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Investigating Russia's top prosecutor The life and career of Attorney General Yuri Chaika

Meduza
Photo: Vladimir Fedorenko / RIA Novosti / Scanpix

Russian Attorney General Yuri Chaika may not only get to keep his post, but will in all likelihood be granted another five-year term. This is the indication from both official and unofficial Kremlin reactions to Russia’s most spectacular scandal of 2015—the investigation into the business dealings of the top prosecutor’s family by activist Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation. Chaika has been working in the Attorney General's Office since the mid-1990s and served as Justice Minister from 1999 to 2006. As Attorney General, his name has appeared in previous corruption allegations and he lost out in major bureaucratic power struggles, but he has always managed to hold onto his job, due in large part to his minimal public visibility and total loyalty to the country’s leaders. In a special report for MeduzaSergei Smirnov, the chief editor of MediaZona, which monitors Russia's criminal justice system, reviews Yuri Chaika’s biography.

“You have a pretty surname. Where is it from?” Marina Gridneva, a correspondent from the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, asked Justice Minister Yuri Chaika in 2003.

“You know, generally speaking the word ‘chaika’ has three meanings. The first, it’s understood, is the bird [the word means seagull in Russian]. The second is the light boat of the Cossacks. And there is also a third. Chaiki [the plural form]—with stress on the last syllable—are folds in the terrain, where, according to legend, the souls of Cossacks fallen in battle lie. So this third one is my favorite of them all,” the minister responded to the last question in the interview.

In the summer of 2006, Yuri Chaika was unexpectedly appointed to serve as Russia's attorney general, and the same Marina Gridneva became his permanent press secretary. The newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, especially thanks to its correspondent and Duma deputy Alexander Khinshtein, continued its loyalty to the Attorney General's Office, whatever hardships it endured. Over the next nine years, the agency—which, until Chaika's arrival, was a powerful wing of the police—consistently lost its authority.

Yuri Chaika was born in May 1951 in the small Russian Far East city Nikolaevsk-on-Amur.

The same town gave birth to another prominent political player: Vladimir Ustinov, Russia's attorney general from 2000 until 2006. The two were even born in the same maternity ward, but they are unlikely to have met as kids; the Ustinov family moved away before Chaika had turned two.

In the same Moskovsky Komsomolets interview mentioned above, Chaika shared some background on his ancestors. “My grandfather was a Cossack officer killed in the Russian Civil War. And during Decossackization, my dad was a young 18-year-old guy; he went off to help build Komsomolsk-on-Amur. He never said a word about his father. He was probably afraid.”

That biographical blemish didn’t stop Chaika’s father from becoming the secretary of the Nikolaevsk City Communist Party Committee. Chaika’s mother worked her whole life as a school mathematics teacher. Yuri did not immediately commit to a career in law enforcement—he studied for two years at the shipbuilding department of the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Polytechnical Institute before dropping out. Then he worked as an electrician at a shipbuilding factory, left for the army, and only in 1972 decided to enroll in the Sverdlovsk Law Institute. Chaika managed to get admitted to the prestigious university through the local district attorney's office, where he’d helped out for a few months as a sort of intern.

Under the Soviet system for assigning new graduates to employment in their field, Chaika was sent first to the Ust-Uda district of Irkutsk Province in Siberia after completing his higher education. Next, he was moved to a regional center called Tulun, and again to another modest-sized city, Taishet. The first record of Chaika’s work as a prosecutor came in conjunction with a prison revolt at the special facility “Tulun Central” in 1979. In the course of putting down the riot, five people were killed. In 2007, the magazine The New Times cited a complaint from the convicts; Chaika was accused of bringing narcotics to inmates’ cells in exchange for confessions. This episode could hardly have influenced the career of the then young prosecutor.

One way or another, Chaika gradually worked his way up the bureaucratic ladder. By 1984, he had become the head of the investigations department for the East Siberian transportation prosecutor, though he left that same year to take a position on the Irkutsk Provincial Committee of the Communist Party. Returning to prosecutor work in 1986, Chaika had then risen to the role of first deputy prosecutor of Irkutsk Province, only to go back to work at the Provincial Committee in 1988, finally leaving in 1990.

River transport boats on the Upper Lena
River transport boats on the Upper Lena
Photo: Aleksey Navalny / YouTube

In the first half of the 1990s, Chaika was first the head of East Siberia’s transport prosecutor’s office, then the top prosecutor for all Irkutsk Province. The main task of law enforcement agencies in those years was the fight against organized crime. Only, in reality, organized criminal groups and security services frequently overlapped. Chaika has managed to avoid direct accusations of providing cover for criminal kingpins. Rumors, however, tell of his friendship with the Kodzoev brothers—accused of corporate raiding. Many years after those alleged conversations, the Kodzoev brothers would again have their names appear alongside Chaika’s. The Anti-Corruption Foundation says in its investigation that his son, Artem Chaika, joined with the brothers to co-found multiple businesses that were involved in the conflict surrounding river transport on the Upper Lena.

