Is Russian democracy becoming an illusion?

Posted in Russia | 25-Feb-04 | Author: Arkady Ostrovsky| Source:

Shortly before becoming Russia's president in 2000 Vladimir Putin laid flowers at the Kremlin grave of Yuri Andropov, a former head of the KGB and later the general secretary of the Communist party, and reinstated a memorial plaque to Mr Andropov at the headquarters of Russia's feared secret police. The restoration of the plaque that had been removed in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse sparked indignation from those who had suffered under the Communist regime. But to the present and former members of Russia's security service it signalled hope of better times ahead. Their hopes were not in vain. Over the past four years, Mr Putin - a former KGB officer and a man increasingly viewed as Andropov's spiritual heir - has restored the power of the security services and the guiding principles of order, discipline and tight state control that Mr Andropov held so dear. After a decade of humiliation and impoverishment, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, and its sister organisations are enjoying greater political influence than at any time since the end of the Soviet Union. So-called siloviki - a term that includes prosecutors, police, military and members of the security services - have taken important posts in Russian politics, helping Mr Putin, a former head of the FSB, to build his personal power base. With Mr Putin almost certain to win Russia's presidential election on March 14, many fear that coming years will see the siloviki tightening their grip, with harmful effects for Russia's young democracy and fledgling market economy. Mr Putin further solidified his hold on power on Tuesday as he sacked his prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, clearing the way for the appointment of a new cabinet after the election. Meanwhile, Russia's ongoing war in Chechnya against separatists, and a string of terrorist attacks in Moscow blamed on the Chechen rebels, have been used by the siloviki to demand extra security powers. But the siloviki's influence stretches far beyond matters directly related to security - into the judicial system, business, the economy, the media and foreign policy. Their hold on power does not mean a return to a Soviet-style totalitarian system in Russia. Nor does it mean the end of the market economy: after 10 years of reforms the benefits to Russia of capitalism over central planning are too obvious. But the siloviki's growing influence does mean Russia is moving towards a more authoritarian regime where the democratic process and the functioning of the market are subordinated to the organs of state power. "Russia still has the attributes of a democracy but, managed by the siloviki, this democracy could become an illusory one," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a leading Russian sociologist. For many in Russia, the rising power of the siloviki rekindles uncomfortable memories of the way the Soviet system was underpinned by fear of the security services. "Fear and intolerance were the main ideology of the Soviet state. The return of this fear is one of the most worrying aspects of today's Russia," says Alexander Yakovlev, an aide to Mikhail Gorbachev, last president of the Soviet Union, and a former member of the Soviet Politburo. Internationally, the siloviki's power and Russia's authoritarian tendencies are raising growing concern (see below). When Mr Putin came to power in 2000, three political forces were jostling for influence. One group consisted of liberal economists appointed by Mr Putin to implement reforms; a second group included Mr Putin's former colleagues from St Petersburg, where the president began his KGB career and later served as deputy mayor; and the third group comprised members of the entourage of Boris Yeltsin, the outgoing president. Four years on, the liberal economists have lost much of their political influence and those who surrounded Mr Yeltsin are all but gone. The most visible sign of the siloviki's dominance was last year's attack on Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a politically ambitious oligarch and former boss of Yukos, Russia's biggest oil company. He was arrested in October on charges of fraud and tax evasion and his shares in Yukos were frozen. The siloviki are not a homogeneous bloc: there are long-standing rivalries between the security services, the army and the interior ministry. But they are united in their belief in the supremacy of a strong state and see themselves as its legitimate guardians. "The main purpose of the siloviki bloc is to prove the strength of state power in the country and to show that nobody can be above the state," says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB operative who runs a private security firm. For many in the FSB and the army, this was the rationale for attacking Mr Khodorkovsky. Igor Goloshchapov, a former KGB officer from a counter- intelligence unit, says: "Khodorkovsky tried to privatise the Duma [the parliament] and form his own lobby. He challenged the very foundation of the state." But it is not merely patriotic zeal that drives the siloviki. They are also motivated by the chance of revenge after losing their elite social status and privileges. In Augu st 1991, trying to preserve their political power at a time when the Soviet Union was starting to crumble, senior KGB leaders led an attempted coup d'├ętat against Mr Gorbachev. But the coup failed and on its last day a crowd of thousands cheered as a crane took a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, from outside the organisation's headquarters - an act seen within the KGB as a betrayal. When Mr Gorbachev returned from house arrest he promised to end the existence of this "state within a state", while Russian newspapers called for the KGB to be "liquidated". However what followed was not an abolition but an attempt at reform. The KGB was renamed and split into a number of independent agencies, while thousands of officers were dismissed or resigned. Many high-ranking officers ended up working for business tycoons known as oligarchs. Others started up private security businesses. Those who stayed in the KGB were paid miserly salaries while watching oligarchs pocket billions of dollars by grabbing stakes in privatised state assets. The security services