What is to be done? Who is to blame? These questions, part of Russian tradition, have been more relevant than ever for Russian society of late. The confusion of the first few days after the Beslan tragedy is giving way to numerous attempts by politicians and observers to find the one right answer – according to each person’s way of thinking.
Actually, an answer to the second question seems to have arisen spontaneously among ordinary citizens. Profil magasine published the results of a poll done by the Levada Center agency on September 7-8. When asked whether the heads of the special services ought to be held accountable for allowing hostage-takings to happen, 84% of respondents said yes. Most of the media share this view.
Novoe Vremya magazine says: “The special services couldn’t do anything about the terrorists. The events of recent weeks have been monstrous, but worst of all was the sight of the security and law enforcement agencies (siloviki) being so helpless in Beslan. Lies, chaos, disorder, and finally – a slaughter.” In the opinion of Novoe Vremya, the siloviki behaved “far more decently” during the Moscow theater hostage-taking two years ago: “The special services did their job – under fire from public criticism. It seemed to do them good. Although there were many casualties, there wasn’t the kind of disgrace we are seeing now.” All the same, says Novoe Vremya, the siloviki “took great offense” at the criticism. And they drew their own conclusions.
The Moskovskie Novosti weekly quotes some unnamed Federal Security Service (FSB) officers as saying that the absence of the top brass from Beslan was a direct consequence of the Moscow theater siege: “None of them wanted to take responsibility for a special operation that would be considered a failure if even one child died.”
Besides, there was a straightforward opportunity for the top brass to avoid that responsibility: all interested parties immediately recollected that according to the operational tactics plan for Nabat (Tocsin) operations (the military bureaucracy’s term for the kind of events taking place in North Ossetia), the operation headquarters should be commanded by the head of the regional FSB directorate. Therefore, the people who lost their jobs after the hostage siege were Valery Andreev, head of the FSB directorate for North Ossetia, and Kazbek Dzantiev, the interior minister of North Ossetia.
The press is emphasizing that demonstrations in North Ossetia have also played a role here. As the Gazeta newspaper puts it, the dismissal of North Ossetia’s top siloviki has made it possible “to restrain the residents of North Ossetia from even more extensive demonstrations of protest against corruption and terrorism: in their view, the two are inextricably entwined.”
At a meeting of the North Ossetian parliament on September 10, says Gazeta, police chief Kazbek Dzantiev attempted to justify himself. “If I stationed even two police officers to guard every school and kindergarten, I’d be stripping all police precincts of personnel,” he complained. “And we don’t have any traitors at checkpoints – only bribe-takers. I hand them over to the courts, but they just pay $15,000 there and come back.”
One member of parliament responded to Dzantiev in the same vein: “The only reason you drive them out is because you don’t get a cut of the bribes. Don’t we all know that ordinary citizens can’t even get a crate of cucumbers past you? You never miss that kind of thing. But you failed to notice a vehicle full of guerrillas.”
After a dialogue like that, residents of North Ossetia predictably rejected the suggestion that the terrorists had used “isolated roads” to get to the school in central Beslan.
Gazeta goes on to say that the next day, September 11, at another protest rally in Vladikavkaz, Dzantiev was presented with an ultimatum: within three days, he should identify everyone who was to blame for the bandits being able to enter North Ossetia. But that same day, the situation was urgently resolved with the help of Moscow: Dzantiev was dismissed.
As for corruption in the FSB, the situation there was explained to Moskovskie Novosti by an anonymous FSB colonel “from the so-called active reserve.”
According to this source, any attempt to reform Russia’s special services is pointless: no amount of restructuring can improve the quality of their performance. The source said that as soon as new recruits settle into their jobs, they “start seeking a source of income.” And they usually find some: “People who are either breaking the law or who simply don’t want to offend the security agency. And that’s how ‘cooperation’ begins – unfortunately, the entire structure of the FSB is saturated with it.”
What’s more, FSB personnel are frequently led into corruption under the influence of their direct superiors: “Sooner or later, they find out from their operative sources about the business interests of their direct superiors. And the military principle of ‘do as I do’ works flawlessly.”
The Moskovskie Novosti source claims that personnel at the FSB’s regional directorates – especially in southern Russia – are even more inclined to be corrupt than their colleagues at the federal level. And this isn’t merely a matter of “crates of cucumbers,” of course. Under the circumstances, there is no question of fighting crime: “All work with informers and all investigation work there is subordinated to servicing the interests of corrupt regional leaders, big business, and organized crime groups.”
The “reserve colonel” claims that this is precisely why the Chechen guerrilla leaders still haven’t been neutralized: most of the money used to fund terrorist activities doesn’t come from abroad at all – it comes from Russia, especially from Moscow.
The Moskovskie Novosti source says that FSB headquarters at Lubyanka has long been aware of the companies and organizations used by the guerrillas to make money – such as retailers of imported cars, for example. “But as soon as the FSB starts paying close attention to them, there is immediate interference in the case from prosecutors, customs officers, police, or other FSB personnel from different departments. They all make it clear that the people under investigation are their people.” Thus, the funding of terrorists is essentially carried out with the support of the law enforcement agencies which are also trying to fight those terrorists.
