Russia’s Investigative Committee on the War Path

The recent charges against the activist lawyer and opposition celebrity Alexei Navalny, accusing him of absurd crimes that he was already cleared of (à la Khodorkovsky) represent a bold step forward by the Investigative Committee and its chief, Alexander Bastrykin, which may land the agency in uncharted territory.  As many of you know, Navalny recently embarrassed Bastrykin by releasing documents showing his residency permit and business activities in the Czech Republic (which is illegal for a Russian official).  As I said in comments to The American Lawyer, the back-and-forth taunting between Navalny and Bastrykin has elevated into a highly personal confrontation resulting the resurrection of these dead charges.

But has the Investigative Committee reached beyond its remit?  As a relatively new agency, this prosecutorial arm has been a focal point of the clan wars over the years, as rival sections of the elite (such as the anti-narcotics division) have battled for power and control over resources.  At best, the new charges against Navalny represent a split in the opinion among elites as to how they should be dealing with an increasingly popular figure like Navalny.  Writing on The Power Vertical, the knowledgeable Brian Whitmore explores the meaning behind these latest developments:

But there seems to be more than just head games going on here.

The whole scene — the arrival of the “avtozak” coupled with Navalny leaving the Investigative Committee sans handcuffs, albeit charged with a crime that carries a stiff prison sentence — provides a metaphor for the ambiguity among the ruling elite about how to deal with this man whom the Kremlin clearly views as a threat.

Bastrykin obviously wants to play hardball — but others apparently don’t. (…)

Prosecutors now allege that Navalny colluded with the head of a state timber company and trader to steal the products, which carries a sentence of five to 10 years in prison.

In a post on his blog, Navalny offered a detailed rebuttal of the charges.

As I blogged earlier, much of the elite — and some in the security and law enforcement community — are deeply uncomfortable with the way Bastrykin has gone after the opposition following Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin.

And this case encapsulates those divisions.

Prosecuting Navalny would temporarily sideline the man who rebranded United Russia as the “party of swindlers and thieves.” But it would also inflame an already restless society and create another martyr for the opposition — and in that capacity, Navalny might  prove even more dangerous inside prison than as a free man.