Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Today marks the 279th anniversary of the founding of the Russian chief prosecutor’s office, and some 3,500 of the country’s prosecutors gathered in Moscow yesterday for a three-day conference to commemorate the event and discuss their work. President Vladimir Putin addressed them–with almost nothing but praise for their work–declaring that their “vast functions and strong supervisory powers makes the procuracy a compensation for the weakness of the system of compliance with legality and law and order in the country.” He hinted that he would consider expanding their ranks (they who are already more numerous than they were during the Soviet period), a suggestion which won him a round of applause. He rejected criticism of the prosecutor’s office as a “relic of totalitarianism,” saying that the office was no longer “a cover for lawlessness” (presumably referring to the Soviet period) and praising the attendees for complying with “the democratization of Russia’s legal and police system.” The only criticism he expressed came in his reference to the “not very effective activity of the prosecutors” in winning convictions in court. He called on the prosecutors to defend both privately owned and state-owned property and the rights of entrepreneurs.

Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov and Deputy Prosecutor General Vasily Kolmogorov also addressed the conference. Stroev threw some red meat to the crowd, winning applause with his comment: “Kids are put in prison for a piece of sausage, but real thieves, who have stolen billions, live and dictate their notions to the authorities.” Kolmogorov, on the other hand, was the event’s token liberal, admitting that the use of “spetznaz” commandos during raids on the premises of businesses under criminal investigation was aimed at putting “psychological pressure” on the suspects, not protecting investigators, and saying he had ordered a stop to the practice (Moscow Times, Vremya novostei, Kommersant, NTV, January 12).

Yet even Kolmogorov’s nod in the direction of rule of law did little to assuage critics, some of whom saw yesterday’s conference as little more than an exercise in reality evasion. Indeed, there was no reference to the charges that the Prosecutor General’s Office has become a weapon used by the executive branch and/or influential political-financial clans in battles with enemies and competitors. More specifically, there was no discussion of the controversy surrounding what some believe is the office’s relentless political campaign against Media-Most founder Vladimir Gusinsky, whose media have strongly criticized the Kremlin, Putin and the Prosecutor General’s Office both on policy grounds and for alleged corruption. Nor was there mention of the office’s decision last month to close down its investigation into the Mabetex affair, involving allegations that top Russian officials–including former Kremlin property manager Pavel Borodin, a long-time crony of Boris Yeltsin and Putin’s former boss–received multimillion-dollar kickbacks from two Swiss construction-engineering firms in return for lucrative contracts to refurbish Russian government buildings, and then laundered the proceeds abroad, in Swiss banks as well as elsewhere. The Swiss authorities have continued their own probe of the Mabetex affair, and Bernard Bertossa, Geneva’s chief prosecutor, said that the decision by his Russian counterparts to close their investigation was politically motivated and showed that Russia’s judicial organs are not independent (see the Monitor, December 15, 2000).

In a sign that at least part of Russia’s media remains independent, several newspapers today took aim at the proceedings of the prosecutor convention’s opening day. Not surprisingly, Segodnya, which belongs to Gusinsky’s Media-Most, was the most critical. It said that the executive branch had “tamed” the Prosecutor General’s Office to the point that it was now seen “exclusively as an instrument for carrying out the president’s will.” It quoted Viktor Pokhmelkin, a State Duma deputy with the Union of Right-Wing Forces faction and one of the authors of legislation aimed at reforming the procuracy, who criticized both Putin, for saying nothing yesterday about the need for reform, and the Kremlin administration, for having no “concrete conception” about reform in this area (Segodnya, January 12). Last October, Pokhmelkin, Sergei Ivanenko of Yabloko and Valery Grebennikov of Fatherland-All Russia drafted a law which would transfer the task of monitoring whether federal and regional governmental structures are implementing laws from the Prosecutor General’s Office to the Justice Ministry and would establish the institution of parliament-appointed special prosecutors for cases in which the impartiality of the Prosecutor General’s Office is in question (Segodnya, October 30, 2000).

Meanwhile, the newspaper Vremya novostei also ran an article today which criticized both Putin and the Prosecutor General’s Office. It noted that Putin’s own Center for Strategic Research–which German Gref, now minister of economic development and trade, headed–produced a report last summer stating that reform of the judicial branch and law enforcement activities in general was impossible without reform of the procuracy. The report stated that the Prosecutor General’s Office’s “practically unlimited possibility to check enterprises and organizations, ministries and departments” gave it “appreciable power, which no one plans to give up, and also an almost complete absence of any kind of responsibility.” The Gref center also found that the law enforcement organs were increasingly becoming an instrument in “illegal competition” not only between businesses, but also between business and the authorities. However, since the report was written last summer, the paper concluded, “the suspicion that the Prosecutor General’s Office is using its power both for political ends and in commercial disputes has only heightened” (Vremya novostei, January 12).

Such sentiments were echoed by Boris Uvarov, a former top investigator who, before being fired from the Prosecutor General’s Office last year, was in charge of various high-profile cases, including the probe into the still-unsolved 1995 murder of television personality Vladislav Listyev. Uvarov said in an interview published today that political interference in investigations is now greater than it was during the Soviet period. “With all of the totalitarianism of that system, legality was all the same greater,” Uvarov said. “Yes, there was ‘telephone law.’ Yes, I can give you dozens of examples. But not hundreds. They phoned from on high, influenced individual cases, but did not influence all cases. And what happens today? Today all cases connected to high-placed persons are ‘zvonkovye’ [subject to ‘telephone law’, or political influence from on high]. The ‘criminal revolution’ has won definitively. To speak of a triumph of legality in the current situation is naive.”

Uvarov is only one of many top investigators who have either been fired from the Prosecutor General’s Office or left voluntarily. Among those dismissed are Nikolai Volkov, who was removed last year after returning from an official trip to Switzerland with evidence related to the Aeroflot case, which implicated firms connected to Boris Berezovsky in alleged embezzlement from Russia’s state airline, and Georgy Chuglazov, the original Mabetex investigator. Four top investigators–Nikolai Indyukov, Vladimir Parshikov, Vladimir Yelsukov and Vladimir Danilov–quit the office last December. They had been involved in investigating such cases as the murder of opposition leader Lev Rokhlin; the MiG case, involving the alleged embezzlement of US$237 million in state funds from the MiG aircraft maker; and the Atoll case, involving charges that a private security firm founded by Berezovsky had eavesdropped on top government officials and VIPs, including the family of then President Boris Yeltsin (Moskovsky komsomolets, December 15, 2000; Moscow Times, December 19, 2000).

Meanwhile, a new test of the prosecutor general’s commitment to impartial law enforcement and Putin’s pledge to make the law apply equally to everyone has cropped up over the last several days. Deputy Prosecutor General Kolmogorov’s daughter was reportedly detained at Moscow’s Sheremetevo-2 international airport on January 8 after attempting to illegally take some US$5,280 worth of foreign currency on a flight bound for Geneva. Prosecutor General Ustinov reportedly asked that all the documents related to the case be sent to him, after which he ordered the air transport prosecutor’s office to reach the conclusion that no criminal case should be launched (Segodnya, NTV, January 12).