The initial reaction to last week’s personnel and structural revolution in the security and enforcement bloc was fairly excited, but quite predictable: a media chorus about the former power of the special services being revived.

Official explanations from the president’s press service (changes to the security bloc are “primarily linked to the need to eliminate duplication of functions and uncontrolled growth of staff, and to optimize spending” – citing from the Vremya Novostei newspaper) were viewed as purely a formality.

Vremya Novostei sources in the special services, as well as right-wing Duma members, described the changes as “an obvious redistribution of power between the security agencies, to the advantage of the Federal Security Service (FSB)”. Union of Right Forces faction member Boris Nadezhdin declared that he can see “a dramatic increase in the influence of the FSB, which is starting to resemble the KGB of the former USSR”.

However, URF faction leader Boris Nemtsov preferred to refrain from rushing to draw conclusions: he told Kommersant-Vlast magazine that at least a year will be required to assess the significance of these changes.

His URF colleague Irina Khakamada says there is nothing unusual about the president’s decisions: “This is simply a good management decision, aimed at making those special services which were interfering with each other’s work focus on specific tasks.”

Vyacheslav Volodin, faction leader of Fatherland – All Russia, is even more confident: in his view, the president has decided to “optimised the security and enforcement structures. There has long been a need to set up a committee to fight the drug trade. Merging the border guards with the FSB has been done before, and worked very well.” He said more along the same lines.

However, the Liberal Russia party is sounding the alarm: its co-chairman Sergei Yushenkov confidently told Kommersant-Vlast that Putin “is trying to strengthen the structures of the former KGB of the USSR, but with much greater capabilities than those the FSB has had until now”.

Pavel Felgengauer points out in Novaya Gazeta that Boris Yeltsin split up the KGB into five special services.

Now, after the president’s latest decrees, only the Foreign Intelligence Service and the Federal Guard Service remain outside the FSB. Felgengauer notes that even in Soviet times, these had remained apart from “the general focus on repression of individuals and politically-motivated criminal investigation, due to the specific nature of their functions”.

Moreover, now that it is assimilating the Federal Border Guards Service (FBGS), the FSB will have its own troops, military aircraft, and fleet. Felgengauer asks: “Why would a democratic counter-intelligence agency need all this?”

However, Yuri Shekochikhin, another contributor to Novaya Gazeta, considers that returning the border guards to the FSB’s jurisdiction could have some advantages: “The FSB’s budget is double that of the FBGS at present. Maybe the big brothers will share some of it?”

There is also another aspect to the personnel revolution. The president’s decree has transferred the functions of the Federal Tax Police Service (FTPS) to the Interior Ministry. However, FTPS personnel, as well as its premises and equipment, have been handed over to the jurisdiction of Viktor Cherkesov, who will have to use them to start up the state committee for countering the illegal turnover of narcotics and psychotropic substances. Felgengauer points out that Cherkesov once worked at the Fifth Main Directorate of the KGB, involved in “politically-motivated criminal investigations and persecution of dissidents”.

Felgengauer’s point of view is summed up by the title of his article: “The Iron Phoenix: has the apparatus for surveillance over society been restored?”

Of course, there is some hope: as one classic author put it, the severity of Russia’s laws is counterbalanced by observance of them being optional. Thus, according to Felgengauer, Putin’s “projects are frequently very large, but their results are negligible – as in the case of dividing the nation into federal districts, for example. So perhaps the KGB won’t be completely restored after all.”

Nevertheless, if the former “surveillance apparatus” is successfully restored, there is no doubt that sooner or later it will be used. Who will use it, and how – “that decision is not up to us”.

The media has drawn attention to the fact that the personnel changes were kept completely secret until the very last moment.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says: “The latest dismissals came as a complete surprise even to those most directly affected, just like Putin’s changes to the leadership of the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the Security Council two years ago.”

Novaya Gazeta says: “The secrecy surrounding these events means only one thing: the president trusts no one except his closest associates.” According to Novaya Gazeta, this may indicate that “the risk of the security bloc resisting reforms is real and acknowledged by the president himself”.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta stresses that for the time being, “such serious decisions” are only in decree form; thus, their impact is limited by the lack of legislation to support them.

Vladimir Platonov, speaker of the Moscow municipal legislature, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “The president has the right to carry out any appointments or personnel shifts. However, if a new state agency is being created – but it cannot perform its functions under the Criminal-Procedural Code, since the law allocates these functions to another agency – some major problems arise.”

