Russian political analysts and other observers are watching the power struggle inside Russia’s security and law-enforcement establishment. The conflict broke out into the open in early October with the arrest of the head of the operational department of the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), Lieutenant-General Alexander Bulbov, and several other FSKN officers at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport by agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General’s Office (see EDM, November 2). One leading observer believes the inter-siloviki battle is a sign that as President Vladimir Putin’s second and last-constitutionally mandated presidential term comes to an end, Putin is losing control over his entourage and hardliners are feeling increasingly emboldened to weigh in on policy.
Bulbov had been leading the FSKN’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 and allegedly linked to senior FSB officials. Bulbov’s arrest on October 2 was followed a week later by the publication in Kommersant of an article by FSKN chief Viktor Cherkesov, in which he called the arrests evidence of “infighting among the special services,” defended Bulbov’s investigation of the Tri Kita case and called it intolerable for “warriors to turn into merchants” (see EDM, November 2). Cherkesov also called for solidarity within what he called the “Chekist” community and “corporation.” Cherkesov’s article was echoed on October 31, when the ultranationalist newspaper Zavtra published an open letter by five retired senior KGB officials — including General Vladimir Kryuchkov, the last KGB chief – warning that the siloviki infighting could lead to “major troubles” and be exploited by “foreign and domestic destructive forces.” Declaring support for Cherkesov, the signatories stated: “We see that the sides are united by a belief in Putin as a national leader, as the factor for stability in the country. Many people share this belief and are ready to support any steps that would lead to mutual understanding of the sides” (Associated Press, October 31; Moscow Times, November 1).
Putin appears to be trying to balance between the rival factions. After Cherkesov’s article appeared in Kommersant, Putin told the newspaper that it is “wrong to bring these kinds of problems to the media” but then created a new state committee to fight illegal drugs and named Cherkesov as its chief (see EDM, November 2). On October 8, just a day before Cherkesov’s article appeared in Kommersant, Putin had made a publicized visit to FSB headquarters, the official reason being to see a demonstration of technical means for providing information support to the National Anti-Terrorism Committee, headed by FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev (RIA-Novosti, October 8).
But while some observers have been focusing on the siloviki factional fighting, others suggest that the greatest threat to Russia’s future is what the warring factions, despite their differences, represent collectively. On October 22, the Gazeta.ru website ran a commentary by Vladimir Milov, president of the Moscow-based Institute of Energy Policy and a former deputy energy minister. The piece was entitled “Foros-2007” – a reference to the Crimean resort town where Mikhail Gorbachev was essentially kept under house arrest by Soviet hardliners during their abortive August 1991 putsch.
Milov noted that in addition to Cherkesov, other top government officials have recently stepped out of the shadows. In late September, Sergei Chemizov, the head of Russia’s arms trading monopoly Rosoboronexport and board chairman of the AvtoVAZ carmaker who served with Putin in the KGB in Dresden in the 1980s, called for using the Stabilization Fund, set up in 2004 to insulate Russia’s economy from the volatility of raw materials export earnings, to provide credit for domestic industry (RIA- Novosti, September 28). Milov also pointed to the Soviet-era behavior of Viktor Zubkov. Since his appointment as prime minister in September, Zubkov has publicly upbraided subordinates in a manner far harsher than anything Putin himself has displayed while in power. Zubkov has also been the point man in a PR campaign to shift the blame for sharp food price rises onto retailers and producers. Then came Cherkesov’s article, the significance of which, wrote Milov, is not what it had to say about the specific dispute between the FSKN and the FSB, but its description of the “ideology of the corporatist model of the Chekist state” — which, in Milov’s words, amounts to a “completely obvious formulation of a model for building totalitarianism in Russia.” Milov also noted that while Cherkesov’s article may have been a sign of his weakness in the current power struggle, what is important is that his rivals “think in exactly the same categories that he very rashly half opened” in the article.
The growing number of hard-line policy statements and demarches by officials previously thought to be mere bureaucrats is reminiscent of what happened during 1990-91, when “Gorbachev’s conservative circle gradually strengthened their influence on decision-making,” wrote Milov. Those hardliners, including then KGB chief Vladimir Kryuchkov, went on to form the State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP).
Today, the siloviki in Putin’s administration have already accumulated “real power,” meaning that Putin can no longer give them orders and must instead reach “an understanding” with them, Milov wrote. “They are in many respects dissatisfied with the essence of the policy [currently] being carried out, which still contains rather many elements of liberalism (above all in the economic sphere),” he wrote. “They have begun to express this dissatisfaction in public and to propose their prescriptions for solving this problem.”
While not predicting a hard-line coup, Milov wrote that Putin, like Gorbachev, will increasingly have to heed the demands of the hardliners in his administration. “The prescriptions proposed by the insiders of Putin’s circle are already clear – spend the Stabilization Fund to support enterprises …, intensify regulation of the economy, regiment the entire country under the Chekist corporation,” he wrote. “If we want stability in Russia, it would be better if these people sat quietly and didn’t thrust themselves forward. However, they do not want to sit quietly … and Putin already cannot force them to be silent. Such an evolution of the system of governance he built arouses serious fears for Russia’s future” (Gazeta.ru, October 22).