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A ‘Dark Lord’ Falls in Russia’s Growing Power Struggle

VOLGOGRAD, Russia — A veteran law enforcement official, the head of the regional branch of Russia’s version of the F.B.I., acquired such a fearsome reputation in the southern Russian city formerly known as Stalingrad that when he walked into a local restaurant last summer, the other customers got up and left.

“Within a few minutes, the place was empty,” said Vyacheslav Cherepakhin, a local entrepreneur and journalist. “Everyone in the city was afraid of him.”

Last month, however, the official, Mikhail K. Muzraev, was forced from his car at gunpoint near his home in the city now called Volgograd by a team of heavily armed men sent from Moscow by Russia’s Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., the main successor agency to the K.G.B. He was flown to Moscow and jailed the same day.

Mr. Muzraev’s arrest roiled an uneasy balance at the heart of President Vladimir V. Putin’s rule among the so-called siloviki — a vast network of security, intelligence and military officials whose power, resources and clan rivalries have grown steadily at a time when Russia is starting to ask what will happen when the president’s ostensibly final term runs out in 2024.

Since Mr. Putin came to power nearly 20 years ago, rival agencies like the F.S.B. and Mr. Muzraev’s organization, the Investigative Committee, have cooperated in persecuting the Kremlin’s critics. They are now increasingly at odds amid mostly hidden jockeying to influence a protracted and possibly unruly succession struggle. With the arrest of Mr. Muraev, however, the infighting burst into the open.

Over 10 years as a senior prosecutor and then head of Volgograd’s Investigative Committee, Mr. Muzraev jailed two mayors and the chiefs of the regional police, the traffic police, the anti-narcotics squad and the emergency services, as well as a host of prominent businessmen in the Volga River city.

In interviews, several of those blamed Mr. Muzraev for destroying their lives with what they said were bogus criminal charges, and rejoiced at his unexpected downfall. But even they don’t believe the story put forward by the F.S.B. that their nemesis was involved in an assassination attempt against the regional governor, Andrei Bocharov, a former paratroop commander appointed by Mr. Putin to rule Volgograd in 2014.

The alleged attack on the governor — a laughably inept act of arson in a heavily guarded luxury housing estate in Volgograd — took place three years ago, hurt nobody, caused little damage and had previously been declared solved with the jailing of the supposed arsonists.

“Nobody believes this fairy tale,” said Roman Zaitsev, a former Volgograd police investigator who left the force to become a lawyer. Mr. Zaitsev was charged in 2017 by Mr. Muzraev with “inciting false testimony” after he refused to get one of his clients to confess to a murder he denied committing.

Mr. Zaitsev said he felt “brief euphoria” and drank champagne to celebrate after learning that Mr. Muzraev had been detained by the F.S.B. But his giddiness quickly faded as he realized that “this is not a victory for justice” but the result of “fighting between different clans from the same system.”

“This is not a fight between good and evil. It is evil against evil,” Mr. Zaitsev said.

Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist, said the abrupt fall from grace at the hands of the F.S.B. of such a powerful law-enforcement figure as Mr. Muzraev was a clear sign that a divide-and-rule balance between different clans of “siloviki” — whose loyalty to the Kremlin and wariness of each other have been the bedrock of Mr. Putin’s rule — is wobbling.

“Without a clear signal from Putin about what he will do in 2024 or who will replace him, the whole system is coming apart,,” Mr. Petrov said. “Putin is in control of all major moves, but we see more and more moves by this or that elite clan.”

On the day after Mr. Muzraev’s arrest on June 10, the Interior Ministry, which oversees Russia’s regular police forces, ordered the release from jail of Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist who, after reporting on shady ties between the F.S.B. and the funeral industry, had been arrested in Moscow on clearly trumped-up drugs charges.

Independent Russian news outlets reported that corrupt Moscow F.S.B. officials involved in the funeral business had played a role in framing the journalist, but had then backed off after low-level police officers entrusted with fabricating the case bungled so clumsily that even the Kremlin was aghast.

Last week, seven F.S.B. officers, including members of the agency’s anti-corruption department and the grandson of a secret police general, were arrested for suspected involvement in a Moscow bank robbery last year. The bank is owned by a former officer in Russia’s military intelligence service, known as the G.R.U.

