Russia’s state Investigative Committee has accused local prosecutors in the Moscow region of protecting a chain of illegal casinos in exchange for luxury vacations and other such benefits.
There’s been a steady drip of revelations since those allegations were first made public earlier this year. Among them were charges that even the prosecutor-general’s son was involved as a go-between for prosecutors and casino owners, although the committee retracted the accusation after President Dmitry Medvedev publicly rebuked it.
In the latest twist in the scandal, state television reported a top prosecutor died in hospital last weekend after a suicide attempt some media connected to the casino affair.
But despite the casino campaign’s headline-grabbing high profile, few believe it has anything to do with a real crackdown against the corruption that plagues the country. Observers believe it’s really part of an ongoing struggle between rival political clans that all owe their loyalty to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Yevgeny Arkhipov: “Very negative effects”
Yevgeny Arkhipov, who heads the Association of Russian Lawyers for Human Rights, said the Investigative Committee launched the casino scandal to boost its powers at the expense of the Prosecutor-General’s Office.
“This corporate struggle between agencies may have had the effect of exposing a lot of corruption to the public,” he said. “But it has very negative effects on the work of law enforcers.”
Then-President Vladimir Putin launched the Investigative Committee as part of the Prosecutor-General’s Office in 2007. Headed by a former law school classmate of Putin’s, the committee has often been accused of overstepping its powers by ordering the arrests of officials connected to rival Kremlin clans.
News of the casino investigation became public only in February, just after the Investigative Committee formally split from the Prosecutor-General’s Office. Arkhipov said the case against the committee’s former overseers is meant to display its new independence.
Kirill Kabanov, who heads the private National Anticorruption Committee, said officials of other rivals to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, especially the Federal Security Service, would like to see the conflict escalate. But he said Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika’s reappointment to a new five-year term last month ended the jockeying for position between his office and the Investigative Committee.
“Many, particularly in the special services, would like to see the conflict between the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Investigative Committee grow,” Kabanov said. “But what’s happening now is actually playing out to an end.”
Although a handful of prosecutors have been targeted in the casino investigation, few believe it will go much further. Arkhipov said that’s because the government had no real control over the country’s law enforcement agencies or its spiraling corruption.
Kirill Kabanov: “A new level”
“None of this touches the criminal groups connected to various law enforcement agencies or the corrupt ties that go all the way to the top,” Arkhipov said. “Only isolated cases connected to this or that prosecutor that aren’t connected to top people in the government.”
Kabanov agrees, saying law enforcement officials’ main activity wasn’t to enforce the law as much as profit from their official positions. “The main threat to the country from corruption has entered a new level,” he said. “The uncontrolled Kremlin groups can do whatever they want, and of course that’s dangerous.”
Arkhipov pointed to Medvedev’s having to twice order officials to investigate the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison last year, which caused an international outcry. He was arrested after accusing police officials of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars.
“One order from the president should have been enough,” Arkhipov said. “This country is seen to be controlled from the very top. Actually, the casino affair is more evidence it just operates by inertia.”