The main news in Russia at the start of the new year comes, rather unusually, from the courts and law-enforcement agencies. At the top of the list is the arrest of a group of suspects in the murder of Andrei Kozlov, first deputy chairman of the Central Bank, last September (see EDM, September 21, 2006). Kozlov had led the campaign against “dirty banks,” and now Alexei Frenkel, the head of the mini-empire of banks specializing in money laundering, stands accused of arranging the murder (Vedomosti, January 12). The connections between these banks and organized crime have never been concealed very well, but prosecutors showed surprisingly little interest in investigating it (Ezhednevny zhurnal, January 12).
Russian President Vladimir Putin can be satisfied that his personal order to get to the bottom of this audacious crime has been fulfilled, but he knows that Russia’s reputation has suffered greatly from a chain of political murders last autumn that shocked public opinion in the West (Vedomosti, December 29). A new PR campaign aimed at rehabilitating the idea of the “rule of law” has been launched, with Putin congratulating the State Prosecution on its 285th anniversary and praised its efforts at upholding the law and its role as a “solid pillar of the state” (Newsru.com, January 12). The praise is well earned, since Deputy General Prosecutor Alexander Zvyagintsev proudly reported that a 110-page request for interviews and searches had been sent to the United Kingdom in connection with the murder of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko last November (Rossiiskaya gazeta, January 12). This counter-strike is supposed to quell the accusations that Russian special services executed that high-profile crime, much to Moscow’ chagrin (Ezhednevny zhurnal, January 12).
Seeking to broaden this PR offensive, last week Putin held a meeting in the Kremlin with the awkwardly named Council for Facilitating the Development of Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, a state-controlled non-governmental organization. In his opening remarks Putin criticized the poor conditions in Russian prisons and even pointed to the “problem of physical abuse of those waiting for their trial in pre-trial detention centers.” Emboldened by this opening, the carefully selected representatives of various NGOs complained about the mounting legal and bureaucratic obstacles for their work (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 12). In response, former Supreme Court judge Tamara Morshchakova argued that judicial independence was non-existent, noting, “Any official can dictate any decision in any case” (Gazeta.ru, January 11).
Such a blunt statement coming from an insider instantly reveals the falsity of official propaganda and the scale of judicial suppression by the triumphant bureaucracy. It becomes clear that the re-opening of a 1997 case against Andrei Vavilov, former deputy finance minister and currently a member of the Federation Council, has little to do with the struggle against corruption (Nezavisimaya gazeta, January 12). Rather, it is linked with the dirty struggle among various Kremlin clans. For example, Minister of Communications and Information Technologies Leonid Reiman, a long-time Putin associate, remains invincible despite multiple revelations of his sleazy business deals (Vedomosti, May 25, 2006; Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2005). And it is excessively clear that new accusations against Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev are driven by Putin’s irreducible enmity against the former oligarch now imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp (Vremya novostei, December 28).
One peculiar twist in this saga of simulated adherence to the rule of law took place in Courchevel, a French ski resort favored by the Russian rich-and-famous for relaxing in the first week of January and celebrating Orthodox Christmas. This year, however, the French police interrupted their partying and detained 26 people, including Mikhail Prokhorov, the CEO and co-owner of Norilsk Nickel, for several days as part of an investigation targeting illegal prostitution (Moskovsky komsomolets, January 12). The Russian nouveau riche have become used to the idea that a few millions dollars could buy them the right to drive at any speed and entertain themselves in every exotic way — and they are unpleasantly surprised that this sort of behavior is not welcome in Europe anymore (Gazeta.ru, January 11).
This naïve and cynical attitude mirrors quite closely the prevailing mood in the Kremlin, which remains confident that its pretence of enforcing the rule of law would be accepted as a bona fide commitment. Putin’s courtiers have no doubt whatsoever that reality can be ignored when managing domestic opinions, so long as they maintain firm control over the media and make sure that “petro-rubles” trickle down to those who earn ten times less in a year than an average oligarch burns in Courchevel in a day. Putin himself shows no doubt in the readiness of his European counterparts to swallow his reassurances in upholding the law as long as he also provides guarantees for delivering oil and gas. He should, however, feel a pang of doubt — and not only because of the overreaction in Europe to his hydrocarbon quarrels with Belarus.
The year 2006 saw a strong surge in the activities of the Russian secret services. “Special operations” are now perfectly legitimate thanks to the legislation approved by the Russian parliament, and what remains in the shadows is certainly outside the reach of any investigation or journalist’s curiosity (Novaya gazeta, January 11). Public opinion in Russia remains mute about this scary specter and appears ready to turn the page on the murder of Anna Politkovskaya. For the West, however, Litvinenko’s poisoning illuminated the inner logic of Russia’s retreat from democracy where the secret service “projects” are covered by the Kremlin and paid by Gazprom.