Wednesday, November 26, 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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So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?





Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.






From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

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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