Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of Russia's powerful Investigative Committee and former university classmate of President Vladimir Putin, is once again in damage-control mode.
This week, anticorruption blogger and opposition activist Aleksei Navalny posted on his blog documents demonstrating that Bastrykin and his wife founded a business in the Czech Republic and that Bastrykin, until 2009, had long-term residency there.
Since his appointment to head the Investigative Committee when it was set up in 2007, Bastrykin has frequently found himself in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Although he is reputedly close to Putin and has powerful allies among the so-called siloviki faction in the ruling elite, Bastrykin seems to have dogged political enemies as well who have time and again succeeded in embarrassing him publicly.
His penchant for ill-considered, emotional outbursts and his tendency to make firm declarations that later turn out to be less than accurate have also served him badly.
The latest scandal turns around the fact that Russian law forbids senior officials from "engaging in commercial activity." Navalny told the Internet television station Dozhd TV that Bastrykin should be fired and investigated.
"We received the requested information [from the Czech Interior Ministry] within five days [of our query], and we now have proof that when Mr. Bastrykin served as first deputy prosecutor-general of Russia and then as head of the Investigative Committee, with access to top state secrets, he had a residence permit in the Czech Republic, which is a NATO country," Navalny said.
Bastrykin told "Argumenty i fakty" in 2008 -- when the reports of his Czech business first emerged -- that none of it was true. "Neither I nor any member of my family has ever engaged in commercial activity either in Russia or abroad," he said.
Czech records show
that Bastrykin left the company, LAW Bohemia, in July 2008, and his current wife, 42-year-old Olga Aleksandrova, left it in May 2009. However, ownership was taken over in May 2009 by Bastrykin's first wife, Natalia Bastrykina.
Bastrykin's official income declaration for 2008
shows that his current wife owned a small apartment in Prague. It is absent, however, from his 2009 declaration -- and all subsequent declarations
The latest headlines come in the wake of a scandal in June in which the deputy editor of the "Novaya gazeta" newspaper claimed Bastrykin, unhappy with an article he'd written, had him picked up and brought to a remote forest, where Bastrykin allegedly threatened to kill him.
That scandal unwound slowly as Bastrykin at first denied everything and later walked almost all his denials back, ending up apologizing for having an "emotional breakdown" and offering assurances of the journalist's safety.
Bastrykin, 68, is a lifelong functionary who studied at the law faculty of Leningrad State University (LGU) in the 1970s with Vladimir Putin. During his university years, he was a local leader of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He became a Communist Party member during this time as well and remained a member until the party was dissolved in 1991.
In 1980, he was secretary of LGU's Komsomol branch and oversaw the expulsion of rocker Boris Grebenshchikov, founder of the group Akvarium, after the band played at an unsanctioned festival in Tbilisi, Georgia.
Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Bastrykin worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder, mostly in the Interior Ministry and the Justice Ministry. In 2006, he was named deputy prosecutor-general under Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika. The two men have long reportedly been at odds.
Originally the head of the Investigative Committee -- a powerful agency that controls some 21,000 investigators and handles the country's most sensitive cases -- answered to Chaika. However, the well-connected Bastrykin regularly ignored that arrangement and, in 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev decreed that the committee head would answer directly to the president.
Vying For Influence
Within Kremlin power circles, Bastrykin is seen as connected to the powerful Putin insider Igor Sechin, who was deputy prime minister when Putin was prime minister and now heads the Rosneft state oil giant.
Moscow-based political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky says the main conflict within Russia's ruling elite now is between Sechin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, both vying for influence within the perilously balanced system overseen by Putin.
Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows,"
says Bastrykin's network of connections is powerful but narrow and this leaves him vulnerable.
"Bastrykin is good at playing Kremlin politics. When he was notionally subordinate to Yury Chaika, the prosecutor-general, he was able to pretty much ignore his boss," Galeotti says. "Now he has moved himself up to a situation where he reports directly to the president. He's done very well there.
"However, he's never really understood or played a part in wider politics, in terms of building a broader constituency with the media, within other arms of government, and so forth. And I think this is definitely coming back to bite him," Galeotti continues. "He is not a particularly good player of the public side of elite politics."
Somewhere along the way, Bastrykin seems to have made a dogged enemy of Aleksandr Khinshtein, an investigative journalist with "Moskovsky komsomolets" and a State Duma deputy with the ruling United Russia party. Khinshtein periodically writes articles about Bastrykin, including the July 2008 expose that broke the story of Bastrykin's business in the Czech Republic.
In 2009, Khinshtein wrote an article claiming that Bastrykin's St. Petersburg apartment had been burgled but that authorities had covered it up.
"The chairman of the Investigative Committee is known as an avid antique collector. It is very likely that the criminals (if, indeed there were any) might have taken from the apartment some particularly valuable rarities. Reports about this would hardly have been flattering for Bastrykin," Khinshtein wrote.
Analyst Pribylovsky says Putin is the ultimate arbiter of Bastrykin's fate, but that the president will do anything to avoid the perception that he is bowing to outside pressure.
"Even if Putin is upset now that Bastrykin let him down and wants to punish him -- and he let [Putin] down twice in one month -- it would mean that Putin gave in to pressure from journalists or, worst of all, pressure from Aleksei Navalny," Pribylovsky says. "Putin will [likely] wait for half a year or a year and then remove Bastrykin. But he won't [really] remove him, but, rather, will move him to some other post. I think that in the end, for Bastrykin, this will mean the loss of his high position. But not right away."
And so far, Pribylovsky seems to be right. Presidential press spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Dozhd television on July 26 that he knows nothing about Navalny's expose of Bastrykin.
"To be honest," Peskov said, "it is hard to report things we read in blogs to the president. And unfortunately, I don't know anything about any letter because we don't read, to be honest, Navalny's blog."
*Clarification: This story has been changed to reflect that the documents presented by Navalny demonstrated that Bastrykin had long-term residency in the Czech Republic, not permanent residency.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Danila Galperovich contributed to this report from Moscow; Brian Whitmore contributed from Prague