Nothing has been left to chance in the latest, tightly controlled script for reformatting the political arena in Russia. Generously granting his consent to join the electoral list of the dominant United Russia party, President Vladimir Putin appeared to have reduced the uncertainty surrounding the presidential succession, as the parliamentary elections in December have now become a simple vote of confidence with a pre-determined outcome.
The presidential elections scheduled for March have also lost intrigue, since Putin’s half-promise to accept the position of prime minister has reduced the question about a “successor” to a mere technicality, with some experts arguing that the shift of power to the government would be formalized by revising the constitution. Others argue that Putin would return to his “natural habitat” in the Kremlin after only a short spell in the temporary job (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 4; Moskovsky novosti, October 5). No opposition force could have disturbed this orderly progress toward “more-of-the-same”; this week’s shock-wave has come from within the political class that serves as the main pillar of Putin’s regime – the leadership of the special services, collectively known as the siloviki.
Tuesday, October 9, Viktor Cherkesov, the head of the Federal Service for Control over Trafficking of Narcotics (Gosnarkokontrol), published a lengthy article in Kommersant outlining the risks of an “internecine feud” among the special services. The immediate cause for the highly unusual public declaration was the arrest of General Alexander Bulbov, Cherkesov’s deputy and right-hand man, who was initially accused of many crimes, including exposing state secrets, but now is charged only with illegal wire-tapping (see EDM, October 9). Cherkesov and his colleagues vehemently insist that the case was fabricated to derail the ongoing investigation into corruption and smuggling in the special services, which Putin has personally assigned to Gosnarkokontrol supervision (RIA-Novosti, October 10; Newsru.com, October 11). While Cherkesov is careful not to reveal any names and puts the blame only on the newly created Investigations Committee within the State Prosecution Service, it is no secret that his attack is aimed at the all-powerful Federal Security Service (FSB).
The petty details of mutual accusations are perhaps less interesting than Cherkesov’s attempt to claim the high moral ground and advance an ideology of chekizm (referring to the Extraordinary Commission — ChK — that unleashed the campaign of state terror under the leadership of Felix Dzerzhinsky in the first years after the October Revolution). Cherkesov claims that during the period of moral decay in the 1990s, the chekisty closed their ranks and provided a handhold that the desperate society grasped as their last hope and thus checked its free-fall into the abyss. Now the infighting inside the chekist corporation threatens to destroy that vital handhold, potentially resulting in a devastating crisis and collapse of the still-fragile state. Typically, Cherkesov says nothing about the law or political control over the feuding agencies but proclaims the need to uphold corporate norms and solidarity (Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 10).
The Bulbov case is indeed not an isolated squabble but a battle in the escalating war between clans that use their enforcement capabilities to advance business interests. Sergei Stepashin, a former prime minister with an impeccable chekist pedigree, tried to make his Audit Chamber into a “power structure” that would control financial flows between state agencies, but he suffered a painful setback when several of his lieutenants were arrested on corruption charges (Vremya novostei, October 9). Recently sacked prime minister Mikhail Fradkov, whose performance was widely portrayed as pathetic, has suddenly re-emerged as head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, while Sergei Lebedev, a professional who directed this service for seven years, was inexplicably moved to the hopeless job of executive secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (Kommersant, October 8).
Putin is obviously trying to extinguish the flaring clan conflicts; the Kremlin celebration for his 55th birthday invited all of the prominent siloviki in an effort to boost corporate cohesion (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 8). Putin has also promoted a new clan, headed by newly appointed Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and his son-in-law Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who have never belonged to the chekist brotherhood but have a solid base in the tax service and financial monitoring sector (see EDM, September 19). Nothing, however, helps in reconciling the warring parties that can no longer keep their infighting under the proverbial carpet, so the peculiar details that the FSB generals sacked by Putin have, in fact, retained their jobs and that Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, has named Cherkesov as his “personal enemy” are leaked to the newspapers (Kommersant, October 11; Ezhednevny zhurnal, October 4).
The problem is not that Cherkesov has become desperate about his limited access to the “boss” or, perhaps, cherishes ambitions to become secretary of the Security Council (a key post that has remained vacant for several months). The real problem is that although Putin has many ties to the chekist corporation, he cannot stop the increasing decay within. By reducing the political competition to a meaningless show and empowering the special services, he has laid for himself a perfect trap that was sprung exactly at the moment his plan for walking over the “2008” watershed received a standing ovation from the quasi-party of the ruling bureaucracy.
The chekists have apparently convinced him that there is no safe way for him to step down from the summit of power, so the scheme with moving to the prime-ministerial chair was put together in apparent haste (Gazeta.ru, October 8). It certainly lacks “elegance,” as the trick of retaining power is too transparent, but, more importantly it involves high risks of destroying Putin’s seemingly rock-solid credibility. Indeed, taking charge of the government, he would have to accept responsibility for the galloping inflation, for the increase in gas and electricity prices, and for every other problem that he has pushed away towards a “successor.” He would also be in no position to manage the clan wars among the siloviki. In fact, keeping power is a very dubious proposition, but every emergency exit has been very carefully closed.