What does the authorities’ reaction to Navalny’s investigation tell us?
Chaika as a diagnosis
Yury Chaika was appointed Prosecutor General in 2006. It was precisely then that a new period in Putin’s rule began, carried out under the slogan of stability and sovereign democracy. This was the period of postmodern public relations by Vladislav Surkov, a public contract based on the formula “income growth in exchange for political rights”, the Nashi movement and the marginalization of non-systemic opposition. This period saw reforms of ministries and senior staff reshuffles within the structure of the state apparatus. It was precisely then that the Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov took the post of the Minister of Justice and Yury Chaika – the Minister of Justice up to that point – took the place of Vladimir Ustinov.
In 2006, commentators believed that the reason for the first job swap in the history of Putin’s Russia was the lack of substitutes on the bench. Today, after almost a decade, the episode can be perceived differently.
Ustinov has done a lot for Putin’s regime: he has hushed-up a number of high-profile cases which were uncomfortable for Putin, including the investigation into the Kursk submarine disaster, the investigation into the seizure of the Dubrovka theatre center and he has successfully eliminated Putin’s opponents: he ran Vladimir Gusinsky’s ‘Media-Most’ case, Salman Raduyev’s case, the ‘Yukos’ case, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s case as well as Yulia Timoshenko’s and more.
However, Putin was in need of a new man in the face of a new reality; a man with a good track record of bringing corruption cases to naught. Since the new period in Putin’s Russia started under the flag of not only stability and the doubling of GDP, but also under the banner of a huge, hidden carve-up. A carve-up which had come to be boundless thanks to crackdowns on the opposition, media and rudiments of civil society.
Yury Chaika had plenty of experience in covering up corruption scandals. In 1996, according to the report by Marina Litvinovich The Power of Families, Chaika oversaw the case of “the copy machine box” – a box stuffed with 500 thousand dollars which Boris Yeltsin’s election campaign organizers – Arkady Evstafiev and Sergei Lisovsky – were apprehended with. Thanks to the “excellent” work of the then First Deputy of the Prosecutor General Chaika, no one from Yeltsin’s entourage suffered. Incidentally, Chaika was the deputy of the same Skuratov whose dismissal he fully supported and whose interim he became following his very dismissal.
There had also been other episodes in the anti-anticorruption biography of the Prosecutor General, which made him the ideal candidate for the job of covering up for great statesmen in the new era of large-scale corruption. By definition, such a person cannot have a hyaline biography.
The investigation into the corrupt schemes of people from Chaika’s entourage carried out by Navalny’s Fund gained notoriety throughout Russia. A video clip was watched by over a million viewers in just a few days following its release. The video tells the story about real estate possessed by the sons of the Prosecutor General in Greece and Switzerland and the allegation is made that huge resources spent on the purchase of the properties of Yury Chaika’s sons were acquired through gangster activity – illegal raids and seizures accompanied by mysterious deaths allegedly covered-up by their father’s subordinates.
One does not have to be a good investigator in contemporary Russia, one simply needs to have a good memory. Almost everything which the film Chaika revealed was old news – due to investigations by “Kommersant”, other newspapers and thanks to the abovementioned report, The Power of Families.
Indications of the link between the Chaikas and Kushchevskaya gangsters is new, though indirect evidence of similar links did appear online earlier. One example: in early 1999, a company located near Moscow complained about racketeers who, incidentally, came from Irkutsk Oblast (this was precisely where Yury Chaika started his professional career in 1976 whilst he was involved in party work for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and this was precisely from whence he was taken to Moscow by Skuratov in 1996). Gangsters were detained. The car they were driving was registered to Yury Chaika. Furthermore, a special slip was found in the car that forbade security checks. And as a wonderful appendage – an authorization to drive a car on behalf of Artyom Chaika. In court, during the trial of the racketeers, the son of the then interim of the Prosecutor General was acting only as a witness.
The person who can hardly be described as “of impeccable character”, was a perfect fit for the post which required turning the institute of the prosecutor’s oversight into a Potemkin Village, covering up any cases of corruption.
