Return of the kgb
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Return of the KGB
Everyone knows the secret police are back. What’s new is the shocking breadth and depth of their influence
By Frank Brown
Nov. 24 issue — Three times in 1984, KGB provocateurs tried to entrap a young British exchange student at Russia’s Voronezh State University. First they offered him the sexual services of a 12-year-old girl. No go. Knowing he was a military buff, they then tried seducing him with some nifty hardware. Again, no luck. Finally they offered a photo-taking trip to the local Air Force base. Bingo. They promptly arrested the young man and told him spying was a capital offense—a fate he could avoid by working with the KGB. He declined and, after the intervention of British diplomats, was quietly expelled from the Soviet Union.
AT THE TIME, Vladimir Kulakov was a midcareer KGB man heading the very unit that spied on foreign students. Today, he is the elected leader of 2.4 million people living in southern Russia’s Voronezh region. Kulakov is not alone in his journey from the shadows. Over the past few years literally thousands of such men have followed the road to power forged in 2000 by former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin. In every region of Russia, at every level of government, former secret-police agents are grabbing power, digging in and recruiting old KGB friends. More and more, they are stepping in to “manage” Russia’s fledgling democracy—most recently (but by no means exclusively) with their legal assault on the giant Yukos Oil Co. and the arrest of its biggest shareholder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky. A whiff of repression rides the air. Liberals worry that the Russian police state is being reborn. Nonsense, say conservatives. Russia needs more law and order, even at the sacrifice of a bit of freedom. Whatever the Yukos case portends, it is clear that the old secret police will play an ever larger role in Russia’s future. Well-disciplined, smart and loyal, these men of power, the siloviki, are back.
Russian politics are notoriously opaque, but a leading sociologist in Moscow, Olga Kryshtanovskaya, has dedicated her career to tracking such men and their activities. Unsurprisingly, she’s not particularly popular at the Kremlin these days. Rumors of a “creeping KGB coup,” she says, are borne out by the numbers.
Her list, as is well known, starts at the top with Putin’s Kremlin, where deputy chiefs of administration Igor Sechin and Viktor Ivanov are former KGB men prized for their loyalty and discretion. Next comes Putin’s Security Council, his de facto Politburo, where half the members are siloviki, ex-officers in the police, military or FSB—successor to the old KGB. One, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, recently warned that Russia would re-examine the defensive nature of its nuclear strategy, taking a leaf from the Bush administration and talking of pre-emptive strikes against unspecified international targets.
Far less well known—and perhaps more important—is the scope and scale of the siloviki takeover farther down the bureaucratic food chain. Early in his term, Putin dramatically expanded the federal government in a bid to strengthen Kremlin control. He divided the world’s largest country into seven districts, each staffed by about 1,500 bureaucrats. Putin named siloviki to head five of the districts. They all, in turn, hired their own staffs, drawn (naturally) from among former associates, and so it went through the ranks. According to Kryshtanovskaya, they now account for as much as 70 percent of all senior regional officials. One of those district heads, former KGB officer Georgy Poltavchenko, helped two FSB generals get elected to the posts of governor.
That brings us to the siloviki’s expansion into elected posts in the regions, where voters are frustrated and looking for something tried and true and noncommunist. Voronezh’s Kulakov was the first in 2000. Then, in 2002, came Viktor Maslov, in Smolensk, a crime-ridden city where he is accused of using the FSB to eavesdrop and arrest political opponents. A third FSB general turned governor, Murat Zyazikov, in 2002 took over a region next to Chechnya and has proved his loyalty to the Kremlin by prodding Chechen refugees back into the ruined republic.
Closer to home, Putin has appointed dozens of siloviki into positions as deputies in ministries far from their expertise. The ministries of Economic Development, Heavy Industry and Communications now have FSB deputies. These officials remain in the FSB’s active reserves and still pay fealty to the security organs, Kryshtanovskaya reports in a recent survey of 3,500 politicians, top bureaucrats, members of Parliament and leading businessmen. A full 25 percent of senior Russian officials in Moscow come from the siloviki, according to her figures, up from 3 percent under the last head of the Soviet police state, Mikhail Gorbachev. (Most other analysts accept Kryshtanovskaya’s numbers, and the Kremlin doesn’t dispute them.) Outside government, tens of thousands of former KGB men now working for private security companies function effectively as “sleeper cells,” she adds, which spring to life at critical moments—such as the current election campaign, where they contribute everything from legwork to kompromat, or “compromising materials,” on candidates opposing the Kremlin’s United Russia Party. “In the past,” she says, “we had a socialist totalitarian state. Now we will have a capitalist totalitarian state.”