In those same years, Yuri Chaika was an enthusiastic supporter of the battle against organized crime, becoming the first in Russia to submit charges to court under the statute for “banditism.” Prior to that, Russian authorities had tried to downplay the very existence of organized crime.

The reputation of the Irkutsk provincial district attorney's office took a serious hit in the case of Nikolai Nebudchikova and the “prosecutor’s gang.” A former employee (who at one point joined Chaika on a working group to catch a notorious local sex maniac named Kulik), he had founded a legal consulting firm in the early 1990s. The truth, however, was that this was actually a criminal enterprise, and a purportedly ideologically driven one at that. “As a professional once forced out of work in the provincial prosecutor’s office, I’ll say it plainly: Cleaning up the Caucasus criminals could be done right now if there were the right brains, professional will, and—most importantly—honor and a conscience.” That was the concept expressed in a flyer from 1993, signed by Nebudchikov. The group identified its main enemies as kingpins from Georgia and the policemen they had bought off. Nebudchikov gathered former security agents in the group he called “Siberia Liberation Movement.” In truth, all of their crimes—including several murders—had more financial than nationalist motivations. After his 1993 arrest, Nebudchikov was asked why his group seemed to do battle with everybody but the Georgian bandits. He replied, “They haven’t done anything bad to me personally.” Only the low-level operatives of the gang linked the killings to “ideological motives.”

Court proceedings in the “prosecutor’s gang” case were closed, and opponents said that Nebudchikov and Chaika were close friends.

Yuri Skuratov, the attorney general from 1995 to 1999, later said he had compromising material on Chaika. “On the second day after I signed the order naming Chaika [as his first deputy], I received detailed materials about his illegal activities [from Irkutsk]. The materials are convincing. I thought over what to do with it for a long time,” Skuratov said in a 2007 interview with The New Times.

The chief editor at the Baikal Open Newspaper, Viktor Prokopiev, claimed that investigations related to Chaika included at least two criminal cases. In one, he supposedly received a gold Longines watch as a gift, which was suspected of being a bribe.

The second alleged example was far more serious. “At one point, Chaika was organizing the construction of a law institute in Irkutsk. The government approved the idea and allocated the funds for building it. A review carried out by Federal Security Service workers showed that accounting on the construction was not done properly, and around a million dollars vanished,” the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported in 2001. It is possible that Skuratov’s “compromising material” had something to do with this.

Chaika has never publicly reacted to the allegations. Instead, the chief editor of Baikal Open Newspaper has run into legal problems. In 1999, Prokopiev was charged with producing and distributing pornography. The alleged material was found in the course of a search of his apartment by representatives of police special forces. The case was dropped only after the interference of two Duma deputies and Moscow-based rights activists.

Yuri Skuratov, who became attorney general in 1995, studied at the same institute as Chaika in Sverdlovsk. Skuratov claims that they were acquainted even then, but were not friends. “He was a practitioner, he was head of the district attorney's office for one of the 89 subsidiary territories of the Russian Federation. A practitioner and provincial, the kind the center can’t get enough of! All the more because I was more into legal science and less engaged with the practical investigation of criminal cases than Chaika,” Skuratov said in his book, explaining his decision to appoint Chaika as his deputy. 

The relationship between Chaika and Skuratov at the Attorney General's Office did not work out. The deputy was lying in wait, when the scandal broke out surrounding his boss. National television showed a video clip with “a man, similar in appearance to the attorney general” and two prostitutes. The battle was intense: Skuratov did not want to resign, and the Federation Council (the upper house of Russia’s parliamentary system) refused to fire him. The presidential administration under Boris Yeltsin, however, demanded his immediate dismissal.

Attorney General of Russia Yuri Skuratov at a meeting of the Federation Council discussing his removal
Attorney General of Russia Yuri Skuratov at a meeting of the Federation Council discussing his removal
Photo: Oleg Buldakov / TASS

At the right moment, Yuri Chaika had the right instincts. President Yeltsin’s circle succeeded in getting Skuratov to resign and Chaika not only became the acting attorney general, but he also confirmed the legality of criminal charges filed against his former boss in the prostitution scandal. (Formally, the charges were made under article 285 of the Russian Federation Penal Code on abuse of public office, and the investigation came to nothing.)