Not surprisingly, says Moskovskie Novosti, in its current reform process the FSB has spent two months trying to select the right person to head its Counter-Terrorism Service, without success.
In Kommersant-Vlast magazine, Georgy Engelhardt, an independent expert on radical Islamism, discusses the question of how the special services can become more effective in fighting terrorism.
In Engelhardt’s view, what Russia is dealing with nowadays is far removed from the kind of Chechen separatism it faced in the early 1990s: “What we are facing now is radical Islamism, or Wahhabism. The influence of this ideology is being rapidly and efficiently expanded in Russia, with intensive financial and organizational support from abroad.”
The Wahhabis are all equally fanatical, regardless of their ethnicity (they include members of all ethnic groups in the North Caucasus). After all, besides material benefits, their leaders also offer them “an idea and an outlook on life.” Even common looting is presented as a form of jihad against infidels.
According to Engelhardt, the Beslan attack was intended to demonstrate the real strength of the Islamic radicals: “The Wahhabis sought to show the Ossetians – one of the most pro-Moscow communities in the Caucasus – and all other residents of the Caucasus that they are the real force there. They sought to humiliate the Kremlin and discredit the results of the five-year second war in Chechnya.” And they succeeded.
It’s extremely difficult to defeat “fighters for an idea,” says Engelhardt, and traditional methods are unlikely to be useful here. Even working with informers – generally acknowledged as not being the strong suit of Russia’s special services these days – isn’t proving effective: “Many of the Wahhabis who agree to become informers for the federal forces are actually double agents – they deliberately provide a great volume of trivial information, while neglecting to report the time and place of substantial attacks.”
Attempts to “take control of the terrorists and manipulate them” are even less effective, as Sergei Shilovsky, a GRU (army intelligence) reserve colonel, told Kommersant-Vlast: “These attempts are only aimed at a tactical effect, but no effort is made to predict longer-term consequences, and this leads to problems.”
As an example of this, Shilovsky looks back to Djokhar Dudayev, whom “they decided at some point to use as a tool for eliminating communist authority in Chechnya.” This dangerous experiment started off quite successfully, as those who organized it believed. But later on, the “controlled subject” inevitably became too independent: setting sail on his own, he gradually “acquired standing, meetings, and contacts; he came under the influence of other groups; he started playing a game of his own…” And everyone knows what happened next.
Shilovsky admits that Shamil Basayev, now wanted on charges of masterminding the latest terrorist attacks, also fell into the field of activity of the special services; but that was a long time ago, in the mid-1990s, during the well-known events in Abkhazia.
Moreover, Shilovsky emphasizes that he has no knowledge of Basayev, who is now an internationally-wanted criminal, ever having been recruited or paid by the special services.
Engelhardt says that the special services are increasingly skeptical about the reliability of human informers; so it may be considerably more productive and much safer to rely on technology: bugs, hidden cameras, and so on. Engelhardt claims that terrorists fear these devices most of all, since “they are objective and cannot be bribed.”
But if the special services make a decision in favor of expanding their network of informers – “and there is a lot of lobbying for that nowadays” – Engelhardt claims that this measure, besides being ineffective, will provoke a new wave of corruption allegations, since “spending on informers is non-transparent.”
President Putin has recently called for border security to be improved; but Engelhardt says this measure will not be effective, since it has already been established that most of the terrorists are Russian citizens: “The priorities of the Wahhabis are ideas and money. Both move across borders freely, so militants can be recruited on the spot, given enough propaganda and funding.” And, as everyone knows, the weapons of the terrorists are Russian-made: “Why would they need to take coal to Newcastle?”
Speaking anonymously, someone described as “an analyst with the FSB” told Novaya Gazeta: “Secret memos about the possibility of terrorists seizing schools were circulating in the FSB as far back as two-and-a-half years ago. Of course, this was only preliminary data, nothing specific – but they were aware that something like this could happen.”
The source goes on to say that the FSB’s Second Department – “the brain center for fighting terrorism” – now has only about 60% of the staff it is supposed to have, and only half of them are actually working.
What’s more, these personnel quit at the first opportunity: “In the wake of terrorist attacks, they all get pushed to work in Chechnya more actively. They are paid the equivalent of $2,000 for a six-month tour of duty in Chechnya. And they all know that if anything goes wrong, their families will only get 10,000 rubles in compensation for the loss of a breadwinner.”
The source of Novaya Gazeta also said: “When we are told of insufficient independence in decision-making – and the president has made such a statement – there are some evident discrepancies.” According to the source, the FSB top brass “can’t make a single move without approval from the presidential administration,” and this situation has persisted for quite a while. “For a long time, we have been taught to accept the idea that all specific decisions are passed down from the top, from specific individuals – deputy heads of the presidential administration.” (A reference to Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov, as Novaya Gazeta explains.) And these individuals, in turn, “do not improvise – they transmit the views of the chief executive.” Thus, according to the FSB sources, the entire FSB is effectively subordinate to the president himself: “Under the circumstances, there is no question of being able to make a timely response or display initiative.”
