Volume XIV Number 3 (March-April 2004)

New Russia (In an Old Trap)

By Max Verbitz (1)

Several weeks ago was the first anniversary of an event that passed almost unnoticed by researchers at the time: President Putin’s decrees revising the security structures. To the extent that they did, domestic and foreign commentators reacted halfheartedly, apparently quite accustomed to the reshuffling of Russia’s bureaucratic deck of ministries and departments. They viewed the decrees as simple rearrangements, as if the topic concerned some kind of regional administration or corporation, with impact on the economic climate in a region of the country or maybe in a branch of industry. Some of the commentators did not try even to read the decrees carefully; their articles transferred part of the power and resources of the disbanded FAPSI "generously" to the Ministry of Defense.

Why did the press and the intelligentsia react with such indifference? They didn’t seem to realize that the decrees were of great importance. Remembering that history tends to repeat itself, we should look back more than a decade, to the days when Boris Yel’tsin was ready to sign the decree on creating a monster in the form of a reunited Ministry of Security and Internal Affairs. The reaction of society then to the potential revival of the NKVD in its pre-war format was completely different. And that happened at a time when Russia’s first President was, if not loved by the whole nation, then certainly trusted by the majority of voters. What has changed since then? There are three possible answers: Society is afraid, or it trusts its leader blindly, or it simply no longer cares about the threat posed by the internal security organs.

The answer may consist of a combination of all three. Those in their forties and fifties who possess above average intelligence (who could have become Russia’s middle class, but have not managed ) are haunted by an enduring memory of the Soviet "freedom of speech." This contrasts with what the younger generation recalls of the euphoria at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and the Bacchanalia of "free will" to do whatever is desired by the press. In January of 2000, very soon after the "changing of the guard" in the Kremlin, an example was made of the journalist Andrei Babitskii. His colleagues were given to understand clearly who, from now on, was the master in the country. The new President flying a fighter jet, the war of revenge in Chechnya, which drags on still, the "Kursk" epic, and the stifling of the only TV channel voicing independent thought, did not leave any illusions about constitutional freedoms in post-Yel’tsin Russia as far as that potential middle class is concerned. Its members will not vote for Vladimir Putin, but they will also be careful about burning him in effigy in Manezh Square...

On the other hand, those who are in their late sixties and who have always been nostalgic about Stalin’s and later Brezhnev’s epoch, and who found a new icon in the new President, represent Putin’s electoral base. They are joined by a sizable voter contingent in their thirties and forties who represent, sadly, the most productive part of Russian society: Small and medium entrepreneurs, managers and bank employees, a considerable part of the scientific community, engineering and technical specialists, and highly qualified workers - in sum, those who had become tired equally of limitless banditry, arbitrariness and the corruption of state bureaucrats. They wanted stability and protection; in Russia, alas, the latter word is associated traditionally not with order based on law, confirmed by legal, constitutional organs, as in the West, but rather with a "firm hand," presupposing authority, which is being offered by Putin at present.

As for the "indifferent minority," which is not that insignificant, it consists, of course, of youth, high school and middle professional school students. The origins of this indifference on the part of voters can be identified easily. If the first two groups of mature persons, the "silent opposition" and the "loyal majority," remember the Soviet past of the country vividly, but the first rejects it and the second either is ready to accept it again, as an inescapable price for stability and "order," or cannot wait for its return, then the 18-22-year-old group has not experienced it first hand. Even the most studious and curious among them will not be able to derive real knowledge of the past from textbooks (which were written, by the way, by former raikom instructors). They will not be able to comprehend the falsehood and hypocrisy of public life; the killing boredom of party and professional union meetings; the humiliating universal poverty set against the background of opulence and haughtiness of the "nomenklatura;" the lack of initiative and complete indifference to jobs, which did not bring either prosperity or moral satisfaction; and the inability to go abroad, or even select a place of residence close to one’s heart even within one’s own country. Those who have only experienced the freedom and decadence of post-Soviet Russia have no idea how insignificant in the USSR was the difference between living in a "tiny" zone, i.e. inside the barbed wire of a concentration camp and in a "vast" one, i.e. inside the boundaries of a closed state, under the scrutiny of the internal security organs.

