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The Purges Begin - Secret Russian Police Unit SMERCH Nails Corrupt Officials

This time they are serious.  Russian security structures create a special unit tasked with a total sweep of regional elites

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This article originally appeared in Russian at Expert, an excellent and very authoritative Russian magazine and news site.  

The anti-corruption drive is for real

<figcaption>Komi Republic Governor Vyacheslav Gaizer was arrested on suspicion of bribery and fraud</figcaption>
Komi Republic Governor Vyacheslav Gaizer was arrested on suspicion of bribery and fraud

Public opinion works in amazing ways.

For a long time Russian society demanded the widespread jailing of thieving, corrupt officials, embezzlers and bribe-takers but now they dont react when systematic work in this direction actually begins.

Recent actions of security forces in Sakhalin oblast and Komi Republic were high-profile events but caused a surprisingly weak resonance with the public.

Experts and political analysts argued over who of the influential entities in the Federal Government and Oligarchy had crossed swords with the arrested governors.

Other popular theories as to what could be happening involve an intra-elite split in the Kremlin and a sharp increase in the powers of the security block [siloviki] and specifically Bastrykin Alexander, the chairman of the Investigative Committee of Russia who supposedly at his discretion decided to launch a reboot of power structures on the ground.

However, it seems that politics have nothing to do with this situation.

The very nature of law enforcement actions against regional bosses points to a systematic approach and an absence of meddling from local and federal elites. For the first time in the history of Russia current governors are being arrested, but most importantly - all the participants of the alleged criminal associations went "under the knife" including the top members of their power pyramids.

Mafioso officials are targeted

In Komi the accused are not only individuals but also members of organised crime syndicates. It is clear that these charges can be applied to Sayid Amirov, the former mayor of Makhachkala as well as to Alexander Horoshavin who was the former head of Sakhalin. Hundreds of less high-profile cases against administration officials, deputies and mayors not yet visible at a superficial glance from the federal level, suggest that the work is carried out systematically and that fewer people remain untouchable.

Our assumption was confirmed by an investigation.

We contacted representatives of the Investigative Committee who provided us with details of the anti-corruption campaign. According to them a secret structure with special powers was created inside “the system” which is not even accessible to the top members of the Investigative Committee. It has already been jokingly nicknamed SMERCH amongst its operatives - a reference to Stalin's infamous secret service which fought enemies with harsh and effective surgical techniques.

In order to secure an interview with operatives from this group we had to obtain high level security clearance. The faces and identities of the operatives were shielded because exposure would have made the venture pointless. Strict conditions of anonymity and non-disclosure of investigative secrets had to be adhered to. After all possible security checks of my humble person were performed we met over a cup of coffee in the little diner at the "Kiev" station in Moscow.

"Why all the secrecy?” I asked at first. “After all, even high-ranking chiefs of the FSB don't know about your existence?"  The reply came in an unexpected historical analogy.

"Think about it. This is done for the same reasons why investigative structures were created in the nineteen thirties and forties. At first it was due to the harsh necessity of having to sweep the elites before the looming onset of war (which was initially postponed for several years through skilful diplomacy) and then during the war itself. There were too many regional party tsars and former militants of the civil war who had to be put in their place. Thereafter local law enforcement authorities, as is the case today, tangled into one crony knot with these elites. Therefore any attempt to take down an influential mafia-boss stumbled on betrayal and destruction of evidence".

I was primarily interested to know who in the Governor's garden will be next for prosecution and how big this garden was. The anti-corruption agent did not disclose details of the case but gave a clear warning to all small-town elites: 12 governors are under investigation of which eight are "under the gun". 

"The dig" has already begun, very deep and unbeknownst to the suspects themselves. Local investigators are not used so that suspects cannot cover their tracks and seek protection from their patrons in Moscow as has often happened before. In the past, criminal prosecutions were stopped after the intervention of certain influential figures. This happened in Sakhalin in 2012 when the FSB investigation team, acting on verified information from the audit of the Accounting Chamber, were ready to fly to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk for Mr Horoshavin's scalp. The case was hushed up due to the intervention of a very influential person (Moscow Patron) whose name I was asked not to mention.

"No one can contact us even through the generals of the Prosecutor General's Office. They, poor things, do not know to whom to turn” the young investigator smiled as he expressed ironic sympathy with the thieves. “We had to sweat a lot with Horoshavin - he was dug in deep. The schemes of kickbacks and bribes were so well thought out that we had to investigate for a year and a half and had to implant our own man (equipped with special surveillance equipment) into his team.”

The operatives try to perform unceremonious arrests of regional criminal gangs on the same day so that their associates cannot hide or destroy evidence. Due to the extreme entanglement of criminal schemes in Sakhalin the investigative mission was extended for several months. At first the entire law enforcement structure was replaced. On March 11, 2014 the UMVD (Police) chief of the Sakhalin region Vladislav Belotserkovsky was detained. The prosecutor of the Sakhalin region and head of FSB, general-major, Igor Struchkov was sacked from office. Immediately thereafter the arrest of municipal officials commenced.

The mayor of Okha was taken into custody including several junior members of Horoshavin's team.

On March 4 of this year they took down the backbone of the crime ring namely the governor, his advisor Andrey Ikramov, assistant Boris Usachev and head of the secretariat Vyacheslav Gorbachev. They were flown under intelligence services supervision to Moscow for further investigative procedures. Arrests and detentions continued for two months. Today 18 people from Sakhalin are behind bars in Moscow including virtually the entire local government control structure and according to investigators this is not yet the end. At least another 12 officials and businessmen of  the region are under investigation.

According to my sources, "a special group" has direct access to the President and reports to him personally about the situation in different regions.

Putin's Popular Front involved in the drive

The network of the Popular Front (PF are a civic anti-corruption organization) plays a prominent role in this work. It has offices in each region and in some cases they are already quite effective. Additionally, the PF monitors the situation in different spheres on topics from housing to deforestation at Federal Level and regularly produces detailed reports and analyses.

Anti-corruption projects of the Popular Front starting with "For Fair Procurement" provide a lot of information which is useful for the public assessment of governmental institution and law enforcement agency work. Some of the information is widely publicized while some of it remains classified. This work is so significant that Alexander Brechalov, the co-chairman of the central headquarters of the Popular Front responsible for anti-corruption projects, has reportedly received very serious threats.

The choice of targets is not handed down from above as one might have thought. The group acts at their own discretion which is limited by only one conceptual requirement. "We were told to first take the fattest cats who have lost their heads from unchecked power,” according to the major.  “Otherwise investigations would be impaired by corrupt local security forces.”

For example, the Sakhalin “devil” wasn't shy to store entire potato sacks of money (acquired through operating protection rackets against local businesses) at his residence.  “Horoshavin took 30 percent kickbacks from State Contracts although even he cannot compete with Gaizer, who went up to 70%.”

Unfinished work will continue

It is worth mentioning that in 2015, besides Sakhalin Governor Alexander Horoshavin and Komi Republic head Vyacheslav Gaizer, a number of other officials were arrested on suspicion of bribery, fraud and other corruption-related crimes. 

On February 4th, Vice-Governor of Krasnodar Krai, Vadim Lukoyanov and former Kuban Vice-Governor, Alexander Ivanov. 

On March 26 - the Vice-Governor of the Chelyabinsk area, Nikolay Sandakov.

On August 4th - the first Deputy Chairman of the government of the Ivanovo district, Andrey Kabanov.

On August 10 - Vice-Governor of Novgorod region, Viktor Nechaev. 

Yuri Hamburg, the first Vice-Governor of the Omsk region has been imprisoned for over a year on suspicion of abuse of power.

Judging by the attitudes of the special "SMERCH" investigative unit the unfinished work will continue.

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