It is possible that Chaika already then hoped to stay in the attorney general position, but yet another high-profile scandal struck. Police stopped his official car (the formal notice was given to his son, Artem) on the request of a businessman from the Moscow region city Odintsovo. Inside the car were two people who, according to this businessman, had extorted $100,000 from him (both suspects in the case were convicted and sentenced in 2000 to 6 years in prison). The likelihood that Chaika could stay on as attorney general after such an incident was virtually zero.

He held onto the acting prosecutor position for a few months, and submitted his resignation to Boris Yeltsin in July 1999. Chaika was waiting for an appointment as deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

But then the country’s prime minister changed. As the new head of the government, Vladimir Putin had already in August 1999 proposed that Chaika head the Justice Ministry. It was then, by all appearances, that Yuri Chaika understood with whom he needed to align himself, going forward.

In his capacity as head of the Justice Ministry, Chaika fully satisfied the approved course for the formation of Russia’s “power vertical.” The Justice Ministry began to check the compliance of regional laws with federal ones. Chaika battled extremism and rejected the registration attempts of radical political groups. It was the Ministry of Justice that barred the SPAS movement, which included the Russian National Unity party of the most prominent 1990s nationalist Aleksandr Barkashov, from participating in the December 1999 parliamentary elections.

Following that, Justice Ministry action frequently disqualified undesirable political groups from regional elections. They also started a consistent offensive against NGOs. In almost seven years, Chaika made not a single remarkable statement. In 2006, President Vladimir Putin carried out an unexpected reshuffling: the powerful Vladimir Ustinov was sent to head the Justice Ministry and Chaika became the attorney general.

The audience for Ustinov's sudden departure, wrote Mikhail Zygar in his book All the Kremlin’s Men, was Putin’s inner circle, not the prosecutor himself. Zygar called Ustinov “practically the most powerful security services figure in the country,” which is why he thought Ustinov’s removal was supposed to send a message that Putin would not tolerate the excessive strengthening of any one group.

The Kremlin valued Chaika's unwavering loyalty and the lack of political ambition. Apparently, he was the ideal leader for an institution that it planned to deprive gradually of real authority (likely to avoid the repetition of the situation with the powerful Ustinov). A separate Investigative Committee was formed within the Attorney General's Office, and it took on individual casework, leaving the prosecutor with only oversight functions. The head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, had a quick and serious falling out with Chaika in the course of the restructuring.

The conflict between the Attorney General and the Investigative Committee culminated in the total separation of Bastrykin’s agency. The Attorney General was losing its position step by step, and Chaika tried in vain to resist.

The peak of the standoff was the so-called “Gambling Case,” in which Moscow district attorneys were accused of “providing cover” to illegal gaming businesses. The Attorney General and Investigative Committee exchanged public insults, even threatening to bring Artem Chaika, the attorney general's son, into the case.

Then President Dmitry Medvedev publicly weighed in.

As a result, the “Gambling Case” fell apart after two years of investigations, but to call it a success for the attorney general would be misleading. The amount of influence in the Investigative Committee was still further strengthened, and to this day the agency retains superiority over Chaika’s office.

A suspect in the “Gambling Case,” former first deputy Moscow district attorney Alexander Ignatenko (foreground), leaves the Lefortovo pretrial detention center.
A suspect in the “Gambling Case,” former first deputy Moscow district attorney Alexander Ignatenko (foreground), leaves the Lefortovo pretrial detention center.
Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin / TASS

In the wake of the winter 2011-2012 opposition demonstrations, Chaika made an emphatic statement, claiming the protests were paid for with foreign money. It was a tough time for the authorities and once again the attorney general was in a hurry to prove his loyalty to the country’s leaders. In February 2012, Chaika’s name resurfaced on the whistleblower site Wikileaks. He was mentioned in the records of the American private intelligence and analytics company Stratfor as a “reliable source [to the company] for domestic political information in Russia.”

In the exchange distributed by Wikileaks, Stratfor expert Lauren Goodrich reproduces Chaika commentary on conflicts among the security service strongmen: “The problem is that [Igor] Sechin/[Nikolai] Patrushev wanted to get rid of me, but [Vladislav] Surkov won’t allow them. I have already said that Putin sets the ground rules by which the clans battle each other.”

The quote continues: ”For example, the effort by Surkov to remove the Interior Minister [Rashid] Nurgaliev was quickly stopped by Putin. The same goes for Sechin’s attempt to fire me; it failed because of a shield from above. Instead, the heads that roll are on the second tier of the power structure,” the Stratfor analyst quoted Chaika.

The Kremlin's recent reaction (or lackthereof) to allegations against Chaika by the Anti-Corruption Foundation testify that part of that quotation can be believed. Chaika can still depend on this “shield from above.”

Sergei Smirnov

Moscow