On October 2 Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) carried out what initially appeared to be a routine arrest of a suspect connected with corruption in a counter-narcotics trafficking agency. However, the arrest of Lieutenant-General Alexander Bulbov, a department head in the Federal Service for Control Over the Trafficking of Narcotics (Gosnarkokontrol), was detained along with three colleagues at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. Yuri Geval, deputy head of the service’s internal security department, was also arrested. Other than a minor scuffle, as the suspect resisted arrest, there was little to indicate the controversial nature of the incident. However, the Russian media pounced on the story, speculating that the operation was linked to inter-agency rivalries and a standoff between those agencies.
Reportedly returning to Moscow from a trip abroad, Bulbov and his colleagues were detained as a result of an operation coordinated between the FSB and the Prosecutor General’s Office Investigations Committee. Bulbov is suspected of participating in illegal wire-tapping, according to Vremya novostei. He is considered to be one of the closest associates of Viktor Cherkesov, the head of Gosnarkokontrol, and thus represents not only a high-ranking officer within the agency, but one that could cause wider embarrassment to its hierarchy (Vremya novostei, October 3).
Internecine rivalry entered the relationship between Gosnarkokontrol and the FSB largely as a result of an investigation into the “Tri Kita” furniture case, relating to the smuggling of consumer goods into Russia from China. Consequently, Bulbov’s investigation precipitated mass sackings both within the Prosecutor General’s Office and the FSB. His arrest may be the FSB’s answer to the problems faced by the intelligence services due to the nature of Gosnarkokontrol’s investigation.
On October 3 a Gosnarkokontrol source denied Bulbov’s alleged wrongdoing and questioned the legality of the arrest. Arresting the Gosnarkokontrol general is seen as the FSB’s own distinctive response to the activities of the agency. “I rule out any illegal activity by this person. That person is not capable of doing anything illegal because of his character and convictions,” suggested the Gosnarkokontrol source (Interfax, Ekho Moskvy, October 3).
Bulbov’s own lawyer vociferously repudiated any involvement in corruption. “Bulbov has not been charged; he is a suspect. He is suspected of abuse of office, exceeding powers, taking a bribe, engaging in illegal business, and divulging state secrets. The position is simple. Bulbov is totally perplexed by these suspicions. All of them are groundless and have nothing to do with reality,” explained Bulbov’s lawyer, Sergei Sevruk. Yet, the case itself is far from simple (Interfax, October 4).
Bulbov served in counterintelligence, and senior people within the Prosecutor’s Office and the FSB lost their jobs thanks to his efforts. He collected evidence in the Tri Kita case, presenting this information to the presidential administration in 2006. What began as a routine contraband case several years earlier triggered suggestions of FSB involvement, rumors of Kremlin intrigues, and charges against the investigators themselves. The case affected senior officials in the Customs Service and the Prosecutor General’s Office.
The FSB can portray this arrest as another victory in fighting against corruption. In June 2007 a deputy head of the Moscow Main Interior Directorate was charged in connection with wire-tapping, and in September a series of arrests were made involving employees of the Audit Chamber. The FSB views Bulbov’s arrest as fitting into this pattern. Indeed, the FSB has recently promoted a positive and professional image of its investigatory capabilities. On September 27 Russia’s Zvezda TV profiled the most closed FSB structure, the FSB’s Criminology Institute, which is marking its 30th anniversary. Credited for solving dozens of murders and terrorist cases, the institute has been engaged in a broad range of activities, ranging from psychological profiling to forensic analysis. Staff from the institute often play a leading role in any FSB criminal investigation. Vladimir Bogdanov, head of the criminology institute of the FSB’s special equipment center, boasted: “Today our institute continues to be a leading criminology division of Russia’s state security bodies. Every member of our staff makes a contribution to the common task of ensuring the security of our fatherland” (Zvezda TV, September 27).
Bulbov’s activities and investigations became less focused on counter-narcotics, and some critics alleged that he was “reporting” on areas beyond his remit. Kyril Kabanov, chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, observed that Bulbov was causing problems for other agencies, “He was an inconvenient figure. Naturally, a person like that had to be isolated as much as possible and people close to him had to be isolated too. It was Bulbov’s department that carried out technical support of operations on money-laundering cases, where major banks were involved. A theory has been voiced — and it may be correct — that it involved officials, including senior ones, from the Federal Security Service” (Ren TV, October 3).
Viktor Ilyukhin, a member of the State Duma Commission on Countering Corruption, suggested the case might be the opening shot in a conflict involving the FSB’s reassertion of power over other special services in Russia. “If I used the word ‘revenge’ by one special service against another special service, I guess one can be saying that a war between special services has begun. I do not rule out the possibility that Bulbov may be just the first step toward compromising the head of the Federal Service for Control Over the Trafficking of Narcotics, Viktor Cherkesov” (Ren TV, October 3).
FSB officers reportedly conducted searches of Bulbov’s apartment to collect materials that may allow charges to be filed against him at a later date. As the case unfolds, questions will emerge as to the purpose of the arrests, the message sent out from the FSB concerning its relations with other law-enforcement agencies in Russia, the links to the presidential administration, and the precise nature of the FSB’s perception of its role and primacy within Russia’s security structures.