Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Power Vertical

Russia's Criminal Vertical -- The Sequel

Russian Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin.
Russian Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin.
A creepy incident that came to light this week recalled a horrific one that took place in late 2010. And both illustrate the degree to which Russian law enforcement is connected to -- and often resembles -- the criminal structures it is supposed to be fighting.
It's a twisted tale (in more ways than one) and a bit complicated, so bear with me.
Let's begin with the present. In an open letter published on June 13, Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Novaya gazeta," alleged that Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin personally threatened the life of his deputy editor, Sergei Sokolov. (Read RFE/RL's Russian Service's interview with Muratov here and the news story here)

According to Muratov's account, Sokolov and Bastrykin got into an argument over "Novaya gazeta's" coverage during a trip the two took to Nalchik, capital of the Russian Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, last week. When they returned to Moscow, the Investigative Committee head's security guards forced Sokolov into a car and drove him to a forest outside the capital where Bastrykin was waiting.

"You brutally threatened the life of my deputy editor. You even joked that you would be the one investigating the case [of his murder]," Muratov wrote.

OK. That's pretty creepy. But it gets even worse. What appears to have gotten Bastrykin so upset was Sokolov's coverage of how he handled the investigation into a ghastly mass murder in the town of Kushchevskaya in Krasnodar Krai in November 2010.

In the Kushchevskaya massacre, 12 people -- including four children -- were brutally slain at a farmer's home at the hands of a politically connected local organized crime gang  (you can read my blog post on it -- titled "The Criminal Vertical" -- here).

The group's ringleader, Sergei Tsapok, was head of an agricultural holding company that had been pressuring farmers to turn over their land. Server Ametov, the farmer who was killed along with his family and house guests, had refused. 

Tsapok, who had long terrorized the town, had previously been shielded from prosecution due to his close ties with local police, prosecutors, and politicians. One of these contacts was Sergei Tsepovyaz, a local legislator from the ruling United Russia party. Another was Aleksandr Khodych, who headed the antiextremism department in the regional Interior Ministry.
On May 31, a Krasnodar court found Tsepovyaz guilty of assisting in covering up the massacre, but he got no jail time. He was fined a shockingly low 150,000 rubles ($4,570). Prosecutors had not even asked for any prison time.
In a June 4 article in "Novaya gazeta" headlined "A Little More Than 10,000 Rubles Per Life: That's the State's Price List," Sokolov harshly criticized the decision and the ruling United Russia party -- and implicitly accused Bastrykin of protecting Tsepovyaz.
"[United Russia] is not the party of swindlers and thieves," he wrote. "It is the party of thieves and gangsters," he concluded. "Now it's obvious. Either the bandits, the cops, and the prosecutors just wipe their feet on everybody or this was a cover-up."
The next day, according to Muratov's account, Bastrykin invited Sokolov to Nalchik under the pretext of a security conference.
The tabloid website, which is rumored to have ties to the security services, published what it says is an audio recording and transcript of Bastrykin's argument over the article. "In Tsarist times this would be cause for a duel," Bastrykin said, according to the recording.
Upon returning to Moscow, Sokolov was taken out to the woods where Bastrykin was waiting. Sokolov has since left the country, according to Muratov.
What to make of all this? My first reaction was that the crackdown is getting downright macabre.
Searching the apartments of opposition figures is one thing. Hauling a leading journalist out to the woods to have his life threatened by one of the country's top law enforcement officials is something else entirely. (Especially a journalist from "Novaya gazeta," which has seen several of its reporters killed in recent years, most famously Anna Politkovskaya.)

My second reaction was to wonder why Bastrykin would do this himself. It's pretty odd behavior for an official of his rank. Usually such tasks as intimidating troubling journalists are carried out by underlings. Was he acting with any kind of official sanction? Or was he going rogue? It's all pretty unclear.
And finally, the fact that posted the purported recording of Bastrykin's argument with Sokolov in Nalchik online suggests that some kind of power struggle is going on inside the security services.

Russian state-run Rossia-24 news channel, meanwhile, has been reporting Muratov and "Novaya gazeta's" account of the story throughout the day without comment from Bastrykin or the Investigative Committee. Is another siloviki war on the horizon? Is Bastrykin on the way out?
We're sure to get more signals about what is behind this very strange story in the coming days.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Aleksandr Bastrykin,Dmitry Muratov,Sergei Sokolov,Novaya Gazeta,Kushchevskaya massacre

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: George from: USA
June 14, 2012 00:14
What can I say? for years I have assumed the Russian Mafya was in bed with the Russian Government, I mean, how else could there be such a high level of corruption that permeates the entire culture?
Any one that does business in Russia knows it takes Bribes to get any thing done on a governmental level, for protection one goes to the mafiya, who do they use? Ex Intel operators and current cops.
Really sad for the every day Russian citizen, that is not connected by blood or marriage.
In Response

by: Syjere from: Serbia
June 20, 2012 08:29
It's the same here as far as I can see. If you don't know someone, get your wallet out and take it like a man. Seriously.The little guy hasn't got a chance, but only to survive. Sad.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
June 14, 2012 13:26
Would agree with Mr. Whitmore that this is a complex and matroshka-like story with many layers of truth. I suspect that big-time clan politics are involved and, like on a chessboard, someone wants to remove the Bastrykin pawn. There’s a nice interview of D. Muratov, editor of Novaya Gazeta on the Dozhd website, where he connects this incident with other crimes against journalists.

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17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or