Moskovskie Novosti observer Leonid Nikitinksy considers that for the first time since becoming president, Vladimir Putin has “set himself up in classic Yeltsin style”, by making a public announcement about the decrees he has apparently signed on reorganizing the security agencies – while the agencies affected were completely unaware of those decrees. The abolished FTPS knew nothing about it; and neither did the presidential state legal affairs directorate, which is supposed to review all drafts of presidential decrees.

Nikitinsky quotes from the president’s address to a Cabinet meeting on March 11, in which he announced the reforms: “Today I have signed the relevant decrees, but the measures I listed earlier also require amendments to legislation. Bills to that effect will be submitted to the Duma.”

Thus, as Nikitinsky points out, the president essentially admitted that he has broken the law. The FTPS was created on the basis of the law on federal tax police agencies, dated June 24, 1993. Thus, it can only be abolished by changing the law – not by a presidential decree. Given that the present master of the Kremlin has a law degree, he ought to be well aware of this (unlike Yeltsin, who utterly adored personnel shake-ups).

Moreover, says Nikitinsky, it would not have been difficult to achieve a legally correct solution: the president would only have had to sumbit a corresponding bill to the Duma: “And the obedient Duma would have passed it in all readings immediately, and the senators would have approved it.”

However, that was not done. Nikitinsky says: “The presidential administration and the guarantor of the Constitution himself decided to permit a clear violation of the principle of lawfulness, sacrificing it for the sake of having the decree appear suddenly.”

Nikitinsky says that the need for this particular secrecy and suddenness was “probably due to a reluctance to stir up the powerful Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) until the very last possible moment”. And it was decided not to give the FTPS any advance warning either.

As a result, according to Moskovskie Novosti, what we have is complete chaos. FTPS investigators still don’t know how they should hand over their cases, or to whom; meanwhile, some of the accused are already refusing to come in for questioning by the FTPS, “saying the agency no longer exists”.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal points out that the president has given a great gift to “certain tax-evaders”.

But the sources of Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal do not consider the president’s decision to be incorrect in legal terms. Alexander Barannikov, a lawyer and Duma member says: “There is no law specifying procedures for abolishing state agencies of this kind.” The law on establishing tax police agencies does not cover that issue. Therefore, says Barannikov, “the president has every right to create or abolish state agencies which are part of the executive branch structure.”

The Moskovskie Novosti investigation department reports that the FTPS has been abolished at a time when its deputy director was supervising over 600 inter-regional cases, involving billions of rubles.

Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal adds that a further 200 particularly important cases were being supervised at the federal level.

In fact, says Moskovskie Novosti, “the abolition of the FTPS is not the first gift that organized crime has received over the past two years”. Regional directorates for countering organized crime (the RUBOPs) and the inter-agency centre for countering the laundering of unlawful revenues were shut down earlier. It was decided to replace them with operational investigative bureaux (ORB), part of the Interior Ministry main directorate for each federal district, and the Finance Ministry’s Financial Monitoring Committee.

To date, none of these bodies can boast of being effective in the least.

Under the circumstances, says Moskovskie Novosti, the mafia could wish for nothing more than the destruction of the FTPS, which in recent years has become the main obstacle for the shadow economy.

There is no hope of the Interior Ministry getting a rapid grip on money-laundering: it will take time, as well as specialists and resources, to organize work in new conditions. But everything that used to be at the disposal of the FTPS has now been transferred to the new state committee for countering narcotics.

According to Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, the tax police themselves rule out the possibility of any criminal cases being “lost” in transit to the Interior Ministry.

Sergei Yushenkov, a member of the Duma security committee, agrees. He told Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal: “For the regime and the security structures, criminal cases instigated by the FTPS are a substantial means of putting pressure on business. Therefore, I see no reason why they would give up such a convenient measure of influence. And where the cases will be transferred makes no difference at all.”

Yushenkov advises citizens who hope to bribe their way out of criminal investigations to prepare yet another envelope of cash: “This time, to avert the possibility of the new committee planting some drugs on them and starting an investigation within the framework of financing terrorist activity.”

Izvestia observer Semyon Novoprudsky describes Russia’s entire system of governance as “anachronistic, inefficient, and illogical”.

Novoprudsky says the Russian government cannot be called political, since it is not formed by the Duma majority. However, it is not a technical government either, since it would be hard to describe it as a government of experts: for example, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov is no specialist in police affairs. Moreover, the Cabinet does not make decisions about the economy: they are made in the Kremlin.

The parliament’s role isn’t very clear either: “If it’s only supposed to rubber-stamp laws, this could be done without so much expense or any playing at democracy.”

The Federation Council is no better off; it has lost its function as a body of regional leaders, becoming “a wonderful place to hide from criminal prosecution, or a pleasant location for political exile”.

