Brian Whitmore, the Senior Correspondent in RFE/RL‘s Central Newsroom, covering European security, energy and military issues and domestic developments in Russia. He is longtime “Russia Watcher” and the author of the highly influential Power Vertical Blog and host of the Power Vertical Podcast. Before joining RFE/RL in 2007, he worked for eight years for the Boston Globe and was a political correspondent and columnist in Russia for the St. Petersburg Times and The Moscow Times.
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What is going on between the siloviki and what does it means for Putin and post-Putin Russia? It’s old news by now but a quick recap of the story is necessary. The siloviki’s infighting became public in early October when FSB agents arrested the head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), Lieutenant-General Alexander Bulbov at Domodedovo Airport. The FSB accused Bulbov of taking bribes and conducting illegal wiretaps of 53 journalists and businessmen. But it also turns out that Bulbov had been heading an investigation of the Moscow furniture outfit Tri Kita for smuggling goods from China without paying import taxes. It is believed that there are top FSB agents providing “protection” to Tri Kita. In a statement released by his lawyers, Bulbov said, “I insist that the legal action against me, including my arrest and the unsubstantiated charges, as well as the ongoing media frenzy, are due to my part in the investigation into the Tri Kita [furniture chain] and the smuggling of Chinese goods. FSB officials acted on their fear of new facts coming to light.” The judges either didn’t think so or are in the FSB’s pocket because they upheld his arrest as legal in Moscow’s Basmanny Court on Tuesday.
In Russia, the arrests of top agents from one security organ by another is never really about stopping crime and corruption. As most quickly noted, they are a sign of clan warfare within Putin’s government. And clan warfare it is. In response to the arrests, FSKN head Viktor Cherkesov published his now famous “We must not allow warriors to become traders” statement. Breaking with protocol, he decided to make the feud public because it was “better to open the abscess right away than to wait for gangrene to set in.” He also gave an additional warning: “There can be no winners in this war, there is too much at stake.”
Cherkesov’s words opened the floodgates. Over the next few weeks former KGB/FSB notables echoed of his calls for unity in the conservative Zavtra. Putin finally stepped in. He scolded Cherkesov in Kommersant for airing chekist dirty laundry in public. “If I were in the place of people who defended the honour of the company, I would not blame all round, especially with the help of mass media,” Putin told the paper. He then gave Cherkesov a promotion.
But Putin’s intervention might not have been enough. There is now speculation that the poisoning of Konstantin Druzhenko and Sergei Lomako in St. Petersburg is yet another episode in the clan war. (One should remember that when Yuri Shchekochikhin, the deputy editor of Novaya gazeta turned up dead in 2003, he was investigating FSB connections to Tri Kita.) Druzhenko and Lomako were no drunks as police originally thought when they stumbled upon the two men’s bodies. Both were agents of Cherkesov’s FSKN. According to Alexander Mikhailov of the Drug Contol Service, “poison was involved” but what exactly what kind of bane required more tests. The murders are another threatening sign that the clan feud might erupt in open and bloody warfare. It’s like 1936 all over again. Well, maybe not exactly.
But to return to the initial question: what does all this mean? A good place to go for some answers is Jonas Berstein of the Eurasian Daily Monitor. Bernstein has published a few articles dealing with the subject. One just the other day on the Druzhenko and Lomanko murders and another today analyzing a commentary by Vladimir Milov published in Gazeta.ru on October 22.
In both articles, Bernstein argues that the infighting has intensified because each clan is jostling for position in a post-Putin Russia. So far Putin has acted as a mediator but there is a growing belief that his role as Godfather might be waning. So much so that Bernstein entertains a possibility drawn up by Milov: the infighting is “reminiscent of what happened during 1990-91, when “Gorbachev’s conservative circle gradually strengthened their influence on decision-making.” The way he breaks it down is as follows:
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.”
For those who think that the results of Russia’s Presidential Elections are written in stone might do well to pay attention to the power play taking place between the factions within, possibly until now, Putin’s most ardent allies. We might be witnessing another example where Russia’s elites bust up the state’s stability through their own horizontal power intrigues. You can pick whatever historical allegory you want to draw conclusions or lessons. There are many to chose from with their own particular dynamic. The only historical constant is that Russia’s ruling class might be a class with a consciousness of itself but not certainly not necessarily one for itself.