Commentary Type

Purge or Coup?

Op-ed in the Moscow Times


For years, President Vladimir Putin promised everybody that he would retire from politics when his second term lapsed in 2008. With his usual consistency, he changed his tune last June, saying he would maintain a major political role. In December, he "agreed" to serve as prime minister under future President Dmitry Medvedev.

Many commentators have called this an ideal outcome and even write about the Putin-Medvedev "dream team."

"Dream" might arouse the right perception because it might not be more real than Putin's previously long-acclaimed retirement.

Putin could not retire for two reasons. First, serious accusations of corruption and grand larceny have been raised against him. Therefore, he could not retire in a Russia without rule of law because no legal guarantees of amnesty could be plausible. Second, Putin's rule is a personal authoritarian system in which all power rests with the ruler. If he retires, his system is prone to collapse.

Putin's plan to become prime minister secures his badly needed immunity. But as prime minister he could not safeguard his personal dictatorship or arbitrate among his closest conspirators from the KGB in St. Petersburg. These people have all the reason in the world to revolt.

The strongest Chekist clan is led by Igor Sechin, the deputy head of the presidential administration. Although not even a public personality, he is arguably the second-most powerful man in Putin's Russia, and he chairs Rosneft. A close ally of Sechin is Viktor Ivanov, responsible for personnel in the Kremlin and chairman of the armaments company Almaz-Antei and Aeroflot. Other prominent members of this camp are FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin. It was Sechin's clan that campaigned for a third term for Putin.

Its main antagonists are Viktor Cherkesov, head of the Federal Drug Control Agency, and Viktor Zolotov, head of the presidential security service. Prosecutor General Yury Chaika appears to have joined them.

Beyond these two competing groups, Putin's friends from the KGB and St. Petersburg form several seemingly independent groups. Vladimir Yakunin, chief of Russian Railways, leads one clan; Sergei Chemezov of Rosoboronexport and Russian Technologies heads another; Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev appears to have broken out of the Sechin group, establishing an independent force. Information Technology and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov seem to represent separate KGB forces.

All these KGB people have come to the fore only because they were friends of Putin. He is their only claim to fame. In all likelihood, nobody else would appoint them to such high posts. Putin has maintained his power by dividing these groups and arbitrating between them, so that they all hate one another.

But by appointing Medvedev as his heir apparent, Putin has carried out a coup against his KGB friends, betraying them all. Ironically, the prime beneficiaries are the surviving family oligarchs led by Roman Abramovich, who have been losing out politically since the Yukos confiscation in 2003.

Today, all of Putin's Chekists undoubtedly loathe Medvedev, who has outwitted them. But most of all, they must hate their former friend Vladimir Vladimirovich. They all hoped to remain in power, but what will happen to them in the future under the Medvedev-Putin dream team?

They are privately wealthy, but their fortunes hinge on government positions that President Medvedev could fire them from, and any student of management or history knows that it would be imprudent of him not to do so instantly.

The situation is quite simple. Either the Chekists gang up against Medvedev and Putin while they still have power, or they face being discarded into the dustbin of history. The oligarchs may be ready to defend Medvedev with their money, but the Chekists have the arms and troops. In short, we are seeing a classical precoup situation: Will the armed old regime give up without violence or try to reassert its power?

The most obvious parallel is the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's reign. From October 1990 to April 1991, Gorbachev made common cause with Communist Party hardliners, who started considering him one of their own because of his many appointments of reactionary Communists.

In April 1991, however, Gorbachev started his Novo-Ogaryovo process on the elaboration of a new union treaty, which amounted to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its replacement with a loose, voluntary confederation. Gorbachev's hard-line appointees wanted nothing of the kind. On August 18, 1991, two days before the planned signing of the new union treaty, they joined hands and staged a coup-admittedly one of the most pathetic operetta coups the world has ever seen.

The Sechin group appears to have started to attack Putin himself. The very precise-and plausible-information about Putin's personal wealth seems to originate from the Sechin clan. The same interlocutors are now leaking the roles of Putin's reputed bagmen, Gennady Timchenko and Yury Kovalchuk.

Nobody but the Sechin operatives are likely to have had access to Marina Salye's report from 1992 on Putin's alleged corrupt foreign trade deals in St. Petersburg at that time, which was released on the Russian Internet for the first time on November 30, 2007, two days before the State Duma elections. Suddenly, the censorship on criticism of Putin has eased, and it is controlled by the Sechin crowd.

On November 30, 2007, Kommersant published the extraordinary Oleg Shvartsman interview that blackened Sechin and, interestingly, General Valentin Varennikov, one of the foremost August 1991 and October 1993 putchists. It outed KGB business in general. Alisher Usmanov, the owner of Kommersant, is connected to Gazprom, which Medvedev chairs.

This internecine war among the KGB men is reminiscent of the bankers' war in 1997, which preceded the demise of the oligarchs. Are we seeing the prelude to the fall of the KGB kleptocrats?

If Medvedev is to become president, Putin had better fire all these Chekists before the planned coronation in May. Indeed, he has already spoken about a complete change of the top leadership of the state, but after having warned the incumbents, he needs to act.

Meanwhile, time is running out for his former KGB friends, who need to mend fences among themselves if they intend to organize a coup while they still command Russia's many special forces. They will, however, have to prove more skill than some of them did in August 1991 and October 1993.

Since both a purge and a coup are obvious actions for a conspiratorial brain trained in the Kremlin, neither might come into fruition. But the nasty infighting in the Kremlin is likely to continue and lead to upsets for the dream team.

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