Weekly Bulletin:
The Rostov Case, or how the judiciary is being put on a war footing
April 10-14, 2023
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Independent scholar
Nikolai Petrov writes about a major purge of law enforcement and judicial officials in Rostov Region. In his view, it is a political decision aimed at further putting the country on a war footing and making judges – who are already completely loyal to the regime – a more efficient part of the repression machine.
Without much public resonance at the federal level, major cases against two “organized criminal groups” are being investigated in Rostov Region (this is how the investigators are qualifying them) – one into the police and the other into the judiciary.

There are dozens of suspects. FSB and Investigative Committee brigades from Moscow are conducting searches and other actions related to the investigations, while arrests have been made.

A case against a local Ministry of Internal Affairs/police is not unusual in itself, but here an unusually wide net has been cast, ensnarling low- and mid-level officers, as well as a colonel.

Routine repression

Repression against the heads of regional security and law enforcement agencies has been going on for a long time, becoming systematic after 2014. Just from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, where it all started in 2014, about a dozen regional heads have been detained and arrested over the years, as well as quite a few from the Federal Penitentiary Service and the Ministry of Emergency Situations, a couple – though at the highest levels – from the Investigative Committee, and even from the Federal Protective Service (FSO).

Rostov Region was no exception: there were regular purges and replacements of heads of federal agencies based in the region. For example, 2020 was called “prokuroropad,” as several high-ranking prosecutors were fired at one time.

But repression in the judicial corporation is rather unique. Until now, regional heads of courts were never gone after – if they were removed, it was done quietly.

In Rostov Region, the entire top echelon of the courts has already been arrested, including Yelena Zolotareva, the chair of the Regional Court since 2015, her deputy Tatyana Yurova, the chair of the regional Council of Judges, and Andrei Roschevsky, the head of the Regional Department of Justice. Three dozen people who worked in the judicial system are under investigation, which is being handled by the head of the Main Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee Denis Kolesnikov. From the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the investigation is being carried out by officials of the Main Department for Economic Security and Combating Corruption. From the FSB, it is Department M, which deals with corruption in law enforcement agencies.

Stalinist-like rotation

The mechanism of horizontal rotation of federal officials around the regions – a page out of the Stalinist playbook – has been restored and reconfigured by Putin. Its essence is that “controllers” who look after a region from different federal agencies are regularly rotated so that they do not get too close with whom they are controlling. Since 2012, a law has been in force that the heads of territorial divisions of executive agencies, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Prosecutor’s Office and many others that carry out control and supervisory functions, are subject to rotation every three to five years.

Of all the “federal generals” in the regions, judges were the last to be rotated – after the Ministry of Internal Affairs, prosecutors and the Investigative Committee, which had been regularly reshuffled in all regions. Recall that at the federal level, the heads of both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court – Vyacheslav Lebedev and Valery Zorkin – are the most veteran heads of state institutions. The former took his post under Gorbachev in 1989 and the latter under Yeltsin in 1991.

Court “purge” as evidence of shift to war footing

FSB operatives, along with officials from the central office of the Investigative Committee, have named 32 people suspected of corruption – the Rostov judicial system represents, judging by the scale of the investigation and in the investigators’ own words, an organized criminal group.

Besides the detained Zolotareva and Yurova, seven more judges are in Moscow as part of the investigation. A dozen criminal cases have already been launched under Criminal Code articles on fraud, bribery and abuse of power.

At this point, there is little concrete information on these cases, though it seems it is the corruption that is typical in and widespread across the courts. That said, there is little doubt that the judges did corrupt things. The Kremlin has corrupted the entire judiciary, and it would be strange to expect that judges, who are constantly following the political wishes of the Kremlin, as well as those of the FSB and various bosses, would not look out for themselves as well.

It is very possible that the corruption in Rostov Region did not go beyond the norm for this institution.
Everything looks like the Rostov judges are being punished, not because they broke some unspoken rules or got caught in some special way, but as a warning to everyone else.
In other words, this is political repression against the elite, a powerful signal to the entire judicial corporation. Today, the latter cannot be called willful or overly independent. Nevertheless, it was apparently decided that in a situation of rapidly tightening screws, judges should also be scared to be sure of their unquestioning obedience.

Evidence that this is intimidation includes the fact that on April 4, the Regional Court overturned the decision of a lower court to fine the former Novocherkassk head of administration Igor Zyuzin RUB 3 million for taking a bribe and sentenced him to eight years in a strict-regime penal colony.

The Rostov case – which is not particularly noticeable in the public space but is well-known around state corporations – though it looks like a bolt from the blue, has its own backstory.

Yelena Zolotareva was appointed by Putin as chair of the Rostov Regional Court for a second term in November 2021. The month before, a new head of the FSB for the region, Igor Goldobin, was appointed, his predecessor having served a full five-year term. Goldobin was shifted from his previous post ahead of schedule, having headed up the FSB in Volgograd Region for only two years.

Goldobin might be called a “purger” of regional elites. During his short time in Volgograd, he fired several high-ranking FSB officers and launched criminal embezzlement cases against officials and businessmen. Before that Goldobin was in Tambov Region, where he was known for bringing criminal cases against the deputy governor, the mayor of one regional city, the deputy head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and several lower-ranking officials.

Even before Goldobin, in February 2021, a new prosecutor appeared in Rostov Region – Roman Praskov. He had been quickly transferred out of Tula, where he had served for two and a half years. His predecessor in the region, Yuri Baranov, resigned in June 2020, leaving two months short of retirement age. Baranov was part of the first wave of resignations of regional prosecutors that followed the appointment of a new federal prosecutor general. In addition, the prosecutor of Rostov-on-Don, as well as a number of other city and district prosecutors, was dismissed.

The tandem of a new chekist and prosecutor for Rostov could initially have had the aim of purges and organizing a high-profile case against regional law enforcement agencies as the importance of Rostov as a base and outpost for Russia’s aggression in the Donbas increased dramatically in 2014.

That was accompanied by the emergence of various kinds of corruption schemes for exporting counterfeit products and giving protection to business, which perhaps made the job of the “purgers” easier. Still, even if the scale of corruption in the region was above average, no explosive cases were presented.
Thus, it seems that there is a shift ongoing from purges to one-off, wide-reaching repression that is aimed at intimidating the judiciary and setting new standards for the relationship between the top decisionmakers and judges.”
This is a political decision driven by the further tightening of control over the entire repression machine, including the judiciary.

This swift revision of the rules of the game seeks to make judges look out for only state interests, no matter how they are interpreted by the authorities, and to avoid rulings in favor of business. This is clear evidence of the country’s shift to a war footing, including in the economic sphere, where a significant quasi-private bloc remains. In this new environment, the courts, already absolutely loyal to the regime, are supposed to become efficient instruments to pressure business – not only in individual cases, but systematically.
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