Watch What Putin Does to His Top Prosecutor

The ubiquitous corruption and lack of accountability in Vladimir Putin’s Russia were, until recently, easy to sweep under the rug. But the relentless decline in oil prices is making the president’s political bets unsafe. Now the country’s problems are beginning to fester in plain view, giving the regime a tough choice: Start liberalizing or go for harsh repression.

The case of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika will be a weather vane of what’s to come. He was justice minister when Putin became president in 2000, running, among other things, Russia’s vast prison system. In 2006, Putin made him prosecutor general. Apart from prosecuting cases on the state’s behalf, the prosecutor general’s office exercises control over all criminal investigations and coordinates the activities of all law enforcement bodies, making the prosecutor general one of the country’s most influential people.

On December 1, a nonprofit group led by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny published the results of a yearlong investigation into the business affairs of Chaika’s two sons. Even to hardened Russians, the revelations were shocking.

The ex-wife of Chaika’s deputy, Gennady Lopatin, was linked to various ventures both with the prosecutor general’s older son, Artem, and with the wives of members of a notorious mob that terrorized part of southern Russia for years. Apart from connecting some of the most notorious criminals in modern Russia with Chaika’s family and underlings, Navalny’s investigation contained well-researched episodes involving alleged illegal takeovers of businesses in favor of Artem Chaika, aided by local prosecutors. The elder Chaika was shown to have omitted a palatial home near Moscow from his property declaration.

A 44-minute movie of the investigation has been viewed 3.4 million times on YouTube. Yet official comments on the findings were off-key to the point of being ridiculous.

Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, said the investigation “did not talk about the prosecutor general, only about his adult sons who are in business on their own,” though the entire point of the investigation was to show how Chaika’s connections and the entire system under his direction allegedly aided his sons’ enterprises. When asked about the Chaika case, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev mumbled in a televised interview:

As for all kinds of publications, you know yourself how they emerge and in what way, and they are not always the results of objective investigations and the result of the objective activity by certain persons. They are very often made to order. I won’t give an assessment to specific publications, simply so as not to advertise them, and that’s precisely the goal this publication is after. Moreover, this is always part of a political struggle.

Putin faces a harsh dilemma. He could try to make Russia more competitive by carefully retreating in Ukraine, getting Western sanctions lifted, and liberalizing the domestic economic climate. That would mean dismantling the backbone of his regime: the obedient law enforcement system, run on his behalf by people like Chaika, loyal but unpopular because of their ruthlessness and greed. That would improve the economy but undermine his power. Or Putin could drop the remaining pretense of democracy and rule openly by force, ordering mass reprisals against opponents both real and imagined.

The system Putin has created is pushing him toward the second option. The parliament is considering legislation that would make the “discreditation of the Russian Federation” a crime. The Federal Migration Service has drafted a bill that would bar foreigners who favor the regime’s overthrow from entering Russia. Pro-Putin officials and legislators have even been discussing the reintroduction of Soviet-style exit visas.

The unlikely liberalization option would require Putin to fire Chaika. If the prosecutor stays on despite being unable to refute any of the allegations against him, it will be a clear sign that Putin is either going for the dictatorship scenario — further tightening the screws next year — or hoping to muddle through by doing nothing, a strategy that won’t help him much if oil keeps getting cheaper.

Full article: Watch What Putin Does to His Top Prosecutor (BloombergView)

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