Secret agent man

Over the past few days and weeks, much has been made of the “mystery” of Vladimir Putin, the man who now runs Russia. Yet in some ways, we know far more about him than we ever knew about the very private Boris Yeltsin. We know, for example, how he interprets the history of his country in the twentieth century. And we know who his heroes are. In fact, not long ago, a few weeks before the election, he took time out of his prime ministerial duties to enact a ceremony commemorating both.

He chose the site with care: the Lubyanka, once the headquarters of the KGB and its most notorious jail prisoners once exercised on its roof, and were tortured in its cellars – and now the home of the FSB, Russia’s internal security services. He also took heed of the date: December 20, a day still still known and still celebrated by some, as “Chekists Day,” the anniversary (this was the 82nd) of the founding of the Cheka, Lenin’s secret police. In that place and on that day, both so redolent of the bloodiest pages of Russian history, Vladimir Putin solemnly unveiled a plaque in memory of Yuri Andropov.

Given that Putin has just come to power in Russia by virtue of democratic vote, Andropov would seem, at first, to make an odd sort of hero. Not exactly a model for modern Russia, Andropov was director of the KGB for many years before briefly becoming , in 1982, General Secretary of the Communist Party. But Andropov was not just some faceless apparatchik: he is still known for his fervent belief that “order and discipline,” as enforced by the methods of the KGB arrests of dissidents, imprisonment of corrupt officials, the creation of fear – would restore the sagging fortunes of the Soviet economy.

Still known, that is, and still admired. Indeed, the idea that Andropov died “too early,” and that Gorbachev subsequently bungled the assignment is a sentiment common to many in the ranks of the former KGB, some of whom still see a conspiracy in his premature death. “They got him before he finished the job,” one ex-officer told me wistfully. Hardly surprising, then, that in recent months, Vladimir Putin, who first tried to join Andropov’s KGB at the tender age of 15, has become the first post-Soviet leader to openly link himself to the same set of beliefs: “Order and discipline” are words in Putin’s vocabulary too.

This is not to say that Putin is the second coming of Andropov. Putin is not even the first leader of post-Soviet Russia to have ties to the world of espionage and repression. Both of his predecessors as prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov and Sergei Stepashin, were also former KGB agents. Nor was he ever a Russian James Bond: one former elite agent, based for many years in the West (I spoke to him in his slick offices in a new Russian bank) dismisses Putin as a “second-rate middle lieutenant.” Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB double agent in Britain, is equally scathing about the “the grey mass of officers” who were sent to places like Dresden, Putin’s only foreign posting. Putin was not, he says, part of that “cosmopolitan group of officers” that clamoured for change in the KGB at the end of the 1980s.

Nor can Putin be held solely responsible for bringing what Russians call the “special services” back from the low point they reached at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Yeltsin regime excluded them, effectively punishing them for having participated in the coup against Gorbachev. Most observers date their “return” not from Putin’s appointment to the prime ministership in 1999, but from 1993. That was the year that Yeltsin sent tanks to fire on his parliament – and simultaneously decided that the gaggle of squabbling democrats around him were not up to running the country. The services were, says Mark Galleotti, specialist in Russian security for Jane’s Intelligence Review, “looking to regain ground just as Yeltsin was looking to regain control.”

Over the past seven years, Yeltsin has increased their funding, beefed up their public image books and articles celebrated the glamorous lives of patriotic Soviet spies and put them to work. Since 1995, the FSB has had permission to open mail, tap telephones and enter private residences without a court order – if Russia’s “national security interests” (a term left undefined) are threatened. Since 1998, the agency began demanding that Russian Internet service providers install technology linking their computers to those at FSB headquarters as well. Increased harassment of small human rights and environmental organisations, particularly those investigating issues of nuclear pollution, dates back two or three years now. Putin’s rise to prominence is a reflection of the increased power of the security services, not its cause.

Nevertheless, Putin is different: he is the first leader of post-Soviet Russia, to identify himself openly as a “Chekist”, using the word first invented in Lenin’s Soviet Union, and the first to express admiration for Andropov, both in words and deeds. He has praised Andropov’s “honesty and uprightness” and has increased the FSB’s role in army counter-intelligence. He has laid flowers on Andropov’s grave and he has recreated what used to be the KGB’s Fifth Directorate, the department responsible for repressing political dissidents, under the new name of the Department for the Protection of the Constitution. Among the many former KGB officers he has put in positions of power in Moscow is one Viktor Cherkesov, now deputy director of the FSB, formerly chief of the Fifth Directorate in Putin’s native Leningrad, and well known to that city’s ex-dissidents. Rumour has it that Putin plans to put Cherkesov at the head of a new branch of the security services, possibly based on the existing “Kremlin guards,” designed, in true imitiation of Andropov, to “rid Russia of corruption” and provide the president with his own personal security apparatus.

