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The Real Power Struggle in Russia

The following opinion article by Robert Amsterdam will be published in tomorrow’s edition of the International Herald Tribune.

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The real power struggle By Robert Amsterdam If Europe and the West want to understand what is happening in Russia, they should send observers not to the polling stations, but to Moscow’s Basmanny Court, where the Constitution and rule of law are being unraveled on a daily basis. Here, and not in any electoral race, is where the battle over the presidential succession is playing itself out. The contenders are a group of former KGB officers known as the siloviki, from the Russian word for strong.

Highlights from the battles between these warring factions include murders of politically connected figures and a spate of arrests of public officials on allegations of corruption – arrests instigated by members of one clan or another. The result is a group of jailed hostages from each of the silovik clans to be used as pawns in the power struggles.The recent arrest of the alleged mafia kingpin Semyon Mogilevich is not regarded as part of any normal criminal investigation, but rather as the falling fortunes of his protector in the Kremlin. Similarly, the deputy finance minister, Sergei Storchak, has been jailed on what are believed to be trumped-up money laundering charges.The political manipulation of the courts is thoroughly familiar to Russia-watchers, who recall similar tactics in the Yukos affair and the persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky – a process which both the Council of Europe and the Swiss Federal Tribunal have characterized as a politically motivated attack.Most recently, the Yukos saga was once again brought before the world’s eyes when Russian prosecutors repeatedly denied urgent medical treatment to Vasily Aleksanyan, a prisoner suffering from AIDS-related cancer and tuberculosis, unless he provided false testimony against Khodorkovsky.These same courts and judges have proven immensely useful in jailing opposition figures like Garry Kasparov and banning presidential candidates like Mikhail Kasyanov from participation in the race.Now the pliant justice system in Russia is being incorporated into inter-clan warfare.In an attempt to balance these groups, President Vladimir Putin allowed for the creation of an investigative commission to operate in parallel with the prosecutor-general’s office.Chaired by the Putin loyalist Aleksandr Bastrykin, the commission entered into immediate conflict with Chief Prosecutor Yuri Chaika. The two offices are now engaged in an exchange of attacks and investigations for control of the state’s security apparatus.The new criminal investigative commission itself has come under attack – in an audit ordered by one of the rival clans.The clan wars have been heating up for months. Last October, in an article in the newspaper Kommersant, Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Federal Drug Control Service, called for a cease-fire among the warring siloviki, saying there could be no winners. He said that the state corporatism credited with saving Russia during the Putin era would collapse if the infighting continued.One Russian commentator, Alexander Golts, observed about the siloviki: “They stood together as long as they were robbing others of their assets. But after dividing the spoils, they realized that they can only expand their wealth by robbing one another.”Whether or not any or all of the allegations against secretive Kremlin officials are fabricated or true is outweighed by the fact that they are coming to light at all, an indication that no one is deemed untouchable.Russia is far more volatile than anyone now wants to believe. We do ourselves no favor by generously pretending that Russia is going to hold some type of “flawed” vote, when the real election will be determined by the scorecard of the clan wars.If the West should have one hope, it is that Russia’s next president, Dmitri Medvedev, will call a truce among the warring Kremlin factions, reinstitute judicial independence and bring his country back from the brink at which it now perilously totters.Robert Amsterdam is international defense counsel for Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He writes a blog at www.robertamsterdam.com.