That may be extreme. There’s good reason to be concerned by the return of the siloviki, especially in such force, but the picture is not black and white. Consider, first, what’s happened in Smolensk. The race for governor there in 2002 pitted FSB General Maslov against a communist incumbent, Alexander Prokhorov. In a region that straddles the main highway route popular with smugglers between Russia and Europe, the campaign was dirty, violent and expensive. In the name of fighting corruption, Maslov’s FSB admitted bugging Prokhorov’s telephone. Just before the vote, Maslov was accused by his rival of organizing a contract hit on a Prokhorov deputy. (The deputy and his 5-year-old daughter survived but his driver died from bullet wounds.) Maslov denied the accusation. Then, according to Russian press accounts, the victorious Maslov and FSB men recruited to work in the regional government went about ousting hostile newspaper editors and launched a new paper devoted to trumpeting the governor’s successes. In short, Smolensk is living proof of the sinister side of the siloviki.
Yet the story in another city in Russia’s conservative post-Soviet “Red belt,” also run by siloviki, is entirely different. There, in the agricultural region of Voronezh, Kulakov gets high marks for largely clean and effective government. You might think that Dmitry Dyakov, editor of the progressive Voronezhsky Kurer newspaper, would consider him a mortal enemy. But no. Dyakov says he tussles by telephone with the governor over coverage occasionally but has never felt pressure to change the publication’s liberal-democratic line. (That’s in stark contrast to Voronezh’s supposedly liberal mayor, whose allies Dyakov blames for shutting off the newspaper’s electricity for four months last year and dumping a truckload of human excrement outside his offices.) Kulakov finds another unlikely supporter in Vyacheslav Bityutsky, a human-rights activist who assists victims of the Soviet police state. He credits Kulakov, who got Putin’s personal blessing to run in 2000, with restoring the flow of money from Moscow by, for example, winning a $300 million loan this year to rescue the 10,000-employee Voronezh Aircraft Factory. Kulakov also gets high marks for abandoning the harebrained Soviet-era schemes of his communist predecessor and boosting the region’s revenues. He has found novel ways to get tax dodgers to pay up, he says—but “not by repressive ways,” he adds swiftly. “Jail is a last resort.”
Still, it’s worth noting that’s exactly where one of Kulakov’s most bitter enemies—a PR hatchet man working for Voronezh’s mayor—ended up in August, busted in a sting operation after local cops say they caught him taking an $8,000 bribe. The threat of jail—again for alleged corruption—also prompted Voronezh’s mayor to abruptly resign earlier this month and drop his challenge to Kulakov in next year’s gubernatorial race. Suddenly, Kulakov is the clear front runner. Did Kulakov abuse his FSB connections to take out a political rival? “There is a danger,” concedes Dyakov, even assuming the opponents’ crimes might have been real.
What does all this mean for Russian democracy? Certainly, there is at the moment no cohesive political force to halt the rise of the Kremlin-backed siloviki. Weary, impoverished voters are no obstacle. They want a stable ruble and safe streets, and dream of getting some share of the fantastic wealth amassed by the country’s rich businessmen. To them, someone like Kulakov is a blessing. Businessmen themselves are no check on power, either; most have been scared into submission by Khodorkovsky’s arrest. And the formerly independent regional leaders, at least those who remain? Just last week, Putin signaled that he is willing to remove them “if matters are close to critical.” No one was quite sure what that meant, which was the idea.
Moscow liberals paint the siloviki as a tightknit clan pining for a return to the days when the KGB functioned as the guardian and brains of the state. Other analysts say they are as divided and different as any other political group—and perhaps less corrupt. Russia’s past, of course, holds ready lessons for this debate, beginning with Ivan the Terrible’s creation of the first secret police and ending with the millions of innocents killed by Stalin or jailed by his successors. But when you lack or barely have the money for food and shelter—like nearly half of Voronezh’s residents—there’s little interest in history.
With Helen Womack in Voronezh