Russia’s security services are trying to reform their way out of the shadows


Sweeping reforms to Russia’s power ministries show that the FSB has the country’s security monopoly in its sights.


Pavel Chikov
23 September 2016

Sudden and sweeping reforms to Russia’s security ministries don’t signal a return to the Soviet Union, but a new balance of power. (c) Ivan Sekretarev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.This article originally appeared in Russian on RBC. We are grateful for the opportunity to repost it here. 

For 17 years now, the KGB’s offspring has ruled Russia. They’re everywhere — business, politics, public services. They run the economic security departments in the majority of banks and the most important departments in Russia’s “power ministries” (known informally as the siloviki). Outside the capital, young security officers become regional ministers and heads of various agencies. These are the people that, at the start of the Putin era, consciously chose to build a career in the FSB. Often, they’re the sons of Soviet security men. 

Today, the FSB is in a non-stop regime — vacuuming up all the information it can, launching various campaigns (whether political or criminal) and controlling them. People in the legal profession often come across polite letters from the heads of regional FSB departments addressed to local prosecutors or police chiefs with requests to keep a particular someone under watch. These requests often end in administrative or criminal cases against that particular individual, or law suits with a guaranteed result. 

The chekists, as they’re known, have long believed that they are Russia’s chosen ones. In recent months, the FSB has moved against two of its main institutional rivals and, on Monday, it was revealed that the Kremlin plans to create a new “Ministry of State Security”. What is going on?

Out of the shadows

In the beginning, Russia’s security services were careful to hide their involvement. But gradually, they stopped being so shy, though they continued to act through intermediaries: the Center for Combating Extremism (“Center E”) and the Investigative Committee worked against Russia’s opposition, the police force’s economic crimes department focused on business, the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice – against NGOs, and the penitentiary service (FSIN) – against already convicted activists.

But then, together with their rivals in the Investigative Committee and Ministry of Internal Affairs, we began to catch glimpses of the FSB in investigation footage more and more often.

The Russian authorities’ entire campaign against corruption is now firmly (and exclusively) associated with the FSB

The story of Igor Krasnov, former deputy head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, is revealing here. In 2009, Krasnov ran the investigation into the shocking murders of human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasiya Baburova. Nine months after Markelov and Baburova were shot dead in central Moscow, the investigation was cracked thanks to lengthy audio surveillance on the apartment where the neo-Nazi group responsible was hiding. But instead of informing Alexander Bastrykin, his superior, Krasnov focused on confirming the material evidence for future investigation and trial. As a result, the FSB, which had provided back-up to the investigation, beat Krasnov to it, with Alexander Bortnikov, head of the service, informing Putin of the investigation’s success. For this, Krasnov was nearly fired. 

In the past 18 months, FSB officers have become recurring characters in a long chain of surveillance videos showing the detention of Russia’s top public officials. Governors, heads of federal ministries and their deputies, big businessmen with extensive connections to public officials — they’ve all found themselves the targets of recent criminal investigations. These “estates”, which were previously untouchable, have begun to lose their immunity from prison. 

The recent arrests of generals in the Investigative Committee on corruption charges in July this year, as well as last week’s raid on the apartment of anti-corruption police colonel Dmitry Zakharchenko, who was found with $120m in cash in his study, signals that we’re entering the peak of this campaign. The Russian authorities’ entire campaign against corruption is now firmly (and exclusively) associated with the FSB. This is partially because the security service does not feature in any comparable scandal. 

However, it’s not enough to collect kompromat (“compromising material”) and detain your suspect red-handed. You have to compile a criminal case according to the rules, you have to convincingly (particularly in big cases) support the prosecution in court and, in the end, make sure the guilty verdict fits. And if the “service” is often successful in the final third, the FSB has often been thwarted on everything else by the investigators, who have continued to act as independent players.

Defeating the competition

Indeed, the FSB arrested high-ranking members of Russia’s Investigative Committee in July precisely for their resistance to the investigation of Shakro Molodoy, a notorious organised crime boss. It was precisely for aiding people involved in the corruption charges against former Komi governor Vyacheslav Gaizer that the FSB arrested police colonel Dmitry Zakharchenko. Both cases are, in effect, stories of failed attempts to resist the FSB’s rather sudden monopoly on criminal investigations. 

Prior to his rather “loud” departure, Vladimir Markin, former spokesman of the Investigative Committee, managed to hint at the weakness of the FSB’s ability to investigate in comparison to his own agency’s talent for corruption investigations. Markin’s attempt to remind us of the Committee’s former “investigative monopoly” was addressed, undoubtedly, to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. But it was also a challenge to the FSB, which, since the start of the year, has begun to gradually seize the role of investigator.

There have been reports that the FSB has maintained wiretaps on a huge number of top public officials and businessmen for a long time without any court orders. And this isn’t because the judges might refuse them, but to avoid any chance that this information might get out.

