The colorful notion of the siloviki – power-wielders or men-of-power – that just a year ago seemed to convey an essential characteristic of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime, has all but disappeared from Russian political discourse. With the surprise mid-December nomination of Dmitry Medvedev as the Kremlin’s choice to be the next president and his firmly orchestrated election a month ago, the leaders of law-enforcement structures and the top brass have humbly retreated to the shadows. The aggressive “patriotic” rhetoric and demonstrations of military might have been toned down, and the mundane themes of inflation, small business development, and corruption have dominated public debates, instead.
This relaxed political climate suddenly changed last week with the flow of news about discontent in the “power structures” amounting to a new round of the internecine war among the special services last autumn (Gazeta.ru, March 29; EDM, October 11, 2007). The first wave of rumors was about the frustration in the military leadership over the cadre decisions of Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who allegedly sought to replace generals with civilian specialists (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 24). Then the dry official notice about the retirement of First Deputy Interior Minister Alexander Chekalin and his replacement by 43-year old Lieutenant-General Mikhail Suhodolsky brought speculations about forthcoming “purges” in this ministry (Vremya novostei, March 27). Finally, on Friday (March 28) afternoon the news broke about an avalanche of resignations in the Investigation Committee of the State Prosecution Service, including Dmitry Dovgy, the head of the Main Investigation Department (Newsru.com, March 28). The particular issues that are triggering these overlapping scandals are obviously unconnected, but the growing disorder in the key pillars of power is unmistakable.
The situation in the armed forces is driven by genuine puzzlement in the officer corps about one dimension of leadership that the new commander-in-chief has no experience in – and shows no interest in acquiring – security matters, a glaring gap as the defense minister has experience only in financial matters. The ongoing corruption investigations are scary only for a narrow group in the colossal military bureaucracy, but their screams amplify the general grumble caused by the lack of attention to deeper problems in the army. The Defense Ministry issued a statement denying any “military opposition,” but Yuri Baluyevsky, the chief of the General Staff and the most authoritative senior officer, remains uncharacteristically silent (Kommersant, March 27). This brewing discontent might seem insignificant, but in fact it will limit Putin’s space for maneuvering during his forthcoming trip to the NATO summit in Bucharest (Ezhednevny zhurnal, March 28).
The squabble in the State Prosecution Service is more dramatic and embarrassingly more public. Yuri Chaika, who was appointed state prosecutor in June 2006, replacing the too ambitious Vladimir Ustinov, who ended up taking his successor’s former job as justice minister, was not happy at all when a semi-independent Investigation Committee was created last September. His relations with its head, Alexander Bastyrkin, who has no experience in investigations of any kind but was widely seen as Putin’s protégé, have been visibly very tense. The Investigation Committee became the center of vicious clashes among several “power structures” last autumn, when it handled the cases of Alexander Bulbov, a deputy to the influential “drug tsar” Viktor Cherkesov, and of Sergei Storchak, a deputy to finance minister Alexei Kudrin (Moskovsky komsomolets, March 28). Chaika criticized the low efficiency of investigative work and supported a plan to create a Federal Investigation Service that would unite the respective departments in the Interior Ministry, the Prosecution, and the FSB (RBC Daily, March 18). Bastyrkin sought to derail this plan and claimed that his Investigation Committee was targeted by foreign intelligence services (Newsru.com, March 27).
The explosive corruption scandal in the Investigation Committee quite possibly would have wider implications than just weakening Bastyrkin’s hand in his tug-of-war with Chaika. What is at stake in the complex intrigue that marks its twists and turns with arrests, dismissals, and suicides is the issue of who will control the feuding special services – and whether they would be controlled at all. Putin’s authority has been weakened by both his self-demotion to the position of prime minister and by his choice of successor, as Medvedev will have a hard time proving that he has what it takes to control the mutinous siloviki. One option for Putin to reclaim his position as arbiter would be to create the position of first deputy prime minister in charge of the law-enforcement structures, to whom the envisaged Federal Investigation Service would answer (New Times, March 24). Sergei Ivanov, who is bitterly disappointed about his crushed presidential ambitions, would hardly apply for this job, but Nikolai Patrushev, currently director of the FSB and a committed Putin loyalist, might just fit the bill (RBC Daily, March 27). It is not certain at all, however, that the FSB would go along with that option; its recent blatant attack against the oil company TNK-BP might be a sign that this most special of all special services is not inclined to ask for orders or permissions (Expert, March 21).
Official noisy campaigns against corruption have never amounted to much except for helping Putin keep subordinates in check, but now his siloviki refuse to be disciplined. They have vested interests in the shadow side of the quasi-democratic but very capitalist system – and know too much about the hidden flows of money and the mechanisms of manipulating the media, the parties, and indeed the elections. They are not very impressed by Putin’s “charisma” as a “national leader,” and even less by Medvedev’s easy-come popularity and careful choice of words for proclaiming the supremacy of law. It remains astonishingly unclear what kind of team Medvedev intends to bring to the Kremlin and how he is planning to run the rather disorganized Security Council. Putin, however, has to rush to implement cadre reshuffling and to render decisions on “hostages” like Bulbov and Storchak as his grasp on power weakens perhaps faster than he expected. He has always rewarded loyalty above competence in his lieutenants, but they know too well that nobody is irreplaceable – and sentimental they are not.