Kremlin-watchers were kept busy over the summer with a veritable feast of political manoeuvrings and developments. Amongst them was the dismissal of President Vladimir Putin’s chief-of-staff Sergey Ivanov, high profile arrests of corrupt officials and United Russia’s overwhelming victory in the State Duma elections. Some of the news stories were more predictable than others, but the reported radical shake-up of the security services was a bolt from the blue, prompting fears of a possible revival of Putin’s former all-powerful employer, the KGB.
Such a move makes sense if viewed as yet another attempt by the president to tighten his grip on the country, but there are strong suggestions that the rumoured restructuring has been forced on him because the rivalries and tensions between his various intelligence services have been threatening to spin out of control. The business daily Kommersant, which broke the story a day after the September 18 Duma elections, hinted as much. Somewhat diplomatically, it said the reform would lead to more effective management of security and law enforcement agencies as well as curb corruption.
According to Kommersant, a new Ministry of State Security, known as the MGB or Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoi Bezopastnosti, will be created to unite the Federal Security Services (FSB), the Federal Protection Service (FSO) and the Foreign Intelligence Services (SVR). Russia’s chief investigative anti-corruption body, the Investigative Committee (SEDCOM), will return to its former home in the State Prosecutor’s Office, while the functions of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, or EMERCOM, will be divided between the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of the Interior (MVD).
As part of the overhaul, the MGB would be granted comprehensive new powers, including the authority to assume responsibility for the most high-profile cases, a task currently undertaken by the Investigative Committee, as well as the ability to exercise control over the handling of investigations conducted by its constituent agencies. The reported move appears to be consistent with Putin’s recent tightening of the reins of power, evident in April when he established the National Guard by decree. Promoted as a counter-terrorism and organised crime-fighting force, the new service has caused some concern among those who view it as Putin’s praetorian guard.
Though Kommersant’s story is based on anonymous sources and has still not been confirmed officially, many experts describe the report as plausible. Others suggest that the idea of creating such a monolith is incompatible with Putin’s preference for a multiplicity of overlapping agencies that are used to play off against each other, thus preventing one from becoming too powerful or excessively corrupt. But looking at it from Putin’s perspective, there are in fact sound reasons to establish a new all-encompassing security ministry.
While the president’s system of checks and balances may play a role in uncovering or limiting corruption among some officials through fear of arrest, it effectively sanctions criminality so long as it is discreet and has become, more significantly, chaotic and very difficult to manage.
Tensions and rivalries have existed for many years between Russia’s law enforcement bodies, be it the FSB and the MVD; the SVR and Russia’s Military Intelligence; or the FSB and the Federal Drugs Control Service (FSKN). The latter, for example, was founded in the early 2000s as a parallel organisation to the FSB, and for some time was engaged in a sometimes violent turf war with its more established cousin, requiring Putin to broker a ceasefire. The FSKN has since been folded into the MVD.
Dmitry of Domodedovo
Lost among the summer headlines was a development that highlighted the conflicts within the security apparatus – the collapse of a criminal case against Dmitry Kamenshchik, the principal owner of Domodedovo airport. A respected businessman, he became the subject of a police investigation in early 2011 following a lethal terrorist attack at Domodedovo. Along with a number of his subordinates, the airport boss was prosecuted for various alleged security lapses. While the investigation ran out of steam in late 2011, the Investigative Committee reopened the case in 2015, and in February placed Kamenshchik under house arrest.
Despite repeated calls by the Prosecutor General’s Office to drop the case, the Investigative Committee continued to pursue Kamenshchik, causing Putin considerable embarrassment. In July, however, all the charges were dropped and Kamenshchik walked free. While it is not clear what prompted his release, it was followed by numerous shake-ups in the Russian security apparatus, including unconfirmed reports of the resignation of the Investigative Committee’s controversial head, Alexander Bastrykin.
The Domodedovo affair is just the latest example of the antagonistic relationships between the various law enforcement agencies in Russia. Certainly, if the rumours of the creation of the MGB are true, Putin would argue that he has perfectly legitimate reasons to undertake such a reform – and perhaps he has a point.
Christopher Poulton is an Associate at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.