at Leningrad State University with a career that saw service in the Interior Ministry (MVD), was simply following his brief.
After all, the committee was from the first intended to support Putin's "power vertical." Previously, preliminary investigation was handled largely by local prosecutors' offices, meaning that they could be controlled by local elites, many of who are close to local business and even criminal interests. The creation of the committee was to bring this power back into the hands of the center. Indeed, the Investigative Committee also has the right to open cases against those normally with immunity, such as parliamentarians and senior state officials.
Even while part of the Prosecutor-General's Office, the committee was always effectively autonomous. Bastrykin also proved to have his fair share of that traditional Russian bureaucratic vice -- empire building. Upon his original appointment, he expressed the hope of seeing "all law-enforcement agency investigation bodies that are empowered to conduct preliminary investigations united in a single committee." He saw the Investigative Committee taking over the investigative arms of the MVD, the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN), and the Federal Security Service (FSB), creating an extremely powerful new agency.
Bastrykin's power grab seemed no more successful than previous efforts by the FSB virtually to reconstitute the Soviet-era KGB, and largely for the same reasons: determined resistance from rival agencies and the Kremlin's desire to maintain an institutional balance of power. However, Medvedev is now raising the prospect that while "investigative bodies at other departments will remain independent for the time being…in the future, other decisions may be made, including giving all or most cases to the Investigative Committee," as he said last month.
It may be that Medvedev is looking to out-Putin even Putin, building himself a personal force of judicial praetorians. With the 2012 election looming -- and the potential prospects of a direct Medvedev-versus-Putin competition -- the president might want to bring a great engine for gathering and using kompromat more tightly into his grasp, especially if he could use this to undermine agencies such as the MVD and FSB, which are closer to Putin.
While appealingly dramatic, this image does not really fit Medvedev's apparent character and political strategy. Besides, although it has been suggested that he could in the future replace Bastyrkin with a former classmate of his own (deputy Investigative Committee chief Yelena Leonenko), Medvedev has confirmed Bastrykin in his post -- even though he is generally seen as Putin's man. The most Machiavellian answer would be that this was Putin's price: he is happy to see the Investigative Committee subordinated to the president on paper, because he believes that with Bastrykin at its helm it is beholden to the prime minister in practice. Further, if Putin is planning to return to the presidency in 2012, he could be ensuring his own grip on this powerful tool.
However, this is predicated on the notion that Putin and Medvedev are in direct competition. If anything, though, the real competition is between the legalist and technocratic "civilik" Medvedev and the statist "silovik" Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, under the watchfully indulgent gaze of Tsar Vladimir.
In this respect, the transfer of the Investigative Committee to the presidential patrimony represents a balancing exercise. Sechin still dominates the FSB and probably the MVD (though Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev makes up for any shortcomings as a police chief with his skills as a fence-sitting politician). While Medvedev may have a little more clout with the FSKN (and with Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov remaining essentially neutral), he has lacked any real counterweight within the security apparatus.
Although Bastrykin has ties to Putin, he also seems to have good relations with Medvedev. They both think of themselves as lawyers in a way that Putin -- who also studied law -- certainly does not. Bastrykin's concept of law seems closer to Medvedev's, believing in a strong state with sweeping powers, but with those powers defined and delineated. Thus Medvedev now appears to have the Investigative Committee and its 21,000 investigators on his side, and the prospect of being able to use it to control or even cut down to size the MVD and FSB.
The move also reflects a wider power struggle between the center and the regions, and one that unites the central elites. There may be a new flurry of arrests relating to organized crime or murdered journalists for appearances' sake, but in the medium term it is likely the committee will focus on local elites to remind them that Moscow still matters. (Unsurprisingly, the Investigative Committee has opened preliminary probes of former Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and his wife.)
There appears to be a new drive to rein in regional elites. Whatever may happen in 2012, they need to understand that these matters will be settled in Moscow, and their role will then be to cheer on the victor. And a strengthened Investigations Committee will help remind them.
Mark Galeotti is the academic chair of New York University's Center for Global Affairs and author of "In Moscow's Shadows," a blog on crime and corruption in Russia, which featured an earlier version of this piece . The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL