The scandal surrounding the family of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika points to weaknesses in Russia’s current political system, which depends more on loyalty than on efficiency.


Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, right, at an expanded meeting in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

A week ago the Anti-Corruption Foundation, headed by well-known opposition activist Alexei Navalny, released a film entitled Chaika (a reference to Chekov’s play “The Seagull”), dedicated to exposing the family business empire of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.

The film, which scored more than 2.5 million YouTube hits in its first week, alleges that for many years the prosecutor general’s sons, under their father’s protection, carried out corporate raids and set up organized cartels to obtain large government orders and even silence intractable rivals.

In addition, the  the Anti-Corruption Foundation managed to establish that two deputy prosecutor generals (still in office) were linked through their wives’ businesses to the leaders of one of the biggest Kushchevskaya (a rural locality) criminal groups in the Krasnodar region, who some time ago were convicted on charges of murder and other serious crimes.

The English version of "Chaika: a criminal drama in five acts", the documentary produced by Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF).

Immediately afterwards, the president’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Kremlin officials had not yet had time to digest the evidence put forward by the Anti-Corruption Foundation, since they had been busy preparing for the annual presidential address to the Federal Assembly.

A week later, Peskov dumbfounded his audience even more by announcing that after studying media reports about the film, the presidential administration had found nothing interesting or noteworthy in it, since it was about the prosecutor general’s adult children, who were not forbidden by the law to do business.

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Chaika himself briefly commented that the film was untrue and “made to order,” while in his message to the Federal Assembly Russian President Vladimir Putin called for greater efforts in the fight against corruption and, rather mockingly, assigned the task to the Prosecutor General’s Office under Chaika’s command.

However preposterous it might seem by U.S. or European standards of communication between politicians and the media, the Russian reality is such that the Kremlin’s reaction infuriated many, but surprised no one. For Russians, this type of behavior on the part of the authorities is all too familiar.

More recently, the nearly ubiquitous Navalny uncovered a palace in a prestigious Moscow suburb registered to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s sister-in-law, and the online community Dissernet, which searches for plagiarism in university dissertations by members of the Russian elite, stated that State Duma Speaker Sergei Naryshkin’s thesis had been almost totally plagiarized.

But in neither case (as in dozens of others like them) did those at the center of the scandal even bother to make a public statement, never mind resign from their posts — not even temporarily during the investigation.

Anecdotal evidence of the Russian authorities’ muted response to corruption exposés is sufficient to realize that there is nothing unique about these incidents or the Kremlin’s instinctive reaction to bury its head in the sand and protect senior officials from the wrath of the public.

No, the fact is that there is a deliberate strategy aimed at maintaining the political balance in Russia’s highly corrupt system (or sistema), which is devoid of the traditional Western institutions of full national representation, media freedom, and a fair, independent judiciary.

Kremlin spin doctors understand that the two extremes of Western-style full-fledged democracy and North Korean-style total clampdown cannot be allowed to coexist. In modern Russia, either could lead to revolution: one that is “velvet,” as in the case of perestroika in the 1980s, or one that is bloody and ruthless, as in 1917.

Instead, over the last decade a model of interaction has developed between state and society that closely resembles a controlled nuclear reaction in which the operator (the Kremlin) closely monitors the temperature in the reactor (public discontent), taking measures to prevent this temperature from rising to unacceptable levels. At the same time, the task of creating loyal and subservient elites totally dependent on the Kremlin and suspended on the hook of incriminating evidence is ongoing.

The exposure of the prosecutor general’s family and the lack of a public response from the president is more like a finely orchestrated political-engineering operation, aimed primarily at maintaining and strengthening political loyalty to Putin at the top.

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Using the anti-corruption zeal of Navalny and his supporters, the president is sending a signal to the political elite: “See, I know all about you. Not only your well-being, but your very life and freedom lie in the palm of my hand. Stay loyal and support all my undertakings however much they hurt your interests. Be loyal and you can continue to live as you do, no one will touch you. I also can protect you from public discontent.”

Indeed, thanks to the Kremlin’s control of national television, millions of viewers are “mercifully” rid of negative emotions: They know nothing of the prosecutor general’s family business, Shoigu’s palace, or Naryshkin’s plagiarism.

The liberal public, meanwhile, is able to discuss the situation on Facebook and Twitter without mincing words. But it will not take to the streets. Only yesterday a court delivered its first conviction under the new law on rallies, sending the violator to prison for three years. It is unlikely that many volunteers will be ready to destroy their own lives for the sake of proving the wrongdoing of the prosecutor general’s children.

There are just two vulnerabilities in Putin’s carefully constructed political equilibrium.

First, the entire system is underpinned by the artfulness of the Kremlin’s manipulators, whereupon the political balance could collapse at any moment due to unforeseen events or, more likely, political error. To keep the mechanism in working order, a whole host of things have been heaped onto the political scales: Crimea, Donbas, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and now, Turkey.

What will the Kremlin do when the reserves of patriotic euphoria run out? Where will Russia find operable institutions of civil society when “manual control” is no longer an option?

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Second, the hyper-loyal and Putin-dependent bureaucratic class has created a very comfortable environment for the president. Unfortunately, the mounting pro-Putin unanimity inside the Russian elite is making the latter decreasingly viable.

Meanwhile, the country is plunging headfirst into deep economic stagnation, recovery from which demands not boundless devotion to the president on the part of officialdom, but something quite different: low taxes, cheap credit, reliable protection of private property and less foreign policy adventurism.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.