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Russia: Powerful New Investigative Body Begins Work

By Brian Whitmore

September 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian law-enforcement is in the midst of a quiet revolution.

On September 7, a powerful new agency called the Investigative Committee, which will operate alongside the Prosecutor-General's Office, formally came into existence. Today it opened its doors and began its first full day of work.

Russian officials describe the Investigative Committee's creation as an attempt to reform and streamline federal law-enforcement. Some call it the first step toward creating a U.S.-style FBI. But analysts say the move has a political subtext as well.

Aleksandr Bastrykin, a former law-school classmate of President Vladimir Putin's, will chair the new agency. Bastrykin, who formerly served as deputy prosecutor-general, will now have broad powers to operate independently of Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.

Dmirty Oreshkin, a Moscow-based political analyst, calls the move an attempt to curtail the enormous power and influence the Prosecutor-General's Office had accumulated over the years:

"It [the Prosecutor-General's Office] was too large a center of influence," Oreshkin said. "It had judicial authority, police authority, and most importantly, it has the ability to reveal compromising information about the most important officials in the Russian Federation. This is very important in the political battle," Oreshkin added.

Investigative Committee

The new Investigative Committee will indeed usurp many of the prosecutor-general's powers and manpower. In addition to taking over control of more than 18,000 investigators formerly employed by the Prosecutor-General's Office, it will also assume jurisdiction of over 60,000 criminal cases -- including high-profile murders like that of former security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko and journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

The prosecutor-general, meanwhile, has been stripped of his authority to direct investigations, seize property, and initiate criminal cases. Chaika, for example, cannot launch criminal proceedings against Bastrykin -- although Bastrykin can launch proceedings against him.

Is this a case of Putin trying to rein in the Prosecutor-General's Office? Oreshkin says the president, in fact, is trying to prevent any law-enforcement agency -- with the possible exception of the Federal Security Service, or FSB -- from gaining too much power and influence:

"Even though Putin is himself a silovik by background, he understands the danger in concentrating power and resources in the hands of any law-enforcement or security structure," Oreshkin said, using the Russian slang term for members or veterans of the security services.

"Chaika is absolutely loyal. He isn't going to play any dirty games. But it is better to have several competing law-enforcement and security structures. They watch each other, they control each other. None of them can play a decisive role -- with the exception of the FSB," Oreshkin added.

Other law-enforcement agencies such as the Interior Ministry and the Federal Drug Control Service still have the power to conduct criminal investigations.

Russian FBI?

But Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank, says the Investigative Committee has the potential to develop into a massive power center if -- as some officials have suggested -- it eventually gains control over all of Russia's investigative agencies.

"Formally this organization is part of the Prosecutor-General's Office, but in fact, if you look at the amount of power he has, Bastrykin is in fact another prosecutor-general," Pribylovsky said. "And his role can get even stronger. If [the Investigative Committee] takes over all the other investigative agencies and creates a truly unified Investigative Committee, then it will have enormous power," Pribylovsky added.

Analysts say it is unclear whether the new system will help or hinder Russia's law-enforcement and judicial processes.

Aleksandr Gorshkov, a St. Petersburg-based investigative journalist who writes extensively about law-enforcement issues, says the Investigative Committee makes perfect sense in theory.

"There is logic behind this decision," Gorshkov said. "The prosecutor-general's basic function is to control and monitor to ensure that the law is followed. Investigators needs to be independent. According to this logic, the establishment of the Investigative Committee is completely logical," Gorshkov added.

But in practice, Gorshkov said the new agency could in fact create more problems than it solves. Conflicts between the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Investigative Committee, for example, must be resolved in court -- which could paralyze Russia's already slow justice system.

Moreover, Gorshkov says it is still not clear whether the Investigative Committee can handle the caseload it has just inherited from the Prosecutor-General's Office. Gorshkov points out also that the potential for evidence to be lost as tens of thousands of criminal cases are transferred is uncomfortably high:

"It will be several months before we can assess how this is turning out. We need to see how this agency will work and how it will resolve some of the internal contradictions that are present at the start," Gorshkov said.

The changes in Russian law-enforcement come as a series of high-profile criminal investigations appear to be picking up momentum.

On August 22, police in St. Petersburg arrested Vladimir Barsukov -- also known as Vladimir Kumarin -- the alleged leader of the Tambov Group, one of Russia's most powerful organized crime clans.

Five days later, in a Kremlin meeting with Putin on August 27, Chaika announced that 10 people -- including a Chechen crime boss, a Federal Security Service officer, a police major, and three former police officers -- had been arrested in connection with the Polikovskaya assassination.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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