Directly before the Interior Ministry and Investigative Committee were seriously discredited in these recent arrests, two other players were removed from the siloviki realm — the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) and Federal Migration Service (FMS). Viktor Ivanov, head of the FSKN, had already been a lame duck for the previous 12 months: the decision to liquidate the FSKN was taken at the start of 2015, but he asked for this to be postponed, and was the first to announce the ministry’s liquidation and the mistake therein. 

The siloviki field has thus been cleansed, and the conditions created for the FSB to attack its main rivals for the monopoly on criminal investigations

Here we should recall the FSB’s 2007 confrontation with the FSKN, which, at the time, was managed by former chekist Viktor Cherkesov. Back then, the FSKN felt itself to be an influential enough player to cut across Nikolai Patrushev’s FSB. The fact that Russia’s Drug Control Service had lost this battle became clear when Cherkesov published an article in Kommersant in which he asked members of the security community not to attack one another. The intervening years have seen the FSKN gradually lose its influence, though by law it remains one of the three state agencies that can conduct investigations, organise wiretaps and apply other means to collect information secretly. 

After the FSKN and the Federal Migration Service were liquidated in summer this year, the Kremlin decided to create the National Guard, which found itself with some 500,000 police officers and a significant part of the Interior Ministry’s budget. Clearly, in the next few years, this new security ministry will have to solve some important political problems. But apart from this, the National Guard took away the Interior Ministry’s main source of income outside the state budget — extra-ministerial protection services. In essence, Russia’s police have had all their “off-the-books” sources of income taken away, which has sharply reduced its independence and, at the same time, increased external oversight. 

The siloviki field has thus been cleansed, and the conditions created for the FSB to attack its main rivals for the monopoly on criminal investigations — the Interior Ministry (in terms of operational and search activities) and Investigative Committee (in terms of investigations). 

Power reforms 

Thus, the picture today looks as follows: 

1. The FSB is openly claiming the monopoly to investigative work at minimum on criminal cases that are politically significant. It’s unlikely the FSB is interested in running criminal cases on thefts, possession or domestic murders.

2. The money in the Russian state budget is decreasing, which means less budget resources and more efficiency — hence, cuts to personnel and an end to doubling of state functions across ministries.

3. Russia has entered the election cycle, and the Kremlin has rather easily solved the tactical problem of maintaining control over parliament. Now it has to prevent the risks of turbulence ahead of the presidential elections. Here it’s not question of possible public competition, but instead a battle behind-the-scenes for proximity to the future head of state — whether it’s Vladimir Putin or one of his successors.

4. From 2012, when Dmitry Medvedev’s liberalism was switched out for Putin’s conservatism (and the constellation of power fundamentally changed), new interest groups and centres of influence have formed, and others have suffered defeat. There is now a need to fix this new balance of power in legislation and organisational structure. 

The new order 

All of these assumptions come back to the need for system-side transformations in Russia’s law enforcement. It’s not worth dwelling on the “terrible” name of the Ministry of State Security (the initials MGB recall the title of the Soviet Union’s post-war security ministry). Instead, this is a much deeper and thought-out reform. And the leaked news of its creation in Kommersant on Monday might not have been organised by its supporters, but, on the contrary, its opponents.

For instance, last week the Interior Ministry presented a draft bill on the creation of a municipal police force. This fact that this bill proposed transferring 90% of inquest and investigation functions on various insignificant criminal matters to the local level, together with the strain this would place on municipal and regional budgets, fits in with the assumptions above. 

Alexander Bastrykin’s concept of a Russian FBI (organised under him) could easily be realised under the auspices of the FSB or through the creation of a new ministry with investigative powers on the most significant categories of crimes against the federal authorities. Thus, a classic American dual system emerges — a federal power ministry focused on national-level crimes with investigative powers, plus a local municipal police force working on the lion’s share of offences.

From now on, “corruption” will essentially be stealing from this one group, to which everything silently belongs

In addition, we can expect to see the General Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of Justice merge according to the same US model, with the ensuing liquidation of the former (it’s harder to get rid of the GPO, it’s mentioned in the constitution). We can also expect to see a return of the emergency workers and firefighters into the Ministry of Defence. The Federal Penitentiary Service will remain a semi-independent structure, possibly in the framework of a unified General Prosecutor’s Office and Ministry of Justice (Russia’s membership of the Council of Europe demands that the country’s prison agency is separate from the investigatory agencies). 

As a result, the amount of money the Russian state spends on its siloviki is going to go down, and they’re going to work harder. The cuts to personnel and end to overlapping functions across agencies will cover the expense of the reform itself. Russia’s power ministries may well end up working more effectively. 

Indeed, in a situation where power belongs to a single, concrete group, we won’t even have to talk about corruption, but a certain order of things. From now on, “corruption” will essentially be stealing from this one group, to which everything silently belongs.

Want to know more about Russia's increasingly authoritarian future? Read about how public and private interests intersect in Moscow's urban redesign.

Translated by Tom Rowley.

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