(3) The Sunday Sin
Adding to the mystery, their October 27 deaths came in the midst of a nasty and protracted turf battle between rival clans of KGB and security-service veterans in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. This “war of the siloviki” — Russian slang for members or veterans of the security services — pits a bureaucratic clique led by Federal Antinarcotics Service head Viktor Cherkesov, the two men’s boss, against another led by Putin’s powerful deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin. Police say they are still investigating the deaths, while insisting the poisonings were unconnected to the men’s work. But some Kremlin-watchers, like Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank, believe otherwise. “This is connected,” Pribylovsky told RFE/RL. “I have few doubts that this happened in the context of the [siloviki] war. And I don’t see peace breaking out.”
Battle Of The Clans
Whether or not there is a connection — and the evidence at this point is largely circumstantial — speculation about the deaths highlights mounting concerns that the high-stakes battle for power and influence among the Kremlin’s siloviki clans might be spinning out of control. The power struggle, analysts say, is largely being fueled by mounting uncertainty — and growing apprehension — over what will happen when Putin’s term ends next year. “The entire political system of Russia today is a struggle of various clans and groups fighting to see that Putin stays in power according to their scenario and not according to the scenario of their competitors,” Mikhail Delyagin, who served as an economic adviser under former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, recently told the news weekly “Itogi.”
In this atmosphere, Cherkesov and his ally Viktor Zolotov, the head of the presidential security service, are trying to increase their power in the Kremlin at the expense of Sechin and his ally, Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Nikolai Patrushev. Related to this struggle for political power are the two sides’ conflicting commercial interests as they vie for control of Russia’s customs points. Such powers offer the possibility of collecting protection payments from firms engaged in smuggling and money laundering. “Cherkesov’s group is…the weakest among the siloviki,” says Andrei Soldatov, editor in chief of the online magazine agentura.ru and an expert on the security services. “Therefore, Cherkesov is trying to change this situation.”
Soldatov and other analysts say one way Cherkesov is seeking to turn the tables is by gaining control of the newly formed Investigative Committee — a powerful law-enforcement agency that has assumed many of the functions of the Prosecutor-General’s Office. The Investigative Committee is currently headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin, who is allied with Sechin and Patrushev. Proposals are being floated to unify Russia’s myriad security, intelligence, and law-enforcement services under the Investigative Committee — making control of the agency a key asset at a time of increased political uncertainty. “If Cherkesov gets control of this new agency, then [his group] will become much stronger. If not, then they become marginalized. This is what the fight is over,” Soldatov says, adding that Cherkesov is also angling to be appointed Security Council secretary.
Airing Dirty Laundry
Such jockeying for advantage has always been a feature of Putin’s Kremlin, but it was a relatively low-intensity contest hidden from public view. That all changed in October, when FSB agents arrested General Aleksandr Bulbov, Cherkesov’s right-hand man at the Federal Antinarcotics Agency, after a tense standoff at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport.A former security-service official familiar with the situation told “The Moscow Times” that there was “nearly a fight” at the airport when heavily armed FSB and Investigative Committee officials attempted to arrest Bulbov and the Federal Antinarcotics Service agents protecting him. Bulbov has been charged with illegally tapping telephones and accepting protection money.
In late August, Cherkesov and Zolotov suffered another blow when police arrested St. Petersburg businessman Vladimir Barsukov, who is reputed to have ties to both men, on suspicion of organizing contract killings. Barsukov — previously known as Vladimir Kumarin — is a former vice president of the Petersburg Fuel Company who was once alleged to be the leader of an infamous criminal gang known as the Tambov Gang. According to media reports, prosecutors are investigating Zolotov’s ties to Barsukov. Cherkesov responded to Bulbov’s arrest by publishing an open letter warning that Kremlin rivalries were on the verge of breaking into open conflict that could threaten Russia’s stability. Putin chastised Cherkesov publicly for breaking one of the key tenets of his usually tight-lipped ruling elite — never air dirty laundry in public. But the president then boosted Cherkesov’s status by putting him in charge of a newly formed intergovernmental commission to fight illegal drugs.
A group of retired security officials — including Vladimir Kruchkov, the last Soviet KGB chief — published their own open letter in the nationalist newspaper “Zavtra” in October, urging the two sides to stop fighting. “Trust us from our experience,” they wrote. “There will be major troubles and this is unacceptable.”
For his part, Bulbov denies the charges against him and calls his arrest revenge for his role in a high-profile investigation last year of the Tri Kita company — a large Moscow furniture business that was allegedly paying the FSB to turn its back as vast quantities of goods were smuggled into Russia without being subjected to customs duties. The case resulted in the resignation of several high-ranking FSB officials and that of Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov, a close ally of Sechin, in June 2006.
Putin As Arbiter
The battle has intensified, analysts say, as uncertainty mounts over what will happen when Putin’s second — and constitutionally final — presidential term ends next year. He is widely expected to maintain power in some form. “The presidential transition lacks a lot of clarity about the composition of authority in the future, the separation of powers, how power is transferred, about who the successor will be,” said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Over the past two months, the succession drama has indeed become increasingly muddled.
Initially, Putin was expected to anoint a loyal successor who would easily win the March 2008 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev were considered the prime contenders for Putin’s coveted blessing. But those assumptions changed dramatically on September 12, when Putin unexpectedly passed over both and instead named the obscure Viktor Zubkov as his prime minister — a post widely viewed as a stepping stone to the presidency.The shock appointment suggested that the heretofore unknown bureaucrat Zubkov might be Putin’s handpicked successor, and led to widespread speculation about another scenario — that the next president would be a weak caretaker who would resign after a respectable period. This, in turn, would provide Putin a legal avenue to return to the Kremlin by circumventing the constitutional restriction preventing presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.
Those theories were weakened when the Russian president dropped another bombshell. On October 1, Putin announced that he not only planned to head the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party’s candidates list in the December State Duma elections, but that he would also consider serving as prime minister. This sparked a new wave of conjecture that real political power in Russia would be transferred to a “super premiership” — while the presidential post would become largely symbolic. But just weeks later, on October 18, Putin diluted that scenario by saying he opposed increasing the government’s powers or decreasing those of the president.
Given the uncertainty of their political security, key members of the Kremlin elite are fighting to ensure that their interests are protected. “Their main interest is the future composition of the ruling elite,” Ryabov said. “They depend on the president…and they need some kind of guarantee that their influence and positions will be maintained under the new president. And it is obvious that their interests conflict, which makes it hard to find consensus.” The key problem, Ryabov added, is that Putin has created a system that works poorly without him, since he is the only one who can balance the competing Kremlin clans. “With such countervailing forces, the system cannot regulate itself,” Ryabov said. “It cannot resolve these conflicts through two-sided negotiations. An arbiter is always necessary and this is the role Putin is playing. And this is the key role.” Ryabov added that the elite views the various schemes for keeping Putin as too risky, making the idea of changing the constitution to allow for a third term — something the president has repeatedly and categorically rejected — increasingly attractive.
Many cities, including Moscow, have held rallies and meetings over the past three weeks to form local chapters of a new organization called For Putin! to urge that he remain in power. The group, which many observers say is a Kremlin creation, plans to hold an All-Russian Forum in Tver on November 15, just two weeks before the State Duma elections. “The idea of a third term has been pulled back out of the archives, where it was placed a few months ago, and has returned to the center of the agenda since the end of October. I think this is no accident,” Ryabov said. “This idea is alive. This idea is interesting again.”