And so it continues: “The presidential envoys, although they are trying to bring legislation in their federal districts into line with federal law, don’t have any real power. Meanwhile, some regions are ethnic republics, others are simply regions, and some are autonomous districts.” Not to mention the fact that regional governments and the regional directorates of federal ministries “are covertly or openly fighting each other in the regions, frequently laying claim to the same powers”.

Overall, says Novoprudsky, Russia remains a poorly-governed country “with an unbalanced state structure, a bloated bureaucracy, and only an embryonic political system.” Therefore, Novoprudsky considers the president’s latest decrees as “the start of an overhaul of the rusty machinery of state”.

Otherwise, Novoprudsky points out, it is hard to explain why the president, who has not made any decisive moves since his famous decree establishing seven federal districts and the presidential envoys, has decided to do so in the lead-up to parliamentary and presidential elections. This is not a matter of personnel reshuffles; it marks the start of structural reforms of the government.

Novoprudsky acknowledges that the ideology behind the new appointments is still not entirely clear. However, in his view, this not only gives Russia “a prototype of personnel policy”, but sets out some kind of change of course in politics.

Yulia Latynina, writing in Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, says that much becomes clear if one looks closely at the list of those dismissed as a result of these reforms. “Those who were part of the Yeltsin-era elite are gone: FTPS chief Mikhail Fradkov, FBGS chief Konstantin Totsky, and Vladimir Matiukhin – who was appointed head of the FAPSI as far back as May 1999.”

This is typical of Putin’s style: rather than reforming agencies which pose a threat to him, he appoints loyal people to head them. That is why Sergei Ivanov, a civilian, was appointed defense minister, and Boris Gryzlov, another civilian, became interior minister. For the same reason, rather than setting up “an agency to supervise regional leaders” within the FSB, the Kremlin established the institution of presidential envoys.

Latynina says: “There are no government bodies in Russia – only friends. There are no laws – only personal relationships. That is why reasons for dismissal in Russia do not include bribery, corruption, or inaction.”

Thus, the top-level power-struggle between the Putin and Yeltsin elites continues; or, as Latynina puts it, the power-struggle between “the president’s new samurais” and “the old business nobility”. And the “samurais” are loyal, but talentless; at least, the “Yeltsin people” outplay them easily in anything relating to business.

According to Latynina, the notorious story of the sale of Slavneft serves as a clear illustration of this.

Moreover, says Latynina, appointing “samurais” to executive positions in state-controlled companies – in other words, the attepmt to “breed a hybrid with the clean hands of a chekist and the cunning mind of a merchant” – has ended in failure. “The hybrid turned out to have cunning hands and virginally clean brains.”

Thus, the only way the president can maintain control over the “business nobility” is by strengthening the “big five” of security and enforcement: “Five, not one agency. Because the security and enforcement agencies are meant to keep an eye on each other as well as on the oligarchs. Competition within the same species is always the most intense.”

In any event, according to Latynina, today’s special services are of interest to Putin not as the embryo of a monster from the past which may be restored, but as “a personnel reserve containing suitable people without any ideas of their own, who are personally known to the president and indebted solely to him for their promotion.”

Alexander Goltz, military observer for Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal, has been virtually the only commentator to describe the presidential press service’s explanation about excessive staff numbers, duplication of functions, and optimizing costs as entirely convincing.

“Astrologers”: that’s what Goltz calls analysts close to the Kremlin “who are acting all wide-eyed and diligently dropping hints about some kind of information concealed from the uninitiated about some kind of new threat which Russia is about to encounter”.

According to Goltz, the reality is much more straightforward: “Only Boris Yeltsin could just keep on and on increasing the number of security and enforcement people who reported directly to him.” Unlike his predecessor, Vladimir Putin takes his responsibilities seriously, and actually understands the issues handled by every agency directly subordinate to the president; and the amount of time he needs to spend on this has started to annoy him. “And there will always be those who seize the moment to offer advice about expanding or optimizing.”

But the problem, says Goltz, is that the activities of the special services “are precisely the kind of field of state administration where duplication of functions is beneficial rather than detrimental.” The United States has around ten special services – and this enables the US administration to obtain the maximal amount of information on any important issue.

Goltz warns that the reorganization launched by Putin will inevitably lead to an agency monopoly on information: “The FSB, once it takes over the technical capabilities of the FAPSI as well as the intelligence divisions of the FBGS, will no longer have any competition within Russia in providing information.”

As for external security, says Goltz, provision of information there will be monopolized by the Defense Ministry – presumably, it will inherit the FAPSI divisions responsible for electronic surveillance abroad. Now the president will no longer be able to use the FAPSI to verify information provided by the Foreign Intelligence Service about increased external threats.

