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MOSCOW —Russia’s prosecutor general, a central pillar of the country’s capricious law enforcement system throughout the 20-year rule of President Vladimir Putin, was removed from office Monday, marking the start of what is expected to be a major reshuffle of senior officials.
Yuri Y. Chaika, a former justice minister and senior prosecutor since shortly before Putin took power, is being moved to another, so far unspecified position, the Interfax news agency reported. Taking over his powerful post as prosecutor general, roughly the equivalent of U.S. attorney general, is Igor Krasnov, the deputy head of Russia’s version of the FBI, the Investigative Committee.
Russia’s prime minister and his entire Cabinet government resigned Wednesday, shortly after Putin announced proposals for a sweeping overhaul of a political system that has remained largely unchanged since the early 1990s. The proposals were widely seen as a move by Putin to hold on to power after the end of what is supposed to be his final term in office in 2024.
But they also opened the way for a potentially risky remaking, or at least face-lift, of the hierarchy of power.
“Our society is clearly calling for change,” Putin said last week, singling out law enforcement as an area that needed work.
Chaika has for years been a lightning rod for criticism of Russia’s highly selective justice system, which has cracked down on the Kremlin’s foes while turning a blind eye to the corruption and other misdeeds of business moguls and others with close ties to Putin.
The punk rock protest group Pussy Riot in 2016 savaged Chaika in a black satire that featured the group’s members, all women, playing prison guards dressed in uniforms, red high heels and fishnet stockings as they whipped hooded prisoners.
A video produced by the prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny detailing alleged corruption by Chaika and his family has been watched by more than 10 million people on YouTube.
An investigation by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation found that Chaika’s two grown sons had amassed a large business empire, including a luxury hotel in Greece, thanks in part to protection from the prosecutor general.
Russia’s already divided opposition, caught off guard by Putin’s surprise announcement last week, has been squabbling over how to respond. A municipal councilor in Moscow opposed to the Kremlin called for protests last weekend in the capital but Navalny urged his followers not to attend. Few turned out.
Leonid Volkov, a lawyer and senior aide to Navalny, on Monday voiced surprise at Chaika’s sudden departure: “What is going on with them over there and why now?” he asked on Twitter. He predicted that the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, would also soon be removed.
Chaika played a bit part in the infamous meeting in Trump Tower in New York, during the 2016 campaign, between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The meeting was arranged by Rob Goldstone, a British entertainment publicist who sent the younger Trump an email message in June 2016 reporting that Russia’s “Crown prosecutor” had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.” The post of “Crown prosecutor,” a British term, does not exist in Russia but is equivalent to the prosecutor general.
In that role, Chaika had previously contacted several members of Congress with information smearing Bill Browder, a British American investor who had become one of the Kremlin’s most vocal critics in the West.