It would be hard to demand a flexible approach from such an agency.
In Kommersant-Vlast, Sergei Shilovsky says: “In order to play games such as these, it is necessary to have a stable, smoothly-functioning system.” But Russia’s special services are still in a transition stage: “We don’t have the kind of system where a lieutenant can catch a colonel’s meaning at once.” That’s how it used to be in Soviet times: “It would be enough for a superior to call a colonel into his office and say: Trotsky is going too far – looks like it’s time to finish this.” And from that moment, the problem could be considered solved: “The officer would catch the meaning at once, and issue orders to his agents – and everything would be solved.” But it’s impossible to use such methods now, says Shilovsky: “Neither lieutenants nor colonels can do anything in response to a verbal hint, or even a written order. They have no initiative. Everyone’s afraid to take responsibility.”
There are other reasons for the FSB’s inefficiency, says the “FSB analyst” who spoke to Novaya Gazeta.
According to him, another reason why almost all professionals have quit the FSB is because “in this system of relations, their opinions have frequently been ignored.” So those who do stay with the FSB are “compliant but inefficient people.”
The source of Novaya Gazeta then turns to today’s decision-makers: “I think that the president, at his high level, needs to finally make up his mind about what kind of people he wants in the FSB: professionals (who won’t tolerate crude political maneuvering and the presence of impotent courtiers incapable of making decisions) or entirely obedient courtiers (who will never succeed in preventing terrorist attacks.”
Vladimir Putin gets some more advice on the same topic from Alexander Khinshtein in Moskovskii Komsomolets.
Khinshtein says: “If I were the president, I would do one simple thing: make an appeal to former KGB personnel. ‘Comrades,’ I would say, ‘The Fatherland is in danger. The nation needs your experience and knowledge now. You are the last reserve of command. Arise, those of you who are still here. And as for salaries – well, we’ll raise them.'”
Khinshtein is sure that former KGB personnel will respond: “Even those who have decent jobs elsewhere, making good money. They will return, because most of them, even after resigning from the KGB, haven’t ceased to feel they are part of the cause they once served, and in their hearts they still think of themselves as chekists.”
And the KGB “didn’t recruit just anyone – those chosen to serve there went through an extremely stringent selection process, with their backgrounds being fully investigated.” The head office accepted “only the best of the best – otherwise the KGB’s name would never have resounded around the world!”
Former chekists may be working in the private sector now (Khinshtein makes no mention of corruption), but in Khinshtein’s view they are doing this only because they have been driven to it: “One round of reforms after another, one round of staff cuts after another – everything possible was done to destroy the system. But these people had homes, wives, families, elderly parents – all needing to be supported. Their salaries were insultingly low. Meanwhile, on the outside, there were banks and other private businesses starting up – all eager to employ them for their experience and skills.” It would be unnatural to condemn these people for striving to lead a normal life: “Counter-intelligence agents aren’t ascetic monks in hair shirts, rejoicing in mortification of the flesh.”
Besides, says Khinshtein, destroying the special services “is something only Russia has done – no other country has made a mockery of its own security with such skill.” Even in the countries of Eastern Europe – with the possible exception of East Germany and the Baltic states – “the authorities, after a brief moment of madness, were sensible enough to retain the main core of their special services.”
Obviously, says Khinshtein, the simplest solution for Putin – dismissing “FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and other siloviki” – could only appear effective from the outside: “What would happen next? Would the FSB perform any better after that? Would any new forces come forward? Would people be uplifted and inspired?” The questions are rhetorical; the answers are obvious.
Besides, how could we be sure that a new director of the FSB would be any better than Patrushev? “Each new director tends to be worse than his predecessor,” says Khinshtein. (As everyone knows, Patrushev’s predecessor as FSB director was Putin himself.)
And it would take a new FSB director at least a year to settle into the job: “That would really make things easy for the terrorists.”
The conclusion is evident: the problem of fighting terrorism, just like the problem of the inefficiency of Russia’s special services, cannot be solved by restructuring or dismissals at those agencies.
It’s a different matter entirely that in any civilized nation, after a terrorist attack that leads to so many casualties, especially children, the security and law enforcement chiefs would resign… But Russia, as usual, has its own view of things.
As for ordinary citizens, they still seem to be in a state of confusion – and anyway, they still haven’t decided what they think of the special services.
The abovementioned poll done by the Levada Center (it has been much discussed in the media) also asked whether the law enforcement agencies ought to be given more extensive powers, including some restrictions on civil rights, for the sake of fighting terrorism: and 46% of respondents said yes. Almost half! But 45% were categorically opposed to any such measures.
Sergei Markov, a leading political analyst, explained this ambiguous result to the Kommersant newspaper as follows: “There is no contradiction, as such: citizens are extremely negative about what the special services have done in the past, but they do believe that not all is lost.”
In Markov’s view, what the people want “isn’t another round of reforms in the law enforcement agencies, but a greater effort to fight corruption. And the people would be prepared to trust the agencies once they are no longer corrupt.”
Well, what other option do the people have?