Goltz notes that both the special services and the military have already deceived the president and the nation on more than one occasion: for example, look at their repeated statements that the guerrillas in Chechnya have been completely defeated, or the myth of the foreign submarine that allegedly sank the Kursk. “From now on, two Russian state agencies will have a real ability to manipulate information” – and this poses a significant danger to the state.

Goltz concludes by saying: “Putin’s latest reforms to the security bloc essentially preserve old Soviet-era forms of ensuring national security.”

The Konservator weekly says that now, as elections approach, the president is particularly in need of support from the security bloc.

This is what lies behind the consolidation of security agencies, with a drastically increased role for the “big three”: the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry, and the FSB. “From now on, the special services will owe a great debt to Putin. He has restored their unity. Such things are not forgotten.” And the president has now secured the support of the intelligence agencies for the upcoming elections, says Konservator.

This theme is developed by Kommersant-Vlast magazine.

Why has the FSB been significantly strengthened at this particular time? After all, from the political point of view it is dangerous to reform several state agencies at the same time – this could disrupt the stability which is so valued by the president and the public. Here is one of the answers proposed by Kommersant-Vlast: “In his time as president, Putin has apparently grown so confident of his ability to reliably maintain control of the situation in the military that he doesn’t attach much significance to this.”

Another possible explanation is political rather than psychological: elections are approaching. “Evidently, before the pre-election security-based campaigns, Vladimir Putin has decided to gather the basic internal security and enforcement resources into two mighty fists.”

Kommersant-Vlast says the situation at the Interior Ministry has long been clear: Boris Gryzlov, former leader of the Unity faction in the Duma, has not concealed his party allegiances since his appointment as interior minister.

And it has been decided to strengthen the FSB’s organizational and informational capacities: the Kremlin administration believes this ought to “make the election campaign process more manageable”.

Moreover, Kommersant-Vlast points out that this model has already been tested by the Kremlin, in the last parliamentary elections. The Unity and Fatherland movements were combined into United Russia – despite the predictions of pollsters that two separate centrist blocs would gather more votes than one pro-government party: “This was done precisely because the Kremlin considered it a more convenient form of managing its political resources.”

Neither should we overlook the fact that as a result of these security agency reforms, the GAS-vybory computer system has been transferred to the jurisdiction of the FSB. Novaya Gazeta asks: Why not to the Central Election Commission?

Dmitrii Orlov, deputy director of the Political Consulting Center, told Novaya Gazeta that the CEC has always been only a corporate user of this system. Ever since the GAS-vybory information system was created, control over the collection and presentation of data has been the prerogative of a special subdivision of the FAPSI.

The functioning of the GAS-vybory computer system is completely off-limits to outside observers. Sources at the Electoral Systems Development Institute told Novaya Gazeta that it is impossible to verify information made available for open access – for example, diagrams posted on the election website.

This is precisely why the GAS-vybory system, in skilled hands, offers a multitude of opportunities for juggling the figures – after all, 99% of observers only receive copies of the results. These opportunities range from simply handing in blank ballot papers to creating virtual election districts within the computer network.

Moreover, the system includes data about 104 million voters: age, registered address, marital status, employer, and so on. It’s impossible to determine what else may be in there. Unlike the situation in the West, where all citizens can check and correct information which the state has about them, in Russia people can only familiarize themselves with their files at election commissions, and only within a strictly limited period of time – no later than two weeks before election day.

In general, the GAS-vybory system resembles a “black box”: with ingredients (information) being entered, and results (the winning candidate’s name) being returned. “And from now on, control over the process of transforming information into results will be in the hands of the FSB, which is gathering strength.”

Novaya Gazeta is prepared to allow for the possibility that the situation may not actually be as frightening as it appears. But there’s no way to tell…

Nothing is as frightening as uncertainty. Moreover, it’s hard to disagree with the view that Russian citizens, given their historical experience, have every reason to be afraid.

However, most of the articles about the security bloc changes – all attempts at commentary, many hints at “exclusive inside information from the Kremlin” – are permeated with the carefully-concealed sense of being at a loss.

It appears that no one actually has “inside knowledge”. And the same refrain is repeated in practically every article: once again, nobody has asked us (the citizenry and its representatives in government bodies) for our opinion.

This is followed by a kind of fatalism: nobody is ever going to ask us…

So is it any wonder that Russian citizens are so apolitical? Is it any wonder that they (the young people, at least) are almost completely indifferent about the results of the upcoming elections?