It's been a pretty rough year for Aleksandr Bastrykin.
From his humiliating public apology for the infamous “forest incident,”
in which he reportedly threatening a journalist's life, to the "Foreign Agent Bastrykin"
hashtags that followed the exposure of his business dealings in Europe, the Investigative Committee chief has become the butt of jokes and the subject of numerous Internet memes
He's reviled by the opposition for spearheading President Vladimir Putin's crackdown on dissent. And his sharp bureaucratic elbows and aggressive style have earned him plenty of enemies in the ruling elite.
But despite all this, Bastrykin appears on the verge of a major victory: achieving his long-held dream of expanding the Investigative Committee and turning it into a super-duper souped-up agency that would police the police and swallow up many of the responsibilities of other law-enforcement bodies.
A Kremlin-authored bill is on its way to the State Duma that would merge the investigative arms of the Interior Ministry and the Federal Antinarcotics Service into the Investigative Committee. Interior is slated to move 37,000 investigators over and the Antinarcotics Service will send 2,000.
The move, which Bastrykin has long lobbied for, illustrates Putin's desire to shore up his base of support in the bureaucracy amid protests in society and schisms in his ruling elite.
"The clan struggle is intensifying with the wave of protest, attacks on the regime, and the crisis of its legitimacy. The cracks in society, which existed before, are deepening," Moscow-based sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies the Russian elite, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta"
"The president is faced with the task of strengthening his position. Putin has many different mainstays within the bureaucracy, but he will single out certain fragments of it. These are the so-called firm nuclei -- people and departments that are totally loyal to him."
Bastrykin's Investigative Committee certainly falls into that category. Since Putin's return to the Kremlin, it has been the president's own personal politics police.
It has conducted intimidating early morning apartment searches of troublesome figures like socialite-turned-social activist Ksenia Sobchak and others. It has spearheaded cases against opposition figures like Aleksei Navalny and Sergei Udaltsov. And in has investigated and harassed regime defectors like former State Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov.
With the opposition resurgent and the elite splitting, Putin needs someone reliable to keep the street in check and potentially wayward officials in line.
And while Bastrykin appears eager to play that role, his apparent victory could come with a caveat.
According to a recent report in "Kommersant,"
the impending expansion of the Investigative Committee is accompanied by a renewed push to put it back under the control of the Prosecutor-General's Office.
When the Investigative Committee was established in 2007, it was formally under the control of the Prosecutor-General’s Office. Bastrykin, however, treated Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika with disdain and eventually managed to formally change the arrangement so he reports directly to the president.
The recent reports that the Investigative Committee may be placed back under the Prosecutor-General’s Office have been accompanied by persistent rumors that Chaika is on the way out. A bureaucratic lightweight who is considered an ally of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Chaika has been largely seen as a lame duck since Putin returned to the Kremlin.
Medvedev would like his old law-school classmate Aleksandr Konovalov in the post, but that seems unlikely. The name mentioned most has been Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, a longtime associate of Putin’s
dating back to when both served in the St. Petersburg government in the 1990s.
Kozak makes sense for a number of reasons. His reputation as a skilled administrator has made him Putin’s Mr. Fix-It, the go-to guy the Kremlin leader turns to to address intractable problems. Putin also sees Kozak as absolutely loyal and reliable. And he is widely rumored to have long coveted the prosecutor-general’s post.
And for Putin, Kozak appears the perfect choice to keep an eye on a newly empowered Bastrykin -- who, while loyal, has been a bit of a loose cannon and an embarrassment for the Kremlin. Moreover, unchecked, a revved-up Investigative Committee could at some point turn into a threat to Putin.
So while Bastrykin seems on the verge of getting his long-standing wish, he may also be getting an unwelcome chaperone.
“The Kremlin gives with one hand and takes away with the other” because “kingmakers can easily become king breakers,” New York University professor Mark Galeotti, author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows,”
said on the latest "Power Vertical Podcast."
-- Brian Whitmore