Terms of Endearment

A prickly dispute between Russia’s top investigator and several newspaper editors was finally laid to rest on Thursday, when in an unprecedented climbdown, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin apologized to the editors of opposition-leaning Novaya Gazeta newspaper for his behavior.

Bastrykin insisted however, he had not issued death threats to one of the newspaper’s reporters as alleged by its editor-in-chief. Earlier, Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov asked the chief investigator to offer security guarantees to the reporter concerned, Sergei Sokolov, who reportedly fled abroad in fear for his life.

Bastrykin offered an olive branch late Thursday, first by agreeing to meet with Novaya Gazeta editor Muratov and other editors, and then by offering profuse apologies for what he said were stress-induced “emotional outbursts” – both unusual steps for the powerful head of a Russian criminal investigative body.

The Novaya Gazeta chief accepted the apology, stating a “reconciliation has taken place,” RIA Novosti reported. Bastrykin also telephoned Sokolov, who is out of the country, apologized and ensured his security if he returns, Gazeta.ru reported. Bastrykin conceded he had been angered by an article Sokolov wrote which accused investigators of failing to punish the perpetrators of a 2010 gang-style killing in southern Russia.

Bastrykin said he had been clearly under pressure and acted emotionally when he confronted the journalist over the article. “I was a little tired, to be honest,” Bastrykin told Muratov. “Therefore I once again offered my apologies to you, Dmitry Mikhailovich.”

Bastrykin, a close ally and former classmate of President Vladimir Putin has headed the Investigative Committee since its creation in fall 2007. A decree signed in September 2010 by former President Dmitry Medvedev separated the Investigative Committee from the Prosecutor General’s Office and expanded its staff to 21,156 officers, from 20,000 employees in 2009.

Since then, Bastrykin and his Committee have rarely been out of the public eye. Most recently, Investigative Committee officials have been in the media spotlight over their questioning of opposition leaders and searches of their homes and offices in connection with clashes between police and protesters during a May 6 anti-Kremlin rally. The incident involving Sokolov and the chief investigator has been scandalous enough to finally draw attention from the Kremlin. Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that President Vladimir Putin has been duly briefed about the media reports about the incident, prompting suggestions that the president’s intervention might have played a role in the latest reconciliation efforts.

On Wednesday, Novaya Gazeta editor published an open letter accusing Bastrykin of driving its deputy editor to a forest and threatening him over a report critical of his investigators. In the letter, Muratov said security guards forcibly transported Deputy Editor Sergei Sokolov to a Moscow region forest and left him alone with Bastrykin, who threatened his life. “The terrible truth is that you threatened to kill my deputy in a fit of passion. You even happily joked that you yourself would carry out this act,” the letter read.

According to Muratov, Bastrykin had invited Sokolov aboard his jet to take part in a June 4 meeting in Nalchik, Ingushetia. Once there, Bastrykin demanded an apology for the journalist’s criticism of the investigator’s handling of the case of Sergei Tsepovyaz, who was accused of concealing the murder of 12 people in the Krasnodar region village of Kushchyovskaya but allowed to go free May 8 after paying a 150,000 ruble ($4,500) fine. Sokolov’s article had criticized investigators for allowing Tsepovyaz to get off lightly. However, despite offering his apologies, Sokolov was taken from the airport into the woods on his return to Moscow, Muratov said.

While Muratov’s letter barely elicited a mention on the state-controlled television channels, it caused widespread consternation among local journalists, prompting some to hold impromptu pickets outside the Investigative Committee’s offices on Wednesday.

However, the “peace deal” between Bastrykin and Muratov left mixed feelings among Moscow journalists. Some felt the episode ended in excessive compromise, and that by shaking hands with Bastrykin, Muratov had betrayed those who campaigned in defense of Sokolov.

Alexei Venediktov, the editor of the opposition-leaning Ekho Moskvy radio, whose staff took part in the pickets, said Bastrykin’s apology was both important and timely, because his previous statements have fostered a heightened sense of unease among Russian journalists. “His public statements could have been interpreted by other security officers as a mandate to manhandle journalists,” Venediktov said, when explaining why he advised Bastrykin to meet with newspaper editors on Thursday.

Kommersant journalist Olga Alenova, one of the organizers of the Wednesday protests outside the Investigative Committee offices, said she also viewed Bastrykin’s apologies “very positively.”

“For the fist time in how many years the government representative of such a high level has offered his apologies. It is very important. Our goal was to make sure that journalist Sokolov can return to the country and can continue working without threats,” Alenova said. “It was not our goal to make sure Bastrykin resigns. I hope this story demonstrates to the representatives of the authorities that journalists are not service personnel, but people, whose opinion one should take into account.”

However, other journalists, including Mikhail Budaragin, a columnist with Vzglyad newspaper, said “Bastrykingate exemplifies the new elitist role the so-called power ministries have carved out for themselves in Russia’s political life. Bastrykin, like other “power ministers,” don’t see themselves as public servants called to serve, but rather as defenders of a superpower, a new aristocracy with a historic mission, he said. “The top echelon of the power structures are neither bullies nor zombies but people with ideas,” Budaragin wrote. “And their main idea is that journalists and representatives of some malicious groups are all aligned against them.” 

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