Putin’s reelection for a second term took place therefore, without a hitch. It is hard to say to what extent these are the fruits of last year’s jolt to the power structures and to what extent it is actually the result of total "loyalty" to the Kremlin by the most important part of the mass media, namely television channels, which, with a servility, recalling Soviet days, keep the cameras focused on each of the President’s moves. Just as important a role is played by the fact that, as some meticulous statisticians recently discovered, the presence in the organs of state power of personalities who in different times served in state security passed 50% at the end of the first term of Putin’s presidency. This presence was at about 26% during Gorbachev’s epoch, and had risen to 38% during Yel’tsin’s Presidency.

Any question as to the loyalty of these persons, their priorities, and the ideas and values they hold is answered by the now widely-known (supposedly secret) regulation, according to which, after being formally retired from their service, the former officers of the KGB (VChK, OGPU, MB, and, today, FSB, SVR, etc.) are enrolled, automatically into the "active reserve" of their respective current government department, and Dzerzhinsky’s portrait continues to hang in place of an icon (or next to it) in each office occupied by them. Obviously, Putin did not personally select and appoint each one of them, but the situation is reflected by the phrase "the people are like their priest." A bystander might obtain the impression that society, which eliminated total control over itself less than a decade and a half ago (with such difficulty and, one hopes, relief), has been hypnotized and is not noticing the process of its own "silovikization." This society is sane and has a good memory, yet is being subjected to this process consciously and apparently voluntarily. The experience of popular sovereignty in Russia (the non-Russian word "democracy" has long been out of favor with the population and often evokes openly angry reactions) turned out to be short and defective. The freedom associated with this term turned out soon to consist of a version of the notorious Russian sense of "free will," which does not presuppose respect for someone else’s freedom, i.e. responsibility as an organic part of genuine, civilized, personal freedom. It is in this, as well as in the perennial poverty of the people as a whole and of its supposed servants — state bureaucrats — in particular (who desire to overcome that poverty by any means), that one finds the roots of the unprecedented and unparalleled crime wave, as well as the widespread, cynical corruption, which has overtaken the country. A centuries-old national-psychological tradition has taken over; it found its expression in the State Duma and Presidential elections, in the votes for security and stability at the expense of freedom.

Having society in this position seems to correspond to Putin’s plans and aspirations. His toasts to Stalin (on December 21, Stalin’s birthday) are very revealing. He is unlikely to revere Stalin for ideological reasons (most of that type of fanatic have already died, many in Stalin’s death camps). Putin admires Stalin not as author of the "Short manual of the VKP (b) History," but as the leader of the country, who held the whole world in awe. And for Putin, as well as for the majority of the Russian population, alas, the notion of Stalin as a bloody dictator and an international criminal on a par with Hitler, is simply beyond comprehension.

Does all this mean, however, that Putin is ready to try on the tunic of the "wonderful Georgian?" That is doubtful, at least for now. No matter how alarming some measures by Russia’s highest executive power or the tenor of its relations with society as a whole, one need not worry about the establishment of an outright tyranny akin to Stalin’s regime. It is truly impossible to walk twice into such a river of blood and tears. In any event, Putin appears more attracted to Pinochet’s steps - not the Pinochet who created concentration camps at stadiums, but the Pinochet who, with an iron hand, took Chile through economic transformation. Admiration for Pinochet surfaced and spread in the debate over Shock Therapy in Russia.

As for Putin’s mission on this earth, even though he has not comprised it within one clear, colorful phrase (as Zhirinovsky did with his image of Russian soldiers’ washing their boots in the Indian Ocean), he has voiced it in many places and numerous times: Russia should be revived as a great state. Although clearly not a political genius of the magnitude of Napoleon, Churchill, or Ekaterina II, Putin, nonetheless, is a hollow builder of castles in the air, consumed by nostalgia. He has a clear understanding of the status quo in the world after the crash of communism and the disintegration of the USSR, and he must understand that there is no going back to the ugly greatness of the Soviet empire (or even to "Upper Volta with rockets," as the incomparable Margaret Thatcher described the vision.)

