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The Concealed Battle to Run Russia

The second clan arose around Viktor Cherkesov, another close associate of Putin’s from the St. Petersburg FSB, who from 2003 to 2008 was chief of the Federal Drug Control Service, a special agency set up by Putin with broad investigative powers. As president, Putin managed to balance the interests of the two clans and prevent them from airing their conflicts openly until the autumn of 2007, shortly before the parliamentary elections. Cherkesov’s agency was then investigating a Russian furniture supply business called the Three Whales that was accused of smuggling vast amounts of goods through FSB storage facilities and evading millions of dollars of import duties. The investigation led to the dismissal of several high-ranking FSB officials, creating a huge scandal and casting a shadow on the FSB’s reputation. In retaliation, the FSB, with the cooperation of Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee, arrested (in a dramatic scene at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport) Cherkesov’s deputy, Aleksandr Bulbov, and three other of his colleagues who had been in charge of the Three Whales investigation.

The arrests were a devastating blow to Cherkesov, who responded by writing an impassioned article in the newspaper Kommersant, in which he claimed that the arrest of his men was completely unwarranted and warned that an internecine war within the security services could undermine the stability of Russia: “There can be no winners in this war. There is too much at stake.”

Putin, clearly feeling he had been pushed too far, criticized Cherkesov publicly in the pages of the same newspaper: “It is wrong to take these kinds of problems to the media. When someone behaves that way and…claims that there is a war among the security agencies, he should, first of all, be spotless.” In May 2008 Cherkesov was removed from his post as drug tsar and made head of the Federal Arms Procurement Agency, a job he lost in June.

Cherkesov’s fall from grace did not put an end to the feuding between the siloviki. Cherkesov had allies, among them Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, who from the beginning was opposed to the establishment of Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee at the Russian Prosecutor’s Office. Chaika had appealed, unsuccessfully, a court decision to imprison Cherkesov’s deputy, Bulbov, who was not released until November 2009 and is still awaiting trial. Meanwhile Bastrykin’s committee had also struck a blow against Finance Minister Andrei Kudrin—another alleged member of the Cherkesov-Chaika camp—whose insistence on fiscal controls irritated people like Igor Sechin.

In December 2007, while Kudrin was on a business trip to Africa, the Investigative Committee ordered the arrest of his right-hand man, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak, on what many say were bogus charges of embezzlement. Kudrin protested the arrest publicly, but to no avail. Storchak was not released for eleven months, and his case is still pending, despite appeals from his lawyer to have it dropped because of lack of evidence.

With both Bulbov and Storchak awaiting their fate, the outcome of the feud between the two rival Kremlin clans is uncertain. It is also not clear where Medvedev stands in relation to the infighting. It was widely assumed by Kremlin watchers that Medvedev was a behind-the-scenes supporter of efforts to expose corruption in the FSB, efforts that were openly thwarted by Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee, and also that he was close to men like Chaika and Kudrin, who opposed the Sechin-Bastrykin group.

But some of Medvedev’s more recent actions raise questions about his allegiances. In late September, he announced that the Investigative Committee would be separated from the Prosecutor’s Office to become a completely independent agency that reports directly to him; to many, this suggests that rather than curbing the committee’s powers, he simply wants more direct control of it. The fact that Medvedev has kept Bastrykin on as chief of the Investigative Committee reinforces the impression that he is not concerned about making the legal and judicial system fairer and more effective.

Bastrykin promised publicly at the end of September that his new agency—which is soon to be approved by the Duma, despite fears by some members that it will become “an uncontrollable monster”—would reopen investigations into the deaths of at least five Russian journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya. But his past record gives little cause for optimism that any of these cases will be solved. It was Bastrykin who insisted, after the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006, that his committee had found no evidence whatever to support British claims that former FSB officer Andrei Lugovoi (now a member of the Russian parliament) was the murderer. Despite overwhelming evidence that linked Lugovoi (and the FSB) to the crime, the committee refused to cooperate with the British.

Bastrykin’s handling of the case of Sergei Magnitsky, the young Russian lawyer who died in prison in November 2009 because he was denied medical treatment for gallstones and pancreatitis, was equally disturbing.2 Magnitsky, who had exposed police corruption in a $230 million tax fraud case, had filed several protests about his unlawful arrest (by the very MVD officers who had carried out the fraud) and the appalling conditions of his confinement in prison. He died before his case went to trial.

Apparently responding to Western pressures, Medvedev recently asked Bastrykin to review the status of the investigation. Bastrykin concluded that “there is no reason to believe that his death is related to the activity of officials who conducted the investigation against him.” Bill Browder, the CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, which employed Magnitsky, responded that Bastrykin was “unfit to continue in his job. The officials conducting the investigation into Sergei’s death are ignoring so much evidence about police involvement that they must be either blind or deaf.”

