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The Concealed Battle to Run Russia

Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, his wife Svetlana Medvedeva, 
and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at an Orthodox Easter celebration 
at Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow, April 4, 2010

Despite their professed mutual respect, Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, and his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, apparently cannot agree on one question—which of them will be running for the Russian presidency in March 2012. Over a year ago Putin told foreign journalists that he and Medvedev would at some point “sit down and come to an agreement” about who would be the presidential nominee of United Russia, the overwhelmingly pro-Kremlin party, in the next election. (He repeated the same promise in a recent interview with Larry King on CNN.) But that moment has yet to come, and in the meantime, both men are provoking speculation about their possible candidacies.

Putin’s publicity stunts last summer—including a 1,300-mile drive across Siberia in a Russian Lada (which reportedly broke down twice)—suggested that he was already campaigning. And at the Valdai group, an international forum, in September, he made a pointed remark about FDR’s four terms as US president having been legal under the American Constitution. For his part, Medvedev has said more than once that he did not rule out the possibility of a second term (which, beginning in 2012, will be six years instead of four). His press secretary, Natalya Timakova, was more emphatic, saying in September that Medvedev could not complete his program of “modernizing” Russia in just one term. In an October interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Igor Yurgens, a top presidential adviser, went so far as to insist that Putin should take himself out of the running to make way for Medvedev to carry out his programs. Yurgens acknowledged that Putin deserved “honor and praise” for stabilizing the country when he served as president in 2000–2008, but went on to point out that “if stabilization goes on forever, it leads to stagnation.” Medvedev himself warned in a video blog on November 24 that Russia was showing signs of “deadly” political stagnation because of the overwhelming dominance of one party.

As it has in earlier contests over leadership, the country’s all-powerful Federal Security Service (FSB) is bound to have a crucial part in deciding who will be the next president. (This agency made the original arrests in the Khodorkovsky case, discussed below, which has great significance for the presidential succession.) This is why The New Nobility, which explains how the FSB has evolved over the past decade into an organization with enormous political and economic influence, is such an important and timely book. The authors, Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, who wrote the book in English, are a husband-and-wife team in their mid-thirties, with a well-established reputation as Russian investigative journalists, specializing in security and intelligence, a dangerous subject in Russia. (They told me when I met them in Moscow in 2008 that they had been summoned to the FSB on more than one occasion and threatened with reprisals because of their reporting.) They also have a website, www.agentura.ru, which they founded in 2000, to report on and analyze these issues on a regular basis. Using anonymous sources from within the security services and the Kremlin, along with on-the-spot reporting, Soldatov and Borogan have uncovered new and significant information on the FSB and its relations with the Russian leadership.

The book’s title comes from an interview given at the end of 2000 by the then FSB chief, Nikolai Patrushev—a longtime ally of Putin’s from St. Petersburg—in which he called members of the FSB “our new ‘nobility.’” Patrushev’s description has proved apt. After Putin, a former FSB chief, became president in 2000, he made changes that substantially expanded the authority and the resources of this agency. Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, in a gesture to the democrats who voted him into power, had dismantled the KGB into several different agencies and curtailed their powers. Putin, as Yeltsin’s designated heir, gained public support because of his image as a strongman who initiated the second war in Chechnya (as a result of the shocking September 1999 apartment bombings in Moscow and two other Russian cities, which the Kremlin blamed on the Chechens though many said they were the work of the FSB).

Although Putin had the backing of powerful oligarchs like Boris Berezhovsky (who later became one of his fiercest enemies), his main power base was the FSB and he set about reversing the Yeltsin-era reforms that had weakened its authority. In 2003 the FSB absorbed the border guard, which, with over 150,000 troops, had been an independent body, and the part of the federal communications agency charged with electronic intelligence gathering. Under Putin the FSB was authorized by law to conduct intelligence operations outside Russia (formerly the job of the Foreign Intelligence Agency exclusively) and in 2006 a decree was passed that gave it the right to carry out assassinations abroad.

Putin filled the ranks of the FSB leadership with Pitertsi—former colleagues from St. Petersburg. He also gave friends from the security services key positions in other law enforcement agencies, as well as in the Kremlin and in state corporations, thus creating a new power base of officials—commonly referred to as the siloviki (“strong men”), with loyalties to the security services and to Putin himself. By the year 2007, according to the Russian sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya, two thirds of the members of the president’s administration were siloviki. Technically, the term applies to any official with a career background in one of the agencies that use force or coercion, which would include the defense and interior ministries and the prosecutor’s office. But under Putin the siloviki were primarily those who worked or used to work for the security services.