It is hard to be too specific about Putin’s desire for a revived Russia; one can state confidently, however, that he is bothered by the second-class status of the country entrusted to him. Putin cannot help but see that Russia does not belong with the G-7 - neither according to economic indicators, nor according to the conditions posed by democratic and social institutes. It was never a secret to anyone that the only "qualifying factor," which might serve for Russia’s acceptance into this elevated international club was its military machine. However, with shameful clarity, Chechnya uncovered the flimsiness of Russia’s regular armed forces. Thus, the only factor that may count is Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal. In other words, Russia either is being tolerated by or intimidating the civilized world. To exchange this attitude with friendly affection and respect, with which, let us say, America and Britain treat each other, is a true challenge for any Russian leader.

Putin seems to have recognized and accepted this challenge. He surely understands that the foundation of any new Russian authority in the world has to come from its economy, which should depend not solely on the fluctuating world prices for fuel and raw materials. Objectively, the prerequisites for economic reform exist: Russian reserves of vital minerals are still colossal; Russian billionaires are not fake and their billions are not ephemeral, but quite real. The central issue is that their money needs to stay and work at home not to trickle away abroad. Initially, the task appears simple: To stop the drain of money, simultaneously curbing corruption, which largely contributes to this drain, and to ensure regular and rigorous collection of taxes.

Yet Russia continues to rely on its military to project its status, rather than to focus on economic strength. This impulse comes not only from the leadership. Including Yel’tsin’s era, there have been countless demonstrations and marches by pensioners and veterans demanding increasing pensions and subsidies: however, there has not been a single appeal or a single poster demanding a decrease in military spending; It turns out that all Russians — starting from the well-known politicians and ending with students — are inspired by the vision of a "strong" Russia, since, according to a long-standing national psychological tradition, "if [they] respect us, it means that [they] are afraid [of us]." World history has witnessed numerous examples however, of states that tried to manufacture an abundance of both guns and butter: sooner or later they faced a choice: either one or the other.

The militarization of society, which was nourished during Soviet times, faded during the brief initial period of Russian democracy, but has recovered since and is feeling great. Whatever Putin’s true intentions, he has established an impressive concentration of power. The executive branch is aligned vertically and controlled by the Kremlin through its "pocket" party "Edinstvo," which at present enjoys a constitutional majority in the State Duma. The loyalty of the judicial arm is not that obvious, but it is impossible to find a ruling going against Putin’s Kremlin. Khodorkovsky’s case soon may confirm that trend. Why was the past year’s reshuffling of some (but not all) of the power organs necessary? The answer might lie in just which structures exactly were subjected to reorganization. Out of the whole sum of decrees dated 11 March of last year, there are two, which are undoubtedly the most significant: "On measures for improvement of state administration in the area of security of the Russian Federation" ("Decree on Security") and "Questions of improvement of the state administration in the Russian Federation" ("Decree on Administration").

At all times and in all nations, state security is associated traditionally, first and foremost, with its armed forces, and only then with special forces. In totalitarian and military-dictatorial regimes, the single notion of "security" has been divided into external security, the presentation of which was placed mainly on the army, and internal security, which is the area of responsibility of the special organs: Gestapo, KGB, "Stasi," etc. Internal security soon gained priority over the portion of external security that was entrusted to the army and, later, the word "security" became a synonym for the secret police. This was exactly the case in the USSR, and little has changed, in this sense, in current Russia.