Back in 2014, Russian human rights defender Pavel Chikov – the head of Agora – remarked: “Yury Chaika will go down in history as precisely the prosecutor who demolished the prosecutor’s office”.
It is time to assume that the very same words can be attributed to virtually all of today’s ministers and heads of federal agencies: “the demolisher”. By the way, the same can be said of Vladimir Putin: “the man who has demolished the state”. Stories similar to those featuring the family of Prosecutor General Chaika would be unthinkable in a regular state. And even if they were possible, they could not go on for so long, and at least some, albeit external, reaction would ensue.
However, after the film Chaika surfaced on the Internet, security forces visited not the Prosecutor General and his sons, but the Dozhd! TV channel which helped Navalny with his investigation. None of people in power became interested in the Prosecutor General’s sons. Alas, they are adults, hence, they have the right to do business and to own property abroad - and what has their dad got to do with them?
Back at the end of Boris Yeltsin’s rule and at the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s, criminal proceedings were instigated in connection with corruption scandals on a pro forma basis, at least, and people tried to exonerate themselves by any means possible. Today, no one bothers. The people who have seized power in the Kremlin are not even convinced that they are the state - they are convinced that the state constitutes nothing and that it exists solely for those people for whom the state is an inexhaustible source of enrichment.
Healthcare is being destroyed. Schools are being closed. Truck drivers are on strike. No actions to acquire wealth will be ruled out and no one in power will be deprived of additional sources of income. Those in power have a goal. A very specific goal. The goal is not the greatness of Russia, the size of the Russian territory nor a high GDP, but the lining of individuals’ pockets.
Some comforting conclusions can be drawn from this: apparently, Vladimir Putin is not an autocrat at all, as he has no real power over his milieu or his subordinates. Autocracy is about all the levers of the government being concentrated in the same hands. What we are witnessing in Russia today results from the lack of any levers.
In order to save his personal, authoritarian power, it would be extremely advantageous for Putin to dismiss Yury Chaika, and open investigations against his sons; to “send the entire Rotenbergs clan to a doctor” and gain an excellent electorate made up of truck drivers; to spend more money on the development of healthcare and education as opposed to a senseless war in Syria. If he were a real autocrat – this would be the best way to preserve his power until his death.
However, it is not so much that Putin does not want to preserve his power, but that he absolutely cannot. In fact, President Putin does not have any personal power whatsoever. The covering of each other’s backs, which unites him with other beneficiaries of this “great carve-up”, no longer allows for steps which do not serve to enrich the clan, but increase the personal power of Vladimir Putin.
Constant attempts to imitate state institutions have turned these institutions into the battered scenery of the play perennially performed on Russia’s stage. However, both the cast and the audience have long forgotten the purpose: Actors rehearse May parades in December and ask the chief director not to deprive them of luxury, and the audience makes no attempts to soil them with rotten tomatoes.
This shaky structure may collapse at any moment. And it certainly cannot become the pillar of some sort of isolationist regime à la North Korea, since there are no great Juche ideas nor a repressive state mechanism capable of implementing them.
The Russian state is increasingly coming to resemble Yuri Olesha’s magic kingdom of Three Fat Men. However, there are no guarantees that in Russia, as in Olesha’s story, a velvet revolution, organized by workers alongside the creative and scientific intelligentsia, will take place.
A third way is what most likely lies in store. When the Prosecutor General’s sons are accused of having links with gangsters and no reaction ensues, this means that violence has spiralled entirely out of control. On the other hand, society lacks the resources to counteract widespread degradation and devalued violence. As a result, the wise money is on rampant banditry, superimposed on poverty, triggered by a large-scale recession. This prognosis is only just preferable to authoritarianism and totalitarianism. However, as strange as it may sound, it does leave society with a much wider window of opportunity compared to the further tightening of the screws. At the very least, it allows the rebuilding of a new state on the ruins of Russia brought to collapse by the current authorities. It remains to be seen whether society will take advantage of this opportunity.
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