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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ustinov's Men Win Kremlin Kudos

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Thousands of top prosecutors gathered in the Kremlin on Thursday for a three-day celebration of their achievements and aspirations, and were congratulated by President Vladimir Putin for their service to the state.

Greeting some 3,500 prosecutors in the Kremlin State Palace, President Putin praised them as an independent and professional force whose work is crucial to the nation's economic development.

"In the heat of debate, the prosecutor's office has been called a relic of totalitarianism," Putin said in his Thursday morning remarks. He said that if that was once true, it was now no longer so: "The times when the prosecutor's office was a cover for lawlessness in our country — lawlessness for which the whole machinery of the state was also a cover — are gone."

Putin praised his listeners for complying "with the democratization of Russia's legal and police system." He described the nation's prosecutors as standing above and coordinating the work of other law enforcement agencies — a job so crucial and demanding, Putin said, that "it's worth thinking about" expanding their ranks with new hires.

The president urged prosecutors to pay special attention to "the defense of property," whether state property or private property, and also the defense of "the rights of entrepreneurs."

His only real criticism was an allegation that prosecutors have been winning a low rate of successful convictions from the courts. "The collapse of accusations leads to evil standing unpunished, and justice unserved," he said.

In media and in political discourse, Russia's prosecutors have been routinely derided as tools to be manipulated, whether by the Kremlin or by some other master willing or able to pay or bully.

This has become such an article of conventional faith that upon his appointment in May, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov vowed to "put an end to the conversion of the prosecutor's office from a body of justice to a body of politics."

But Ustinov's appointment was quickly followed an investigation into Vladimir Gusinsky's Media-MOST holding company, the parent of NTV television — and some, including NTV, have argued that the investigation was ordered up by a Kremlin irritated over NTV reporting.

Gusinsky was jailed briefly this summer, then released after he signed a pledge — in the presence of the press minister — to sell off control in his company. Last month, after Russia again put out a warrant against Gusinsky on fraud charges, he was arrested in Spain, where he is now resisting Russian extradition appeals in the courts.

Little was said at Thursday's Kremlin ceremony about either the Media-MOST affairs or about any of the other high-profile cases prosecutors have handled recently.

Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation Moscow office, speculated that the prosecutors "didn't dare" discuss their more famous activities — such as the Mabetex case, a probe into whether Putin's former Kremlin boss, Pavel Borodin, laundered money abroad. The Mabetex case was dropped late last year.

Nor did prosecutors mention the case against Boris Berezovsky — a former Kremlin insider who fell from grace when Putin became president last year. Berezovsky was charged with siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from the state airline Aeroflot via two Swiss firms.

Prosecutors issued an arrest warrant for Berezovsky in 1999, then dropped the case, only to revive it again this year. Berezovsky, who is now abroad, has called the case political and has said that because of it he will not return to Russia.

Another unmined topic was the Prosecutor General's Office's demarche over the summer against Norilsk Nickel, one of Russia's most valuable industrial concerns.

In June, the Prosecutor General's Office ordered Uneximbank founder Vladimir Potanin, who bought Norilsk Nickel in 1995 for a laughably low price at a rigged privatization auction, to pay the government $140 million.

The prosecutors did not explain how they had reached that figure, other than to say that the initial Norilsk privatization represented "damage inflicted upon the state." They later dropped that demand.

Critics said then that the prosecutors were acting on Putin's behalf to bring the "oligarchs" — powerful Russian businessmen like Potanin and Berezovsky — to heel.

"Whatever they say, prosecutors are a structure that is very dependent on the government," Volk said.

Even the location of the Thursday meeting — the Kremlin State Palace, where all important state events are held — signified that prosecutors are far from independent, Volk said.

"It is obvious that the meeting was coordinated with the presidential administration, and that the prosecutors act upon signals from the Kremlin," he said. "The idea is [for the government] not to allow any sort of independence of the prosecutors."