x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Putin's deputy levels score in clan wars

A behind-the-scenes struggle for influence between feuding clans linked to security services is playing out.

Alexander Bulbov, centre, enters Moscow City Court to face charges of wire tapping and bribery.
Alexander Bulbov, centre, enters Moscow City Court to face charges of wire tapping and bribery.

MOSCOW // After three days of tense proceedings, a Moscow court yesterday refused to release on bail a key figure in what is seen as a behind-the-scenes struggle for influence between feuding clans linked to Russia's powerful security services. The Moscow City Court extended the pre-trial detention of Alexander Bulbov, a senior Russian federal anti-drugs officer, until Dec 15 pending his trial on charges of illegal wiretapping, bribery and running a protection racket.

While Kremlin-friendly media this week has portrayed the case as a straightforward affair concerning corruption allegations, the continuing detention of Mr Bulbov has given fleeting glimpses of largely clandestine conflicts among some of Russia's most powerful officials. It was the arrest of Mr Bulbov last year that prompted a startlingly public airing of dirty laundry involving internecine fighting between competing security service clans close to Vladimir Putin, Russia's former president and now its prime minister.

Yesterday's ruling, political analysts said, represents a victory for a hawkish clan led by Igor Sechin, Mr Putin's deputy who is in charge of Russia's energy industry, over a second clan headed by Mr Bulbov's former boss, Viktor Cherkesov, the man who was once responsible for the Federal Drug Control Service. It also comes on the heels of last month's release of Sergei Storchak, the Russian deputy finance minister, whose 11-month detention on corruption charges was also seen as connected to the so-called "clan wars".

The release of Mr Storchak was a blow to the clan led by Mr Sechin, who is at odds with Mr Storchak's boss, liberal Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin. What exactly the rulings in these two high-profile cases say about the balance of power in this murky feud, in which allegiances and hierarchies are often difficult to pin down, is unclear. The Kremlin has repeatedly denied the existence of any "clans" in its ranks.

Had Mr Bulbov been released following the Storchak ruling, it would have marked "two successive defeats for Mr Sechin's clan," said Vladimir Pribylovsky, a political analyst and a Kremlin critic who has written extensively about Russia's political elite. Mr Bulbov stands charged of paying US$50,000 (Dh183,000) a month to a police officer to conduct illegal wiretaps and accepting $3.2 million in bribe money from an organised crime group.

He has repeatedly claimed he is being targeted by officials from Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, to conceal evidence he unearthed of their purported complicity in the case of Tri Kita, a Moscow furniture store accused of smuggling Chinese goods and evading import duties totalling millions of dollars. The FSB is the main successor agency to the Soviet KGB. Mr Putin surrounded himself with representatives from Soviet and Russian secret services during his eight years as president.

The more hawkish of these officials are believed to have been unhappy with Mr Putin's selection of Dmitry Medvedev, a lawyer by profession with no links to the security services, as his preferred successor. Political analysts said Mr Putin, towards the end of his presidency, was playing a delicate balancing act, trying to prevent a single clan from becoming too powerful by making strategic government appointments and enigmatic public gestures to keep top security officials from becoming too comfortable.

But what had been a largely secretive feud seeped into the public sphere following Mr Bulbov's arrest in Oct 2007, which prompted Mr Cherkesov, a longtime associate of Mr Putin's, to publish an article in the respected Kommersant daily warning that a turf war between Russia's security services could undermine the stability of the government and the country at large. "There can be no winners in this war," Mr Cherkesov wrote. "There is too much at stake."

Mr Cherkesov did not cite any names in the article, but he suggested his anti-drugs officers had been arrested because of evidence they discovered in the investigation of Tri Kita, the furniture company. "We must not allow warriors to become traders," Mr Cherkesov wrote in his article. "We must not allow scandal and fighting." Mr Cherkesov was dismissed as Russia's top drug cop in May by Mr Medvedev and reassigned to Russia's Federal Agency for the Procurement of Military and Special Equipment.

The Bulbov case has also seen a public standoff between two of Russia's top law enforcement officials: Yury Chaika, Russia's prosecutor general, and Alexander Bastrykin, the head of Russia's Investigative Committee, a semi-autonomous body that formally operates under Mr Chaika's office. Mr Putin created the Investigative Committee last year and appointed Mr Bastrykin, his university classmate, to head it.

The committee proceeded to usurp most of the investigative powers previously held by the Prosecutor General's Office, much to the dismay of Mr Chaika and his direct subordinates The tense relations between the offices of Mr Chaika, who is believed to be on good terms with Mr Cherkesov, and Mr Bastrykin have taken a central role in the Bulbov case. This week's hearings provided the curious spectacle of prosecutors, who report to Mr Chaika, arguing against the Investigative Committee's request to keep Mr Bulbov behind bars, even though both are formally representing the state in the case.

Mr Bastrykin is thought to be close to Mr Sechin's group, which includes several senior Russian security officials. Mr Bulbov's lawyer, Sergei Antonov, told reporters yesterday that they would appeal the ruling, which he called "entirely illegal", state-run Interfax news agency reported. "This decision shows that a full-on hounding of Bulbov is being carried out," the agency quoted Mr Antonov as saying.

cschreck@thenational.ae