maintained their old habits of vigilance. "We have been collecting information on the oligarchs all along," says Mr Gudkov. "In the early 1990s nobody wanted to pay attention to it, because the objective was to let the oligarchs steal as many assets as possible. But the golden rule of the KGB has always been that you have to collect intelligence even if you don't have anyone to report it to, because you never know what is going to happen in five years' time." Ms Kryshtanovskaya says: "With the election of Putin, they feel their time has come." The resurgence of KGB power began under Mr Yeltsin who, after all, appointed Mr Putin as acting president when Mr Yeltsin unexpectedly retired on New Year's Eve, 1999. Only under Mr Putin, though, did the special services gain the political weight that allows them to influence strategic decisions in the country. According to a study by Ms Kryshtanovskaya, the proportion of siloviki in the uppermost echelons of Kremlin power has increased from 4.8 per cent under Mr Gorbachev to 58.3 per cent under Mr Putin. More than half of Mr Putin's 24-member informal "politburo" are siloviki (see left). In the Kremlin one in three officials has a military or security services background, says Ms Kryshtanovskaya. "The Kremlin administration was supposed simply to facilitate the work of the president. But under Putin it turned into a non-electable organ of real power, just like the Central Committee of the Communist party was," says Mr Yakovlev. The growing presence of the siloviki has been even more startling regionally. Four out of seven presidential representatives in the regions are affiliated with the military or security services. Each of these "super- governors" has a staff of 1,500, 70 per cent of whom have a military or KGB background. Siloviki also have significant business interests. They control Rosoboronexport, Russia's state-owned arms trading company headed by a former KGB officer who served with Mr Putin in East Germany, and Almaz Antei, the largest military defence holding chaired by Victor Ivanov. The siloviki are also said to have close connections with the state-owned Rosneft oil company - a rival of Yukos - and Gazprom, the state-controlled gas monopoly. Many Russian observers view the attack on Yukos as part of the siloviki 's struggle for oligarchs' wealth. In addition, a number of deputy ministers in the economic development and telecommunications ministries are former security service members. Ms Kryshtanovskaya says some "have not left the service but have been seconded to the government to keep a vigilant eye on different ministries". On the domestic front the rise of the siloviki means they are likely to seek more influence over the democratic process through control over important institutions. Andrei Przhezdomsky, a former senior KGB officer, heads the Russian Foundation for Free Elections, a watchdog that oversaw December's parliamentary elections and is also to oversee March's presidential poll. In a recent radio interview Mr Przhezdomsky described former KGB officers as "the best informed, best prepared and most sober and democratic" part of Russian society. However several political parties including the communists allege that the results of parliamentary elections were rigged in favour of the pro-Putin United Russia party. International observers, meanwhile, said December's elections were free but not fair, given the biased television coverage of the United Russia party by state-controlled channels. The influence of the siloviki will also further delay any political peace process in Chechnya, where Russia has been bogged down for the better part of a decade. Russia's military would see any peace process as a loss of face. In foreign policy, the undertones of the cold war - already audible in some of Russia's rhetoric towards the west - will become louder. In a policy that bears the hallmarks of the siloviki, Russia has been delaying the withdrawal of its troops from Georgia, where they have been stationed since Soviet days. It has also rebuked the European parliament's concern about human rights abuses in Chechnya as interference in Russia's affairs. But it is in business and the economy that the siloviki could make their most lasting mark. In a recent interview with the Russian Kommersant newspaper, Sergei Ivanov, minister of defence, a former KGB general and a close ally of Mr Putin, said the level of investment in oil well exploration should be decided by the state, rather than by private companies. Any strengthening of the role of the state in the economy would further delay the liberalisation of Russian natural monopolies, including Gazprom, the country's gas giant. Keeping Gazprom intact and under state control is seen as one of the most important objectives of the siloviki. Their growing power is also likely to affect foreign investment in Russia. Investing in services and opening production lines are unlikely to be problems for foreign companies. But buying big stakes in natural resources companies, as BP did when it acquired a 50 per cent stake in the TNK oil company, may prove significantly harder. Perhaps most threatening t o the business environment, however, is the sense of fear that is spreading through Russia's business community. Armed with intelligence about murky privatisation deals of the 1990s, the siloviki can keep most Russian oligarchs in fear of prosecution. "None of us is protected against what happened to Khodorkovsky," one Russian oligarch says. How far the siloviki will be allowed to go in pursuit of their aims will depend almost entirely on the biggest silovik of all: Mr Putin. Lilia Shevtsova, a sen ior associate at Carnegie Moscow Centre, is confident that Mr Putin will be able to rein in the siloviki when he chooses. "Putin does not want to become a hostage of the siloviki. He will use them as guard dogs but will never hand out to them full political control." But some siloviki believe that their renaissance is still far from complete, according to Mr Gudkov. Seated at his desk in the office of his private security firm, flanked by portraits of Felix Dzerzhinsky - founder of the KGB - and Mr Putin, Mr Gudkov says that while the position of the siloviki has improved under Mr Putin, "many expected more from a former KGB officer". Mr Putin's second term in office will show whether he is willing to fulfil those expectations.