These actions in part account for the near-hysteria with which Putin’s triumph is being greeted by some former dissidents, among them Sakharov’s wife, Elena Bonner, who have predicted the coming of a “new Stalinism.” They may also help account for his popularity. The myth of the wise, all-knowing, secret policeman, the “patriotic Chekist” promoted in a dozen 1930s films, is still propagated in Russia, and the legend of Andropov if only he’d had time! lives on outside the halls of the Lubyanka as well. With a straight face, Boris Labusov, the spokesman for the SVR, the foreign intelligence agency, listed for me the qualities of a typical, professional Russian spy: “a wide base of eruditionknows how to work with peopletakes quick decisionspsychological strength.”

The less frequently examined question is whether, propaganda aside, he can do it. If this is how Putin wants to proceed, can the former KGB really restore “order” and “discipline” to Russia? Can it `crack down” on major corruption? Oddly enough, on these issues too, Putin has already managed to compile a track record: are his security services still up to the job?

Walking the small side streets that lead off of Lubyanka square, one can almost believe that they can. This small patch of central Moscow still contains, in effect, an entire KGB village, composed entirely of KGB buildings which still serve the same purposes they always served: there is the FSB health clinic and the FSB club, FSB service flats and the FSB garage, the latter still housed in the shell of a 17th century church, one of the few in the city that has not been returned to its original use.

Of course a few things have changed: around the corner from the Lubyanka, what was once the KGB shop, where agents could buy goods unavailable to the average Soviet citizen, has now become a Western-style supermarket, in which not all of the modern FSB’s employees would be rich enough to shop. There have been reports of housing shortages among officers, and even Labusov says that “of course we would all like to be paid more”

Nor, for that matter, do Russia’s security services still form part of a single, all-powerful institution, and the different branches have deliberately cultivated quite separate public profiles. The SVR’s Labusov received me in a small but carefully restored palace, complete with mock Biedermeier furniture and silk curtains, and seemed disappointed when I wanted to leave after an hour and a half; the FSB’s spokesman refused to receive me anywhere, for any length of time, for any reason. Still, their division into foreign intelligence (SVR), domestic and counter-intelligence (FSB), border guards, Kremlin guards and communications experts is not as thorough as it seems. Cynics point out that virtually every one of the KGB’s former directorates still exists, often in the same office building, albeit under a new name. Konstantin Preobrazhensky, an agent who resigned in 1991 (he was “TASS correspondent” in Japan) calls their break up “exagerrated,” noting that “they still have the same health service, they go to the same sanitoriums, they use the same communications system.”

Far more important is not the institutional change, but the dispersement of the old cadres. In the disarray of the early 1990s, many officers left the service. According to Gordievsky, some went into Russia’s nascent “security industry,” a broad term which encompasses everything from the thugs who stand outside money-changing booths to the high-tech private intelligence operations of Russia’s major companies. Some (“the stupidest”, according to Gordievsky) stayed put, and they continue to form the backbone of the security services today: there were no widespread sackings, no purges of the cadres, no democratic re-education.

Others, to put it bluntly, went into the world of organised crime. To put it even more bluntly, some doubt whether in their new position, these organised criminals lost contact with their former comrades. Indeed, estimates of the FSB’s current strengths, and of its ability to re-impose “order and discipline” on Russia, depend almost entirely on one’s assessment of the relationship between those still inside the service, and those outside it. Andrzej Grajewski, a Pole who has written a book about the FSB and follows its development closely, describes the three groups as “working in tandem.” He, like many others, suspects that both mafia and business structures do favours for the FSB and vice versa, citing the case of recent banking scandals in New York: “the mafia couldn’t do such things if the security services didn’t help them.”

Certainly there is ample evidence that the former KGB has deep and complicated links to the larger Russian companies. Testifying before the American Congress, one former agent recently described in detail the methods by which the KGB set up banks and businesses, stealing millions of dollars of hard currency in the process. Several of Russia’s major companies are also widely believed to have been founded with KGB money. Equally, several of Russia’s major businessmen are believed to have begun their careers with KGB money, although naming them would bring a hailstorm of libel suits upon this magazine. If this were the case it would, of course, render absurd the idea of the FSB “cracking down” on corruption. How can it crack down on itself?