The "Decree on Security" however, concerns exclusively those government departments which have comprised the KGB in the past, and which were swept to the corners of the political scene by Boris Yel’tsin. At first glance, Putin is returning the special services simply to their pride of place, recreating, in many respects, the former Golem-KGB, by subordinating the Border Service with its 200,000 well-armed FSB people and by strengthening the Lubyanka enormously. However, this is not all that turns the FSB into a dominating force on the Russian political scene. Through this decree, Putin has sent FAPSI into oblivion. That entity, created by Yel’tsin, was once a blend of the 8th and 16th KGB directorates — a rough analog to the American National Security Administration. The 8th Chief Directorate had been assigned the mission of keeping the machine of secrecy in the Soviet Union running, ranging from working out the norms of secrecy of any paperwork in the country to developing ciphers and means of encoding and decoding information. (Characteristically, everywhere in the Soviet Union, at any institute or factory or plant or design bureau dealing to any extent with confidential matters, the department dealing these matters bore one and the same number — the 8th department.)

The 16th Directorate dealt with matters of electronic espionage and counterespionage, including breaking codes used by foreign embassies stationed in Moscow. Within the first of the tasks, the Directorate maintained well-equipped units inside Soviet embassies busy around the clock with intercepting whatever signal could be intercepted and sent for decoding. It goes without saying that those units, while reporting these intelligence data regularly to their Moscow headquarters on Vernadskiy Avenue, were also subordinate to the KGB Rezident (Chief of Station, using the American terminology) supplying him with the share of data that might be useful for the daily activities of the Rezidentura. Inside the USSR, besides spying on foreign embassies, the Directorate’s main responsibility was to monitor the ether in order to detect hostile transmissions (not broadcasts of Voice of America or Radio Liberty, but encoded transmissions of secret intelligence nature from handlers to agents and vice versa), to intercept, to record and to decode them — if at all possible.

So, FAPSI comprised the two bodies, with its chief reporting directly to the President. Among the duties of the agency, was to provide the special services with means of cryptography and electronic surveillance, and supply them with the final product of its daily activities of monitoring cyberspace — information. That is, the FSB, SVR, and FSO were just users of FAPSI’s resources, not its masters. On the contrary, it was FAPSI that gradually became a kind of master of the game: Long ago it was said that he, who possesses information, controls the world. It is especially the case in modern Russia with its grand-scale corruption: Before long, several commanding officers of FAPSI became involved in scandalous affairs of semi-legal and even outright illegal trading of information to some "gray" buyers.

After a series of corruption scandals, resulting from FAPSI’s monopoly of the market of information and its methods, reformation was expected, but the President’s radical choice of dissolving the organization was a surprise. Why was it done? In order to discover to the cause, it is necessary to identify the beneficiaries: According to the decree, the forces and resources of the late FAPSI were given to the FSB (the former Second Chief Directorate of the KGB - Counterintelligence), the SVR (the former First Chief Directorate of the KGB - Foreign Intelligence), and the FSO (part of the former Ninth Directorate of the KGB - now the Federal Guards Service). Knowing what FAPSI’s duties had been, it can be assumed confidently that the inheritance was divided by function, not into equal shares. The lesser part, from the point of view of Russia’s "power games," was given to SVR: Foreign subdivisions of FAPSI’s electronic intelligence were re-subordinated to it only formally and only formally would they be working in close collaboration with the "rezidentura" of SVR. A meatier piece was transferred to the FSB, which received almost complete control over Russian broadcasting. Why almost? Because the most important "fragment" of FAPSI, judging by the decree’s text, turned out to deal neither with intelligence nor with counter-intelligence. On Russia’s information field, a new player has emerged: the FSO.

