An officer with the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN) and a former colleague of his were recently found dead in St. Petersburg, the apparent victims of poisoning. If deliberate poisoning is confirmed, it would suggest that an under-the-carpet battle between rival Russian special services may be spinning out of control.
The bodies of Kostantin Durzenko, an officer with the FSKN’s St. Petersburg directorate, and Sergei Lomako, a former colleague, were found on the morning October 27. The St. Petersburg-based website Fontanka.ru quoted police as saying that the two had met with another former colleague and other people at a city café, where they “partied on a grand scale,” but that the other revelers had said the Druzenko and Lomako were fine when they last saw them (Fontanka.ru, October 27). On October 31, Alexander Mikhailov, head of the FSKN’s department for inter-agency and information activity, confirmed that the two men were poisoned and said the circumstances surrounding their deaths were “strange” (Strana.ru, October 31). The press service of the Investigative Committee of the St. Petersburg Prosecutor’s Office said on October 31 that the substance that poisoned the two men would be named in three weeks, when forensic analysis will be completed (Regnum.ru, October 31).
The apparent poisoning came against the backdrop of a conflict between the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the FSKN that went public last month following the arrest of the head of the FSKN’s operational department, Lieutenant-General Alexander Bulbov, and several other FSKN officers at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (see EDM, October 9, 11; Lenta.ru, October 3). Bulbov and the other FSKN officers were arrested by agents of the FSB and the Investigative Committee – a newly formed structure that operates under the auspices of the Prosecutor General’s Office, on October 2. The Investigative Committee accused Bulbov of taking bribes from several private companies for “protection” and monitoring the telephone conversations of 53 businessmen and journalists. Bulbov was charged, among other things, with abusing his office, illegal business activities, receiving bribes, and engaging in illegal wiretapping (Strana.ru, October 31). On October 31, the Moscow City Court declared Bulbov’s arrest lawful, rejecting an appeal by the Prosecutor General’s Office and a protest motion from Bulbov’s lawyers. The Prosecutor General’s Office wanted the order for Bulbov’s arrest scrapped and his case sent back for a new trial at Moscow’s Basmanny Court, while Bulbov’s lawyers wanted him released from custody (Interfax, October 31).
Bulbov and one of the other FSKN officers arrested on October 2 had been leading the agency’s investigation of Tri Kita (Three Whales), a Moscow furniture store accused of running a smuggling operation that evaded millions of dollars in duties on goods imported from China. Back in 2002, the Novaya gazeta deputy editor and State Duma deputy Yuri Shchekochikhin was put under protective guard along with his family after receiving threats connected to an investigative piece he published in Novaya gazeta in February of that year claiming that a “criminal group” had paid $2 million to top officials in the Prosecutor General’s Office to close down an investigation into allegations that Tri Kita and another furniture store, Grand, evaded import duties by falsifying the weight and purchase price of millions of dollars’ worth of goods they had imported. According to media reports, among the co-founders of the Tri Kita and Grand stores were “firms belonging to the father” of Yuri Zaostrovtsev, then a deputy FSB director (Jamestown Monitor, February 20, 2002). Shchekochikhin died in July 2003, apparently the victim of poisoning. In an open letter, Bulbov charged that three FSB generals, whom he identified by their last names – Kupryazhkin, Feoktistov, and Kharitonov – were behind his arrest and that the campaign against him began a year ago, when a group of FSKN staffers under his leadership was tasked with investigating the Tri Kita case (Strana.ru, October 31).
The arrests of Bulbov and the other FSKN officers, however, appear to be part of a power struggle that goes beyond the battle over the Tri Kita investigation. Following the arrests, FSKN chief Viktor Cherkesov wrote an article in Kommersant stating that the arrests were evidence of “infighting among the special services” and warning: “There can be no winners in this war. There is too much at stake.” He also stated that it is impermissible for “warriors to turn into merchants” – the latter apparently being a reference to his foes within Russia’s special services and other agencies (Kommersant, October 9).
Some observers say that this broader conflict pits Cherkesov and Viktor Zolotov, head of the Presidential Guard Service, against deputy Kremlin chief of staff Igor Sechin, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, and Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin (Yevgeny Kiselyov’s program “Vlast,” RTVi television, Ekho Moskvy, October 12). The power struggle may be getting worse because of the ongoing uncertainty over what will happen next year following the end of President Vladimir Putin’s second and constitutionally mandated final term. According to one school of thought, the rival camps are jockeying for position in anticipation that Putin will no longer be around to play a mediating role: as the well-known political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky put it: “The wars between the elites have come to the surface. Not everyone is convinced that Putin can stay in power” (Wall Street Journal, October 10). For now, however, Putin appears to be trying to maintain a balance between the warring factions: After Cherkesov’s article appeared in Kommersant, Putin publicly scolded him, telling Kommersant that it is “wrong to bring these kinds of problems to the media” and that someone who claims a war between security agencies is going on “should, first of all, be spotless.” Yet the following day, Putin created a new state committee to fight illegal drugs and named Cherkesov as its chief. That put Cherkesov on a par with Patrushev, who, in addition to heading the FSB, heads the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (Moscow Times, October 22).
Whether Putin can continue this balancing act as his second term comes to a close remains to be seen. If the poisonings in St. Petersburg turn out to be part of the broader power struggle, this shows that the danger it could turn violent is very real. Indeed, as a former security services officer familiar with the circumstances surrounding the arrest of General Bulbov and his fellow FSKN officers told the Moscow Times of the incident: “We nearly had a fight between two security agencies. This time, the agents were able to keep their cool, and there was no gunfight. But if this battle continues, you can be sure they will start shooting at each other. And it would be difficult to stop.”