Russia’s elite has long been convulsed by infighting but most of this has taken place out of public view, invisible or at least indecipherable to all but a tiny circle of Kremlin insiders.

The last time different law enforcement clans clashed so openly in public was in 2007, in what became known as the “war of the Siloviki,” near what was expected to be the end of Mr. Putin’s presidency in 2008.

In the end, Mr. Putin never really left, taking the prime minister’s spot while entrusting the presidency to an old friend, Dmitri A. Medvedev, for four years before returning, for a third presidential term in 2012.

Mr. Putin could well attempt another ruse to stay on after 2024 but anxiety about his intentions has left rival power centers scrambling to assert their influence ahead of a possible transfer of power at the top, political analysts say.

At the time of his arrest in Volgograd, Mr. Muzraev, who last year left his post as regional head of the Investigative Committee, was working as a special adviser to Aleksandr Bastrykin, the national head of the Investigative Committee in Moscow.

The advisory job does not seem to have involved much work — Mr. Muzraev stayed in Volgograd — but it provided what had, until his arrest, seemed an ironclad guarantee of high-level protection.

To ensure that Mr. Bastrykin’s agency, which would normally handle a criminal case involving arson, could play no role in deciding Mr. Murzaev’s fate, the F.S.B.’s investigative department in Moscow has classified his case as “terrorism,” a crime over which the secret police have exclusive control.

Vladimir A. Sementsev, one of Mr. Muzraev’s lawyers, said the case was perhaps in part a routine shakedown by the secret police, who have a long record of arresting people to extract money or favors, or simply to show who is boss.

During an interview in his Moscow office, Mr. Sementsev received a call on his cellphone from a man who introduced himself as former F.S.B. general and offered to help settle Mr. Muzraev’s case. The lawyer said after the call that such offers usually come with a hefty price tag.

“I am not saying that my client has never done anything wrong. I don’t know his whole history,” Mr. Sementsev said. “But I am absolutely certain he is not a terrorist who tried to kill the governor.”

During a brief court appearance in Moscow, Mr. Muzraev, an ethnic Kylmyk, a Russian minority of Mongolian descent, dismissed the terrorism case against him as a “fantasy.”

Tatyana Stepanenko, the wife of the former anti-drug squad chief arrested on corruption charges on orders from Mr. Muzraev in 2014, said she felt no sympathy for the jailed investigator because “he was a victim of his own system” and should have been stopped years ago.

“Everyone knew what was going on here but was too frightened,” she said.

Before his arrest, Mr. Muzraev was in many ways an exemplary servant of the system created by Mr. Putin. So long as they remained loyal to the Kremlin, law enforcement agencies under Mr. Putin have been given free rein to pursue their own intrigues, feuds and financial interests, even if these contradicted the president’s stated policy goals like the development of small business.

Under the guise of fighting corruption, long a particularly serious problem in Volgograd, Mr. Muzraev so terrified the local business and political elite that the local economy foundered. But he ensured that nobody dared rock the boat for fear of being targeted for arrest by his Investigative Committee.

Boris T. Izgarshev, a prominent local businessman who survived an an assassination attempt in 2001, said he was repeatedly pursued on trumped-up fraud and other charges by Mr. Muzraev. “The principle was simple: ‘If you want the case closed you pay,’ ” he said. “Everybody was afraid of him and still is. He has gone, but his system remains.”

Mr. Muzraev was so feared that he became known as the “night governor,” a reference to both his rumored ties to the criminal underworld and his shadowy powers outside the control of the region’s nominal senior official, the governor, three of whom came and went during his tenure.

Mr. Zaitsev, the former investigator turned lawyer, compared him to Voldemort — “He who must not be named” — in Harry Potter books. “He was Volgograd’s ‘Dark Lord,’ ” Mr. Zaitsev said.

Ivan I. Kurilla, a political science professor who grew up in Volgograd and taught for years at the city’s main university, said Mr. Muzraev’s fall from grace had all the hallmarks of a classic Russian power struggle, describing it as a clear sign that “dogs are fighting under the carpet.”

This is a reference to Winston Churchill’s observation during Stalin’s rule that “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won.”

Mr. Kurilla added that it was not yet clear who would win the fight over Mr. Muzraev and his record in Volgograd, but it was already clear that it involved far more than a mere provincial quarrel. “Something is going on in Moscow,” he said.

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