To back up those doubts, it is worth pointing out that, to date, the security services have been quite blatantly used in Russian politics used not to stop corruption, but prevent corruption investigations. Notable is the case of Russia’s former chief prosecutor, whom mysterious sources filmed cavorting with prostitutes just as his investigations were drawing closer to the personal finances of Boris Yeltsin an incident which took place when oneVladimir Putin was running the FSB. Preobrazhensky laughs aloud when asked who is more powerful, the Russian security services or Russian big business: “how would agents survive if the oligarchs didn’t pay them bribes?”

If Putin’s current track record is anything to go by, the use of the FSB to “restore order” on a grand, Andropov-like scale looks unlikely. But even if a major “crack down” on Russian oligarchs turns out to be beyond the scope of the modern FSB, that isn’t to say that smaller ventures aren’t still well within its scope. Even if he is unlikely to touch the big crooks, Putin may well go after some of the smaller ones. Or he may go after crooks whose crookedness is defined according to his own terms. An example of how this might work arose recently, with the peculiar attempt to intimidate the Voice of America journalist Andrei Babitsky. Babitsky was detained by the FSB in Chechnya, and then briefly vanished, allegedly “traded” to Chechen rebels, before he mysteriously re-emerged in Dagestan, new passport in hand. Putin, although implicitly taking responsibility for the episode, has refused to apologise for it, on the grounds that Babitsky, a Russian citizen, is “not Russian”: real Russians, according to Putin, “obey the laws of their country,” and don’t sneak around behind Chechen lines, collecting information unfavourable to the state. Among his many cryptic statements in recent weeks, Putin has spoken of imposing a “dictatorship of law” on Russia, which sounds good if he means that blind justice will apply to everyone, but more ominous if it means that justice will be allocated only to those whom the president, and his security services, designate “true Russians.”

In fact, minor incidents of police and security service harassment of people who pose awkward problems to the Kremlin began in the Yeltsin regime, and continue into the present, far more than is usually acknowledged abroad. The first to notice this were the small, independent, human rights and other activist groups, who were recently forced to go through a complicated re-registration process openly designed to put many of them out of business. Alexei Yablokov, an ecological and political activist, was genuinely surprised to discover that his small lobbying group could not be officially registered, as the constitution did not accept that any organisation other than the state could be defined as a defender of human rights, a decision he is fighting in the courts. Although the FSB’s long prosecution of another ecologist, Alexander Nikitin – he wrote about ecological damage to the Baltic Sea caused by Russia’s Northern Fleet did end in his vindication, the trial had its ominous aspects: two witnesses from the FSB testified that even the publication of material from open sources can be defined as a violation of state secrets, a crime punishable with prison.

As for harassment of uncomfortable, unfavourable press, that has long been a fact of life in Russia’s provinces: on a visit to Volgograd a few years ago, I asked a television journalist whether she, as a state employee most regional television is state-owned could report news unfavourable to the local government. “They would take me off the air,” she said, looking at me as if I were stupid. In Moscow, methods are more sophisticated. In the week running up to the presidential election, “someone” broke into the computer system of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper which was due to print an article on Yeltsin’s and Putin’s election finances, and destroyed the entire issue.

It is that sort of thing that makes Russia’s “special services” difficult to dismiss out of hand. Their listening equipment may be a bit rusty. They may have divided loyalties, they may take more bribes than they used to, and it may be true, as one former agent said to me, that “ten years of work” are required “before it is even able to conduct normal intelligence activity,” let alone re-impose totalitarianism. But even if nine-tenths of Russia’s nuclear aresenal were judged defective, no one would think of ignoring the bombs that remain and the re-imposition of totalitarianism may not be Putin’s aim in any case.

Before his election, Vladimir Putin may not have been very forthcoming about his economic policies, but his views on the Russian political system are clear.He favors “managed democracy,” to use the phrase of Russia’s political scientists. It’s a system in which elections take place regularly, you can hold public meetings, and the thought police will not arrest you for complaining about the price of sausage as long as you do not try seriously to oppose the interests of the Kremlin, publish seriously damaging information about the Kremlin, or actually create a serious opposition political party. And within a “managed democracy” the FSB can play a useful role and it has shown itself willing to do so already.