Another disappointment to those who hoped that Medvedev’s much-talked-about program of modernization will include democratic reform was a bill he signed in August granting the FSB officers additional powers, including, most ominously, the right to issue formal warnings to people who they believe are threats to the country’s security. This bill was apparently intended to enable the FSB to enforce more harshly a 2007 law against “extremism”—which makes criticism of the authorities a punishable crime—and to give the FSB an additional weapon in its fight against terrorism. The new law has been strongly criticized by democratic activists because it recalls the old KGB practice of hauling in dissidents for “chats” and warning them that they could be arrested. According to Nikita Petrov, a historian who works for the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial, issuing “warnings” is “an obsolete practice, and to return to it looks shameful. If a person commits a crime or plans to commit one, he should be punished, of course. But if he has not, what are you [the FSB] warning him for?”

Some observers have speculated that the FSB and Putin initiated the bill and that Medvedev was not powerful enough to stand up to them, despite the fact that Medvedev said publicly, during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in July, that he had sponsored the bill. The speculation arose because Medvedev, after talking with editors of leading Russian newspapers who expressed their concern about the bill, ordered FSB chief Bortnikov to revise it so that the FSB would have to clearly define the actions that could be grounds for a warning. This suggested that Medvedev was trying to strike a balance between, on the one hand, his security service, still heavily influenced by Putin, and journalists and human rights activists on the other.

Medvedev cannot afford to look weak when it comes to fighting terrorism—a job that is primarily entrusted to the FSB. The bill was apparently the direct result of the twin suicide bombings that occurred in the Moscow subway in March, killing at least forty people and adding to the impression that the FSB’s antiterrorism efforts have not worked. As Soldatov and Borogan point out, the bombings raised a question that came up after numerous other terrorist attacks in Russia (the theater siege in Moscow in 2002, the hostage crisis at the school in Beslan in 2004, and the explosion on the Nevsky Express last year, to name a few): “If the secret services had been given so much support by the Kremlin in the name of providing security, why had they failed again to prevent such a deadly onslaught?”

Whatever Medvedev’s lofty words about reforming the legal system, his actions are what matter. Following the revelations of Magnitsky’s mistreatment, he had some prison officials fired and introduced reforms in the Interior Ministry, including a reduction in the number of agents. But the FSB continues to wield the real power among the law enforcement organs. And when it comes to making this agency accountable, Medvedev has yet to deliver.

Most significant politically for the future of the Russian government is the case against the oil giant Yukos, which began in 2003 when FSB agents raided its offices, seized its assets, and arrested several of its executives, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a personal enemy of Putin’s and a possible political threat, and his business partner Platon Lebedev. (Yukos’s assets were later sold in a “fire sale” to Rosneft, the state-owned company chaired by Putin’s deputy Igor Sechin.) Khodorkovsky and Lebedev have spent the past seven years in a Siberian Gulag after being convicted of tax violations. In 2007, when they would have been eligible for parole, the two former Yukos executives were charged with embezzling 350 million tons of oil and stealing shares from a Russian oil company. Prosecutors at their second trial, which ended in November, asked for a fourteen-year jail sentence.3

When he made his final statement to the court, Khodorkovsky told the judge: “Everybody understands that your verdict in this case—whatever it will be—is going to become part of the history of Russia.” (See his statement below.) But the verdict, widely anticipated in Russia and the West, will most likely be decided by the siloviki in the Kremlin, along with the FSB, not the court. And the postponement, without explanation, of the judge’s pronouncement from December 15 to December 27, suggests strongly that it will not be favorable to the defendants. The Kremlin may have calculated that public reaction to a harsh verdict would be minimized if it is announced in the midst of the busy holiday season. (Recall that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on this very date in 1979.) Still, Medvedev himself could argue for an acquittal, or even pardon the defendants, which he has the legal power to do. A harsh sentence for Khodorkovsky could damage efforts to “reset” relations with the West. Also, as Khodorkovsky’s lead lawyer, Vadim Klyuvgant, said recently,

If you look at the reforms declared by President Medvedev, the attempt to modernize the country, Khodorkovsky would be essential to that reform…. It’s a crime to keep a person with such potential to build and do something in isolation and unable to contribute.
  1. 2

    See my ” Death in Detention: Russia’s Prison Scandal,” NYR Blog, January 7, 2010. 

  2. 3

    The cases of Khodorkovsky and Hermitage Capital are probably only a small sample of the persecution of Russian businessmen by representatives of the siloviki. Many entrepreneurs in the regions outside Moscow and St. Petersburg suffer similar fates. According to statistics released by the Ministry of Interior (MVD) for 2009, Russian law enforcement agencies brought criminal charges for fraud ( moshennichestvo )—a vague article in the penal code bringing severe sentences of up to ten years in prison—in 78,000 cases, which was an increase of 4.4 percent from the year before. Of course, it is impossible to know how many of these cases were legitimate, but the statistics suggest that arrests for economic crimes might be a convenient method for the siloviki in the regions to further their own financial and political interests. 

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