It is difficult to overestimate the significance of this event. When the FSO was still part of the notorious "Ninth" Directorate, it was treated carefully even in these circles. Perhaps, no other KGB subdivision selected its candidates so thoroughly, which is not surprising: "The Ninth," which was required to guard "the objects of supreme state power" and, of course, its subjects, was rightfully nicknamed "the praetorian guard." Officers of "the Ninth," who, by nature of their duty, remained constantly in direct proximity to the political and state elite, were the repositories of such secrets that, should they decide to use them, the consequences for the regime might have been dire. Even this alone put the Ninth Directorate in a special position. Nonetheless, it has never been exceptional thanks to what was called, in Soviet times, a "collective leadership." Politburo members tended to be envious of each other, and realized the potential threat emanating from their well-informed "praetoriantsi," as potential pawns in Politburo rivalries. Consequently, they made sure that the authority of "the Ninth" was limited strictly to guard functions. Thus, the demands of "the Ninth" for resources, etc. were fulfilled immediately by any governmental departments or individuals, including the other former KGB subdivisions, but only if they directly concerned its function of providing security to the supreme state and party leadership. For example, "The Ninth" could not dictate to the 7th Directorate (national surveillance) how its officers were to write their reports on operations. The Ninth Directorate is one of the most important users of the system of closed communication and information, but it does not have authority over the development, implementation and control of its use. This was the prerogative of the 8th Directorate.

"The Ninth" which was transformed into the Main Guards Administration of the Russian Federation under Yel’tsin, did not receive any additional authority. However, in the absence of "collective leadership" and its corresponding constraining elements, the very "extraordinary knowledge" the Ninth possessed intimidated individual leaders. Everyone remembers the scandal regarding the head of the Presidential Security Service, General Korzhakov, who was removed from his position and banished by Yel’tsin. However, later he published a more than frank memoirs about his many years guarding his former patron. It is perhaps a cautionary tale to remember that Korzhakov owes his downfall, first and foremost, to his own unmeasured ambitions and his attempts to rule the state in place of the president.

Putin, it seems, considers himself insured against similar mishaps, since he provided the FSO, through its provision of special communications and information, with the authority for "organizing and providing exploitation, security, development and improvement of the systems of special information for the state organs." In other words, the FSO, a government department that is subordinated solely to the president, has at its disposal not only all the power and means of special communication and secret information, but also the right to regulate the hierarchy of its use by all government departments and official functionaries, as well as the development and implementation of the means of coding and de-coding. Given the obsession with secrecy that is still present in Russia today, everyone, from a house administrator and ending with a Governor or the State Duma Chairman, wants to obtain classified information.

The "Decree on Administration," which was a part of the March 2003 package of decrees, has been noted for its elimination of the Tax Police and transfer of this function to the MVD. A far more significant element was the removal from the MVD (and subordination directly to the president) of the Goskomitet for fighting narcotics. (This step indicates, first, the scale of the problem, and, second, the militia’s inability to solve it, primarily due to the unbridled corruption in its ranks.) The Goskomitet on fighting drugs clearly has become part of the structure of state security, since KGB General (in the Reserves), Viktor Cherkesov, was named to head the committee.

Thus, a year after making public this package of decrees that reordered the internal security organs, combined with Putin’s decision to form a new government with a former Head of the Tax Police, Mikhail Fradkov, in charge, the picture of the internal political situation in Russia is developing in a way that makes one wonder whether Russia has fallen into an old trap or is just about to fall in. Putin may be driven by good intentions on reviving the country, however, it is well known where a road paved with such intentions leads. It is not enough that a freshly-remembered KBG was almost completely revived in the form of an FSB strengthened several times over; moreover, state security officers are in charge now of key state structures, and, for the first time in Russian history, the head of state, it seems, acts more like the head policeman than the president. This impression might have seemed alarmist, until society itself presented evidence in the last parliamentary elections. Russian liberals (the genuine ones, not the clowns) clearly are neither angels nor all knowing, but they, at least, appealed for the values and ideals on which European and American prosperity is based. These values seem unreachable, alas, to the overwhelming majority of Russians. Voters appeared to prefer those whose pre-election speeches either parroted what had already been said by the president, or resonated with his message. We may not have to wait long for the results of such unity among voters, parliamentarians and the president - reminiscent of the past.


(1) Max Verbitz is the pseudonym of a former Soviet Intelligence Officer.



Copyright ISCIP 2004
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have been commissioned especially
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