Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sechin's Clan the Loser in a Week of Surprises

The Prosecutor General's Office ordered an inspection of the Investigative Committee's activities on Friday, capping a week of stinging blows to a powerful Kremlin clan led by Kremlin deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin.

The first indication came last Monday, when President Vladimir Putin abruptly backed First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev as his preferred successor. But Sechin's group is far from defeated, and Putin might feel forced to support a second presidential candidate to keep matters in hand, said two people with knowledge of the situation.

The Prosecutor General's Office wants to check whether the newly created Investigative Committee -- a semi-autonomous agency under the auspices of the prosecutor's office -- has carried out its investigations according to the law, an Investigative Committee spokeswoman said Friday.

"But this is just a preplanned check," she said, without elaborating.

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office said she could not comment because her superiors had not provided any information on the matter.

But Kommersant reported Saturday that the inspection order from the prosecutor's office was worded to leave no doubt that violations would be found. The order demands details on the keeping of employees' personnel files, the solving of serious crimes such as murder and bribery, and the informing of relatives and embassies when foreign citizens are detained, the report said.

The Investigative Committee was set up 100 days ago Sunday. In that period, it has solved 50 serious crimes and sent 23,000 cases to court, Kommersant said.

The check and Medvedev's ascent indicate that Sechin's group has been overpowered by a rival clan led by Viktor Cherkesov, chief of the Federal Drug Control Service, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the president's personal security service, the experts said.

"Medvedev's appointment was a catastrophic defeat for Sechin's clan, but the president had no other choice," said a former security service officer with intimate knowledge of the power struggle inside the Kremlin. "The arrests carried out by this clan frightened many in the Kremlin."

He said the recent arrests of Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak and Alexander Bulbov, a senior Federal Drug Control Service officer, by Sechin's allies had scared Cherkesov's clan and made it feel vulnerable for the first time.

Sechin's group is thought to include Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev, FSB deputy director Alexander Bortnikov, Putin aide Viktor Ivanov, and Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigative Committee.

The other group is believed to include Prosecutor General Yury Chaika and to enjoy good relations with Medvedev and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. The former security service officer said the group also has ties with Putin's longtime friend Yury Kovalchuk, who controls Bank Rossiya; Gennady Timchenko, an owner of the oil trader Gunvor; Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Sobyanin; billionaire Roman Abramovich; and former Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin.

Putin appears to have long served as a mediator between the clans, trying to prevent one of them from prevailing over the other, but Sechin's clan became so strong over the past six months that the balance was nearly broken, experts said.

A group of officers from the FSB and the Investigative Committee arrested Bulbov at Domodedovo Airport in October, while Storchak was detained last month. Bulbov is accused of ordering illegal wiretaps and accepting bribes from private firms in exchange for official protection, and Storchak is accused of large-scale fraud and trying to embezzle millions of dollars in government funds.

By choosing Medvedev, who lacks a security service background, Putin managed to deal a blow to Sechin's group without openly supporting its rival, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who tracks the political elite.

Sechin's clan did not want Putin to pick a successor, said Andrei Soldatov, an analyst at the investigative web portal Agentura.ru. "They wanted Putin to stay for a third term," he said.

The former security officer confirmed this. He said Sechin's clan wanted Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov to be Putin's successor. Zubkov, according to their plans, would have returned the post to Putin in about a year, saying he was too old for the job at 66 or 67, he said. Putin's presidential term expires in May.

The former officer added that with Medvedev as a president, former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky was likely to be released from prison in a few years. Sechin and Patrushev are believed to have been behind Khodorkovsky's politically tainted arrest in 2003.

He said anti-West rhetoric from Sechin's group had also been a source of tension.

Kryshtanovskaya said that if Russia's stance toward the West softened, it would not mean that Kremlin liberals were triumphing but that "Putin and his team had decided to do things this way."

"Gref and Kudrin are the so-called liberals, but they were just given the task of being liberals. If the Kremlin asked them to be conservatives, they would act as conservatives," she said. Former Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref lost his job in a Cabinet shake-up in September.

"This is a system where no one is allowed to have his point of view," Kryshtanovskaya said.

A government official agreed. "Even the most liberal person can turn into the worst silovik once he is in the Kremlin. It all depends on who is holding the strings there," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

If Kremlin infighting continues, Putin might decide to back a second candidate to challenge Medvedev in the March election, he said.

"For now we have Medvedev and this is enough. But I wouldn't be surprised if someone else appeared at the last moment," the official said. "During the eight years of Putin's rule, personnel decisions have always been unclear, and we never know what is going to happen next."

The Kremlin infighting is not over yet, the former security officer and Agentura.ru's Soldatov said, and Sechin's clan is likely to fight to get back its influence in the corridors of power.

"Sechin is not ready to surrender," Soldatov said.

"Sechin is very unlikely to be destroyed," added Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor.

If Sechin's clan does not succeed in his battle, however, there will be other people eager to take its place in the Kremlin, the former officer said. "It is too nice a place to be kept empty," he said.