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Russia Boosts Powerful Investigative Agency

Aleksandr Bastrykin will head the new agency.
Russia has boosted the powers of a powerful investigative agency closely allied to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that's been at the center of a power struggle between rival Kremlin clans.

President Dmitry Medvedev made the televised announcement on September 23 at a government meeting at his residence outside Moscow. He said the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor-General's Office would be elevated to a powerful independent agency that reports directly to the president. He said other state agencies may be later subordinated to the new body.

"In the future, other decisions may be made," he said, "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."

The word "balance" may have carried political significance. Medvedev's predecessor, Putin, created the Investigative Committee three years ago, ostensibly to separate investigators from law enforcers by setting up an agency resembling the U.S. FBI.

Putin, who most Russians believe still runs Russia today from his post as prime minister, appointed his close ally Aleksandr Bastrykin to head the new agency. A former KGB officer like Putin, Bastrykin is widely seen as a leading member of a powerful political clan. Putin gave his agency sweeping authority to act as a check on the powers of the Federal Security Service and other bodies.

'Top-Down Structure'

Lawyer Yury Schmidt told RFE/RL's Russian Service the Investigative Committee's creation did nothing to reform law enforcement because that wasn't its real motive.

"Everything done in Russia," he said, "is actually meant to build up a top-down structure of power that increasingly resembles the vertical power of the Soviet Union."

The Investigative Committee soon staged a series of high-profile arrests, detaining top officials connected to rival groups. Analysts say they reflected Putin's method of maintaining his grip on power by balancing the interests of those competing clans.

At the height of the controversy, the head of one of the groups, another former KGB officer close to Putin, published an open letter saying the infighting threatened to tear the country apart. Many believed his warning provided a rare glimpse into the Kremlin's secret rivalries.

Vladimir Ovchinsky, former head of the Russian branch of Interpol, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the latest reform wouldn't affect the state of affairs because it provided little more than a formal change of name.

"I don't understand what this does for the country," he said. "It would be one thing if there were a general reform of the justice system and the criminal code. But that's not taking place."

Medvedev's statement accompanied other announcements about new legislation the Kremlin says is aimed at combating rampant corruption among law enforcers.

But human rights activists criticize the changes for giving the police new powers, including the right to freely enter private houses.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this story