Very little help from their friends

MICHAEL PETROU April 16 2007

Very little help from their friends

MICHAEL PETROU April 16 2007


Vladimir Putin's wide circle of secret service types controls much of Russian life. No wonder opponents are scared, BY MICHAEL PETROU


IVAN SAFRONOV’S FRIENDS and family say he wasn’t the kind of man to kill himself. He had no financial or serious health problems. He was in love with his wife. And his job, as a reporter for the Russian newspaper Kommersant, was going well. In fact, Safronov was working on a big story that purported to show how Russia was secretly selling weapons to Syria and Iran. But on March 2, the 51-yearold appears to have thrown himself out of a stairwell window of his apartment building. Two students, who saw him writhing on the ground and noticed the open window, called for an ambulance but were turned down. “We can’t collect all the drunks in Moscow on a Friday night,” they were told. By the time an ambulance came for Safronov, he was dead.

That same afternoon, Safronov had gone shopping and bought a bag of oranges—strange for a man with plans never to eat again. He also spoke with a friend by phone and promised to call him back in a few days. It’s all very puzzling. But then Russian journalists who criticize the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs frequently die in odd circumstances. Anna Politkovskaya, who had long written about Russian abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead in the elevator of her apartment last fall. Her death followed those of Paul Klebnikov, editor of Forbe’s Russian edition, who investigated corruption in the highest echelons of Russian society, and of Yuri Shchekochikhin, a journalist and politician who campaigned against the influence of organized crime in the government and succumbed to a mysterious illness linked to thallium poisoning.

According to a study by the International News Safety Institute, a lobby group, Russia is the second-most dangerous country in the world for journalists, behind only Iraq. Unlike Iraq, however, journalists in Russia are not killed in bombings. They are murdered. And it’s not just journalists who risk their lives by speaking ill of their government.

Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who sought refuge in Britain and became an outspoken critic of the Kremlin, was poisoned to death in London last year after meeting with two former Russian intelligence agents. In early March, Paul Joyal, an intelligence analyst and friend of Litvinenko, was shot in the groin outside his suburban Washington house, four days after he had alleged on television that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a hand in Litvinenko’s murder. It is, of course, statistically conceivable that all these incidents might be mundane and unconnected. But the disturbing reality seems to be that Russia is a place where criticizing the government and asking too many questions is a potentially lethal pastime. The comment

by Mike McConnell, U. S. director of national intelligence, in late February that “the march to democracy has taken a back step in Russia” is remarkable only for its understatement. Less than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the former superpower is in danger of turning into a gangster state run by self-interested spies and their cronies in the country’s corrupted business elite.

To understand what has gone wrong, it is necessary to look back to 2000, and a ceremony that took place at the Lubyanka headquarters of the old KGB. The reason for the celebration was a Stalin-created holiday known as the “Day of the Chekist,” a word derived from the Cheka, the first Soviet secret police. In the audience were some 300 generals from the KGB and its main successor service, the Federal Security Service (FSB). Addressing them was one of their own, an intense and normally reserved former spy named Vladimir Putin.

Virtually unknown to the public only a year previous,

Putin had been appointed acting president after Boris Yeltsin’s resignation in December 1999, and had easily won election a few months later on a campaign of law and order and an unyielding stance toward Chechen separatists. Putin was a KGB man to his core.

He served the agency for 16 years, including outside Russia, and was unflinchingly loyal. Once, when asked what he thought of a memoir written by a Russia spy who had defected, Putin replied: “I don’t read books written by traitors.” In 1998, he was appointed director

of the FSB—the spy czar for all of Russia.

Now, as president, Putin stood before those who led Russia’s intelligence agencies and permitted himself, and his fellow spies, a moment of self-congratulation. “Instruction No. 1 for obtaining full power has been completed,” he told them. The few civilians in the hall smiled uneasily. They thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.

Under Putin’s presidency, current and former members of the FSB and KGB have extended their reach throughout Russia’s political and business aristocracy. Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Center for the Study of Elites in Moscow, researched the official biographies of more than 1,000 leading political figures, including departmental heads of the presidential administration and all deputies of both houses of parliament, and found that 26 per cent reported

service in the KGB or a successor agency. When Kryshtanovskaya considered factors such as unexplained gaps in resumés or work in agencies affiliated with the KGB, the possible number of former spies tripled. Many had worked directly with Putin.

“That’s the backbone of his control structure,” says Michael Waller, a professor at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, and co-editor of Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning Beyond Totalitarian Regimes. “When he came to power, he surrounded himself with people from the KGB, and mainly from the FSB, to run different functions in government where a professional security person really had no business. These men have no training except political control. He’s putting them in there, not because they’re good administrators, not because they’re honest, not because they’re politicians, but because they know how to impose political control.”


Much of the FSB’s power derives from its broad mandate. It is responsible for

Russia’s internal security, which in effect means it is charged with protecting Russia’s borders, counter-espionage, and fighting terrorism and organized crime. But these definitions can be applied loosely. “Keep in mind that the FSB is not only a counterterrorism service. It is a service as far as possible for guarding the constitution, and this means the protection of the regime,” says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist who specializes in intelligence issues and is the editor of, a website dedicated to the same. “If people desire it, you describe a critical journalist’s articles as subversive activities.”

