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The man spearheading Vladimir Putin’s political repression is becoming one of Russia’s most powerful figures.
One of Russia's top law-enforcement officials as the head the Investigative Committee — a powerful independent government agency he built virtually from scratch — Bastrykin had ordered that a prominent journalist be bought to him alone in the woods outside Moscow. There he reportedly threatened to murder him for his critical reporting — a warning he successfully brushed aside afterward as an “emotional breakdown.”
But that didn’t derail the man some call Russia’s J. Edgar Hoover from his steady rise through Russia’s security apparatus.
Shooting to prominence this year by leading President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on the anti-Kremlin opposition, he simultaneously emerged miraculously unscathed from a minefield of scandal — and now looks on track to become one of the Kremlin’s top power brokers.
Among the most prominent opposition leaders his agency targeted this year, anticorruption blogger Alexei Navalny accused Bastrykin of violating the law by owning an undeclared property empire in the Czech Republic, charges he denied and that weren’t investigated in any case.
Instead, the Investigative Committee has since opened three criminal cases against Navalny, accusing him of embezzlement and money laundering, charges that could carry combined sentences of more than 20 years.
Loathed by the dwindling numbers of protesters on Moscow’s streets, Bastrykin has also made enemies among his peers in the corridors of power by pressing ahead with a high-stakes power struggle with rivals in the sprawling Interior Ministry, the Prosecutor’s Office and a raft of other leading officials.
Bastrykin's ill-judged, cantankerous outbursts have made him easy prey for Russia's state-dominated media, while making enemies of former bosses such as Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika has opened him to official criticism.
Nevertheless, Bastrykin appears to be going from strength to strength. Analysts say he could succeed in his drive to revamp the increasingly powerful Investigative Committee, which already answers directly to the Kremlin, into an even more formidable law enforcement agency by taking over other services’ powers.
That’s because Bastrykin has doggedly stuck to one rule along the way.
“He’s loyal to the man in power,” said Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of the Panorama think tank and an expert in the biographies of Kremlin cadres. “He’s loyal to Putin because Putin is in power. Orders come down to him from above and he carries them out faithfully.”
Bastrykin’s zeal in carrying out orders has made him a hate figure for the opposition rivaled by very few.
The Investigative Commission has launched criminal cases against many opposition activists in addition to Navalny, including leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov and 18 street protesters who were jailed for taking part in a violent rally in May.
Bastrykin’s investigators were behind early morning raids against socialite and TV host Ksenia Sobchak and other prominent opposition figures, and they launched proceedings in parliament that led to the expulsion of the noisy Kremlin critic Gennady Gudkov.
In the Byzantine turf wars that take place among various Kremlin political clans, Pribylovsky believes, Bastrykin’s central role in the crackdown effectively means he’s thrown all his cards in with Putin.
“Putin is his only guarantee that he will remain in a top post,” he said.
That’s no accident. The two first crossed paths in 1975, when Bastrykin was a class prefect and law school classmate of Putin’s at Leningrad State University. He also became a secretary in the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth wing, before entering the Party as a full member.
Bastrykin joined the Interior Ministry following the Soviet collapse in 1991. Later, after a stint at the Justice Ministry, he moved to the Prosecutors’ Office, where he rose to head its investigative department.
Putin elevated it to become the Investigative Committee in 2007, ostensibly to separate investigators from law enforcers by setting up an agency resembling the American FBI.
Newly empowered, Bastrykin frequently clashed with the General Prosecutor. His nominal superior accused him of overstepping his authority by launching investigations into a series of top officials whose arrests were seen as part of a clan war that erupted before a presidential election in 2008.
Putin was due to step down the following year after serving a limit of two consecutive terms. Some believe he helped engineer the internecine struggles among loyal subordinates to ensure he would remain supreme leader by being their ultimate arbiter.
Then-President Dmitry Medvedev made Bastrykin directly subordinate to the Kremlin in 2010. His role grew further after Putin’s return to the presidency this spring, when he launched his crackdown against leaders of the protest movement that had surprised the Kremlin last winter.
Now 59 years old, white-haired, and ruddy-faced, Bastrykin has proven himself a consummate master of the bureaucratic infighting that dominates Kremlin politics, during which officials vie to impress Putin for more personnel for their agencies and financing from the state budget.
“This is Putin politics,” said Dmitry Oreshkin, founder of the Mercator Analytical Group. "He is carrying out the Stalin model, in which the leader had several power structures that rivaled each other, but none of which could be certain of gaining a monopoly of control.”
Within the ruling elite, Bastrykin is allied with the so-called “silovik,” or strong-man, faction that favors more authoritarian control. He’s been tied to powerful former deputy prime minister and state Rosneft oil company chief Igor Sechin, another close Putin ally who’s been called Russia’s second-most powerful man.
Many believe Bastrykin wants to annex the investigative arms of his rival power ministries to make him responsible for launching all criminal inquiries currently spread between the Federal Security Service — the KGB’s main successor — the Interior Ministry and his agency.
Analysts say he’s already been given the green light. “In Kremlin circles this question is basically decided,” said Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information. “As soon as financing appears, this issue will be resolved quickly.”
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Nevertheless, the Kremlin rumor mill has sometimes hinted Bastrykin won’t be appointed to head a new monolithic investigative machine, which some believe has spurred him to intensify his crackdown.
“He's trying to show he’s needed," said Pavel Salin of the Center for Political Assessments. “His aim isn’t to create intrigue around his peers, but to shore up his own position by trying to predict the signals from above.”
That may have led him to sometimes overstep the mark.
Salin points to the Investigative Committee’s case against three activists from the Pussy Riot punk group, whose jailing produced an unexpected international outcry this year.
“Some of the fairly tough and radical initiatives were taken by Bastrykin and not by Putin,” Salin concluded.
Whatever the case, neither the crackdown nor Bastrykin’s rise show any signs of easing for now.