Rise of Alexander Bastrykin, ‘eyes of the Tsar’

ALEXANDER Bastrykin, as Russia’s most senior policeman, has quickly developed a reputation as a zealot willing to do whatever it takes to crush dissent.

He leads the Investigative Committee, which has been systematically harassing groups critical of president Vladimir Putin with a wave of raids, ­arrests and charges.

“Bastrykin is a man who follows any order – he’ll shut anyone down on any charge – and that’s what makes him so valuable to Putin,” Alexei Navalny, a leading anti-corruption activist embroiled in four separate legal battles with the Investigative Committee, said yesterday.

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Russia’s opposition, weakened after protests against Mr Putin petered out, is now forced to spend its time fighting often outlandish allegations from the Investigative Committee. Mr Navalny faces trial next month on charges of leading an organised crime group that stole timber worth 16 million rubles (£3.3m).

Several activists face charges based on a documentary-style TV show that said they were pawns of a minor Georgian politician, Givi Targamadze, whom the show depicted as a murky figure working with rogue oligarchs to seize the Kremlin.

When one of the defendants, Leonid Razvozzhayev, said he had been kidnapped in Ukraine and tortured into signing a confession, investigators deported him to Siberia on charges of stealing 500 fur hats in 1997.

“Those charges are obviously crazy and have no legal basis, but to some degree, that’s part of the point,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin political consultant, said. “It shows that all legal measures have been thrown out the window, and that scares people.”

Last June, Mr Bastrykin drove Sergei Sokolov, a journalist at the anti-Putin newspaper Novaya Gazeta, into a wood near Moscow and threatened to behead him and dismember his body. Mr Sokolov fled Russia, returning only after Mr Bastrykin apologised for his “emotional outburst”.

Mr Navalny’s battle with Mr Bastrykin has long crossed over into open enmity. A few weeks after Mr Navalny appealed to have Mr Bastrykin investigated last summer, Mr Bastrykin harangued investigators for closing a case against him, thundering: “There will be no forgiveness! There will be no mercy!”

Since then, Mr Navalny has faced a torrent of accusations in the four criminal investigations, repeated on Kremlin-friendly TV. One alleges he embezzled 100 million rubles from a now-defunct opposition party in 2007, even though none of its members reported such a theft.

The Investigative Committee was founded in 2007 after corruption scandals stoked Kremlin fears that the prosecutor general’s office was too powerful. Mr Bastrykin’s committee took over its investigative functions and became a full-fledged agency in 2011, answering directly to the president.

Emboldened by Mr Putin’s faith in him, Mr Bastrykin has turned the committee into his own personal fiefdom, with its own theme song, TV show, militaristic titles such as “major-general of justice” and uniforms Mr Bastrykin himself patterned after Stalin-era dress.

At a ceremony celebrating its two-year anniversary in February, Mr Bastrykin harked back to a similar agency Peter the Great founded three centuries earlier to be “the eyes of the Tsar.” He also spelled out his crime-fighting vision in an interview: “The only way to beat the mafia is to create your own mafia,” he said.