The security agencies and their power-struggles

Viktor Cherkesov, head of the Federal Narcotics Control Service, admitted last week that a war between the special services is under way in Russia. Then again, this war has been under way for many years, and there are obvious elements of a political battle in this confrontation.

Viktor Cherkesov, head of the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), admitted last week that a war between the special services is under way in Russia. Then again, this war has obviously been under way for many years – and its greatest battles invariably happen in the lead-up to federal elections.

Early last week, the Kommersant newspaper published an article by Viktor Cherkesov (regarded as one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies), in which he expressed serious concern about “internecine warfare within the special services” and called on his chekist (ex-KGB) community colleagues to “maintain standards in their environment.” It’s worth noting that back in December 2004, Cherkesov wrote an article for Komsomolskaya Pravda; many described it as a kind of “chekist manifesto,” since FSKN Director Cherkesov, with a 25-year record of service in state security, argued that the chekists have played a special historical role in Russia’s revival.

The Prosecutor General’s Office Investigation Committee (IC), headed by Alexander Bastrykin (who attended university with Vladimir Putin), responded immediately to Cherkesov’s article. The IC issued a statement: it will “continue fighting crime and corruption, no matter how high a person’s rank or which agency employs them.” As the IC pointed out, over the past year the authorities have “initiated criminal prosecution procedures against 58 judges and magistrates at various levels, 234 investigators from the Interior Ministry, and 16 investigators from the FSKN.” The IC statement says: “The abovementioned figures and examples indicate that no rank or office or association with any particular agency can guarantee that people can evade being called to account for their crimes. The Prosecutor General’s Office IC intends to continue informing the public about the scale and nature of the work it does.”

Aside from the criminal charges, there are obvious elements of a political battle in this confrontation. Thus, two regional leaders – Irkutsk Governor Alexander Tishanin and Tomsk Governor Viktor Kress – criticized their regional Interior Ministry directorates last week. Although their pretexts were different (inadequate traffic safety in Irkutsk, a murder investigation in Tomsk), the fact that these Putin-appointed governors have ventured to rebel against their regional police chiefs (directly subordinate to the federal Interior Ministry) may also be regarded as evidence that the security and law enforcement hierarchy is weakening, although it seemed impregnable only a couple of years ago.

Another significant political event was President Putin’s surprise visit to the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters on the evening of October 8 – after the arrest of Lieutenant General Alexander Bulbov and two other FSKN officers. Although the presidential press service reported that Putin was there to inspect “technical equipment used to provide information support for the National Anti-Terrorist Committee,” many experts interpreted this gesture as a demonstrative expression of support for FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev in his confrontation with other siloviki (security and law enforcement people), including the FSKN leadership.

But it would be inaccurate to say that Putin is definitely taking sides in this dispute.

The current “intra-siloviki” conflict, escalating in the lead-up to another Duma election, can’t be described as unprecedented. Almost every federal election causes great stress among the siloviki; after all, the very prospect of more or less free rotation of government carries the threat of serious shake-ups for them, a priori. Thus, when Boris Yeltsin seemed likely to lose the 1996 presidential election to Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov, a group of Kremlin siloviki headed by Presidential Security Service chief Alexander Korzhakov argued in favor of cancelling the election and keeping the president in office by force. That vicious covert power-struggle eventually cost Korzhakov’s people their jobs – while Yeltsin went ahead with the election and won it after all.

In 2000, the siloviki barely made their presence felt at all in the political arena; propbably because the outcome of that presidential election was predetermined as early as the end of 1999. Vladimir Putin, the youthful and energetic prime minister, convinced voters that he would be a capable national leader; and his high approval rating enabled the newly-formed Unity bloc to finish second to the Communists in the Duma election.

In 2003, however, Russian society had been pacified by the onset of stability and needed another shake-up. This was provided by the Interior Ministry’s Internal Security Directorate, which started hunting “turncoats in uniform.” Given that the Interior Minister at the time was a “civilian,” Boris Gryzlov, and his first deputy was Rashid Nurgaliyev (ex-FSB), and the Internal Security Directorate chief was Konstantin Romodanovsky (also ex-FSB), the theme of the old conflict between the police and the chekists (dating back to the Soviet era) was clearly visible.

This was also the time when FSKN Director Viktor Cherkesov was first mentioned as a potential candidate to replace Gryzlov as Interior Minister. In late January 2005, observers started saying that Cherkesov might replace Patrushev as head of the FSB. That was the first time Putin missed the FSB’s annual expanded board meeting, sending then-Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov as his stand-in, and meeting with Cherkesov instead. And although Patrushev heads the FSB to this day, rumors of leadership changes at the Interior Ministry and the FSB are often reported in the media.

Over the past two weeks, sources of concern have multiplied for Interior Minister Nurgaliyev, FSB Director Patrushev, and other siloviki. After all, Putin has just demonstrated yet again that he can transfer even politically significant figures from one office to another. That’s also what happened in June 2006, when Putin suddenly made Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov switch places with Justice Minister Yuri Chaika; and in February 2007, when Federal Tax Service chief Anatoly Serdyukov was appointed as defense minister. That’s what happened very recently, in early October, when Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Sergei Lebedev became the CIS executive secretary and was replaced at the SVR by former prime minister Mikhail Fradkov. Given Putin’s obvious tendency to make unexpected appointment decisions, even his recent visit to FSB headquarters might turn out to be just one of the usual “cover operations” – perhaps followed by the appointment of someone entirely unexpected as the new FSB director.

Thus, contrary to Putin’s reassuring pronouncements that the Cabinet changes are intended to maintain stability after the presidential election of 2008, no state officials can feel confident and secure. Even those who have already been transferred to a new office have to think about how they can get closer to the successor over the next few months – without knowing who the successor will be. Even Putin’s admission that he might become prime minister doesn’t answer the big question: whether Putin will remain the real master of Russia after stepping down as president.

For this reason, the current conflicts within the chekist community – described by Cherkesov as the “hook” supporting Russia, and a bulwark of support for Putin since the start of his first term – could cause serious problems for the president. Early in the Putin era, the chekists lacked strength, so they had no choice but to work together; now they are divided into factions, each with its own representatives in business and government, and the interests of these factions often diverge radically. And each of them is sure to be striving for a leading role at the decisive transfer-of-power moment. And it’s not at all certain that Vladimir Putin himself won’t be hurt in this power-struggle, since he might find himself in the thick of the fighting.