The death of Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow jail has sent shock waves through Russia's law enforcement agencies and revealed deeper turbulence that could lead to widespread changes at the powerful Interior Ministry.
Calls for reform of the police and justice system have reached fever pitch in recent weeks, following the whistle-blowing allegations of corruption by Major Alexei Dymovsky and growing outrage over cases of violence by drunken police officers.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin weighed in on the issue in his Dec. 3 call-in show, saying that responses to crime by officers should be "harsh, rapid and tough", but added there should be no tarnishing of "all police officers".
Magnitsky's death - allegedly after being refused medical treatment over several months in pre-trial detention - appears to have been the final straw for those frustrated at a lack of progress in President Dmitry Medvedev's drive to stamp out "legal nihilism".
Now a leading anti-corruption campaigner is saying the Magnitsky case is revealing wider splits within the elite, and could herald a new bout of infighting between security service factions - last seen in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.
"There is a certain group, the so-called 'lesser Politburo' in the siloviki, that believes [Interior Minister Rashid] Nurgaliyev is not supporting the siloviki structures actively enough," said Kirill Kabanov, a former Federal Security Service official who now heads the National Anti-Corruption Committee, a watchdog that works closely with the Kremlin's human rights council.
Kabanov said the group critical of Nurgaliyev wanted him to be replaced, although Medvedev has resisted such calls and instead urged the ministry to clean up its own act.
The opening shot against the ministry came in the week after Magnitsky's death, when Andrei Makarov, a prominent United Russia State Duma deputy, called for the ministry to be disbanded and reconstituted with its staff cut in half. Simply replacing long-serving Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev would not change anything, Makarov said.
Among his recommendations, Makarov called for the ministry's investigative committee to be joined together with the investigative committee at the Prosecutor General's Office to form a single, separate investigative body.
Overlapping responsibilities between Russian state bodies are thought to often lead to inter-agency conflicts, and analysts say the two investigative committees have often been at odds with each other.
At first, it appeared that the scandal surrounding Magnitsky's death would subside as law enforcement agencies downplayed the need for any investigation. But amid the furore over Magnitsky's death, Medvedev stepped into the fray, ordering a criminal probe.
More strikingly still, Alexander Smirnov, deputy director of the prison system, acknowledged "visible violations" in Magnitsky's treatment. "We are not going to minimise our guilt in any way," he said. "It is definitely there."
In response, the Interior Ministry's investigators went on the offensive. A day after the Prosecutor General's Office investigators opened a negligence probe into Magnitsky's death, the Interior Ministry investigators said the lawyer was guilty of illegally selling 2 per cent of Gazprom shares to offshore companies.
Experts interviewed for this article said trouble had been brewing for months between various factions over the scandals involving the Interior Ministry.
Magnitsky was arrested in autumn 2008 on tax evasion charges. His fate was seen by some analysts as linked to Hermitage Capital's allegations that three of its subsidiaries were stolen by a group of Interior Ministry officers and used to embezzle $230 million from the Russian government through tax refunds.
Hermitage Capital's CEO, William Browder - who was denied entry to Russia in late 2005 on security grounds - has claimed that investigators were trying to pressure Magnitsky into testifying against him.
Kabanov said that having Magnitsky accused or, better yet, convicted, would discredit anything he had to say about Hermitage's accusations against the Interior Ministry.
The "lesser Politburo" group is using the Magnitsky case and other incidents to shake things up at the Interior Ministry, said Kabanov. "For instance, Dymovsky posts his complaints on YouTube. He is completely sincere, [but] then the whole thing is blown up. ... He's being used."
Russia has seen a host of conspiracy theories in recent years, as analysts attempt to fathom the apparently Byzantine structure of Kremlin power. In autumn 2007, politicking normally conducted behind the scenes surfaced in an open letter by Viktor Cherkesov, the then-head of the Federal Drug Control Agency, in which he called on Putin to mediate what he felt was dangerous infighting.
The factional struggle appeared to subside after Dmitry Medvedev was nominated for president in December 2007, a move that some pundits interpreted as balancing liberal and siloviki influence within the Kremlin.
One Moscow-based expert, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the Magnitsky affair was "becoming divisive in the government. ... We can see some positioning well ahead of the 2012 elections. Medvedev's people are furious over the [Magnitsky affair] because it makes him look weak, and it presents an opportunity for the siloviki groups to attack each other in attempts to get key positions."
Among the siloviki, Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin heads the more reform-minded group and Russian Technologies chief Sergei Chemezov, "who is opposed to any state reform whatsoever", heads another, the expert said.
"Sechin is emerging as somebody who is adapting," the expert said. "Sure, he wants strong support for state oil companies, but he is more open to reforms - whereas Chemezov appears to be quite the opposite."
Sergei Markov, an influential State Duma deputy for United Russia, insisted the issue was not infighting but intense discussion over how to reform the Interior Ministry.
"[The ministry] is in need of fundamental reform, otherwise it really will need to be disbanded," said Markov. "The main [aim] is to lower corruption, so that they stop raiding and pressuring people. The method is clear - cut the number of people in the interior ministry by half, and double their salaries."
While creating a separate investigative agency was one idea, "the important thing is not who these investigative bodies belong to, but that they do real investigation as opposed to extorting bribes," said Markov. "So that businesses compete between themselves, and not use investigators against each other."