Not surprisingly, the siloviki see themselves as elite. As Russian economist Andrei Illarionov put it: “Their training instills in them a feeling of being superior to the rest of [the] populace, of being the rightful ‘bosses’ of everyone else.” As such, they also feel entitled to privileges. Soldatov and Borogan show that a number of high-ranking FSB officials managed to take over the official property of the old KGB for their private use, building large mansions in one of Moscow’s most expensive and exclusive suburbs, Rublyovka. The FSB in Moscow alone owns close to a hundred black Mercedeses, BMWs, and Audis, specially equipped with the lights and sirens that allow them to cut through the traffic jams that plague the city—the highest sign of privilege. (The Ministry of Defense has only nineteen such cars in Moscow.)

The siloviki also make sure their family members are well taken care of. For example, Patrushev, who headed the FSB from 1999 to 2008, has two grown sons, both of whom graduated from the FSB Training Academy in Moscow before working in that agency and later branching out into what is referred to as the “Active Reserve” (those who work in business, the media, and government while retaining FSB ties). In 2007 both were granted special awards for service by Putin.

The older son, Dmitry, is now chairman of the powerful Russian Agricultural Bank and the younger son, Andrei, was given a full-time position as an adviser to Igor Sechin, the chairman of Rosneft, the state oil company. Sechin, a former employee of the Russian military intelligence agency, is also Putin’s deputy prime minister. He is believed to be one of the most powerful men in the government, referred to jokingly by Russian journalist Evgenia Albats as “our Suslov”—Mikhail Suslov having been the éminence grise of the Kremlin during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras.

As the authors point out, the FSB is in several ways more powerful and more of a threat to individual rights than the KGB was during the Soviet era. The KGB took its orders from the Communist Party, which always kept a close watch on its operations. In contrast, although both Putin and Medvedev have influence over the FSB, it is in many respects its own master. (US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates observed in a secret cable, released recently by WikiLeaks, that Russia was “an oligarchy run by the security services.”) The committee of the Russian parliament charged with oversight of the security services is in fact powerless. The FSB formally answers only to the Russian president, but since Putin has close ties with the FSB leadership, its actual loyalties are in question. As Kryshtanovskaya expressed it: “In theory, Medvedev is in control. Whether or not security ministers think so is, of course, something altogether different.”

Because its main concern is preserving the current political regime, the FSB focuses its efforts on protecting the Kremlin’s vast economic interests, suppressing legitimate political opposition, and ensuring the Kremlin’s control over the press and television through intimidation and violence. Although the FSB’s direct involvement in the dozens of murders and beatings of outspoken Russian journalists over the past decade has never been proven conclusively, the available evidence strongly suggests that the agency was behind many of these crimes. (In the case of Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in October 2006, one of the suspects was a former FSB officer, although he was never convicted.1) The shocking attack on Oleg Kashin, an investigative journalist who was severely beaten in the entrance to his apartment building on November 6, is certain to raise further questions about the FSB’s role in the violence against journalists.

Still, the FSB is not a monolith, with an agreed-upon agenda. As Soldatov and Borogan observe, lower-level FSB functionaries resent the fact that their higher-ranking bosses earn so much more than they do and get so many perquisites. Last year some FSB employees even went so far as to sue the FSB leadership in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, claiming that they were being discriminated against because their wages were so low.

Far more serious for the FSB and the Kremlin are the rivalries at higher levels, which have increasingly become open conflicts over money and influence in a society where corruption is rampant. (According to a report issued in late October by Transparency International, Russia is ranked as the most corrupt economy in the Group of 20 nations and is more corrupt than any country in Europe. And a February 2010 US State Department cable from Madrid, made public on WikiLeaks, cited a top Spanish prosecutor as saying that Russia was a “virtual Mafia state.”) With its vast police and surveillance powers, the FSB has kompromat—incriminating evidence—on just about every official in the Russian government and uses it as a political and financial weapon.

During the past decade, two main clans emerged from the FSB and allied themselves with leaders of other law enforcement agencies as well as with high Kremlin officials. One clan arose around Patrushev, who has been secretary of the Security Council since 2008. His successor as head of the FSB, Aleksandr Bortnikov, is reportedly allied with this group (like Patrushev, he has been very close to Putin for years), as are Bortnikov’s immediate deputies. The Patrushev clan also includes Aleksandr Bastrykin, an old classmate of Putin’s who heads the powerful Investigative Committee of the Russian Prosecutor’s Office, established by Putin in early 2008. Significantly, the alleged leader of this clan is none other than Igor Sechin, Putin’s deputy.

  1. 1

    See my ” Who Killed Anna Politkovskaya,” The New York Review, November 6, 2008. 

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