Soldatov speaks from experience. In 2002, while he was working at the weekly Versiya, FSB agents seized his computer and brought him in for questioning. The FSB claimed he had revealed state secrets in an article published six months earlier, but Soldatov is convinced the real reason is he was about to publish an article criticizing FSB commandos for their response to the deadly Oct. 23 seizure of a Moscow theatre by Chechen terrorists. Soldatov now writes for Nov ay a Gazeta, where Anna Politkovskaya and Yuri Shchekochikhin worked before they were murdered.

Soldatov, however, cautions against the image of the FSB as a passive puppet of the Putin regime. It is a massive and secret organization; he estimates that it employs 200,000 people, and describes it as “something between a secret service and an army.” Other analysts place the number even higher. The FSB also works with other branches of the police, army and government. When one considers the number of ex-agents, now officially retired and prospering as businessmen, its influence appears even more pervasive. “It’s an old boys’ network,” says Amy Knight, the author of several books and articles on Russian spy agencies. “They retain their ties with former colleagues.” Putin himself was once fond of saying: “There are no former chekists.”

Soldatov argues that in this atmosphere of power and unrestrained influence, there are tremendous opportunities for both corruption and freelance initiative. In other words, some members of the FSB or their allies may take it upon themselves to silence criticism, without explicit instructions from Putin. Others are not so sure. “Earlier on, people could give the benefit of the doubt to rogue elements or the breakdown of discipline,” Michael Waller says. Now, he says, it “stretches the imagination” to believe that Putin, who exercises rigid control of the security services, is not fully aware of their activities.

Wesley Wark, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto and an authority on espionage and intelligence agencies, believes that the FSB and other security services in Russia enjoy “semi-autonomy,” but understand that they should operate in the political interest. “There is just enough of a distinction between that sense of semiautonomy and that sense of being rigidly controlled from the top to allow an element of plausible deniability. It’s impossible to trace operations back to their original source in the political elite, and that’s the way everybody wants it.”

It may not be possible to prove a link between the Kremlin and some of the more

grisly fates suffered by its critics. But there are other methods to stifle dissent. According to Nikolay Petrov, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the most effective stem from the reciprocal relations connecting the Russian political and business elite. ‘There is no independent business,” he says. ‘All business is connected to power.” Those with Kremlin ties are wealthy enough to buy newspapers and TV stations, and they know not to bite the hand that feeds them. “So the problem of free or not free media is more about money than anything else. The financial tool is the major one used by authorities in order to provide control over media.”


In addition, academics are intimidated and told not to publish their research, under the guise of protecting “state secrets.” NGOs, many of which promote democracy, are subjected to onerous bureaucratic criteria. Opposition demonstrations are broken up. Even

journalists to keep mouths shut. “They exercise self-censorship,” says Alexander Petrov, deputy director of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch. “They know where to draw the line.”

What’s happening in Russia is not something that the West can afford to ignore-even if we wished to abandon Russia’s 140 million citizens to renewed dictatorship. Russia remains a nuclear power with vast oil and gas reserves and unstable borders that run through some of the most contested territory on earth. What happens in Russia will affect the rest of the world. So what can we do about it?

According to Wark, much of the Russian elite’s draconian impulses are fuelled by fears that the Russian Federation might break up. “Russia is a country with a long past and long memories,” he says. “This is in some ways rooted in the experience of the Gorbachev period, which is now remembered as a time when not only did the Soviet Union fall apart, and the Communist experiment fall apart, but the Russian state nearly fell apart.” Then, as now, many Russians believed that Western governments wanted to see their country dismembered. The West needs to reassure Russia, maintain functional relations, and seek common ground wherever possible. But we can no longer pretend we don’t see the autocratic elephant in the room flexing its muscles.

Alexander Petrov, whose Human Rights Watch branch in Moscow was suspended for three weeks last fall after it failed to meet in a timely fashion registration requirements

imposed by the government, says Western leaders must have the courage to openly confront Putin. “Many of them are too shy to speak up,” he says. There are good reasons for this. Western Europeans, especially, are beholden to Russian oil and gas. But Michael Waller says the consequences of Russia turning away from democracy are too substantial to discount for the sake of cheap energy. “If we claim to be concerned about democratic values, we should care about it,” he says. “If we care about making sure there’s no rise of powerful dictators again, we have to be concerned about it. If we want to treat Russia as a credible country on issues of trade, or law enforcement or military affairs, we have to be concerned about it. And if we value our own societies, whose safety might be at stake because of an uncontrolled former KGB running the Russian Federation, we should certainly be concerned about it.” Waller says there has been an extreme reluctance on the part of the West to challenge the Kremlin over human rights, and he says Russian authorities interpret criticism as proof that the West’s real agenda is to keep Russia weak and marginalized. “No, you guys, we want to help you become a progressive, successful country,” Waller says, as if he were addressing Russian political leaders. “We just think it’s in nobody’s interest to have the KGB and gangsters running the place.” M