Russia's New Elite Draws From Old KGB

Times Staff Writer

For years, Alexander Lebedev was a spy. After graduating from the prestigious Moscow State Institute for International Relations, he became an expert on foreign debt and the emerging market economies of the Soviet bloc. He was posted to London in the 1980s as an intelligence agent for the KGB.

These days, though, when Lebedev goes to London, he's more likely to attend a theater production in the West End than to scrutinize the activities of foreign businesspeople. Lebedev is chairman of the National Reserve Bank and a big stakeholder in Aeroflot Russian Airlines. He is running for mayor of Moscow.

The story of the KGB agent turned captain of industry is not an unusual one in today's Russia. To the contrary, there has been an explosion in the number of top jobs in government, state-owned industry and private business held by former officers of the military, intelligence and security services since Vladimir V. Putin, a former KGB colonel, became president.

At least a quarter of the "elite" in the Russian government are veterans of the security services, and up to 2,000 are in various influential government and industry positions, according to a study this year by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology. Three regional governors are former senior officers of the KGB, whose domestic successor is the FSB. So are the heads of Petersburg Fuel Co., Slavneft Oil Co., Domodedovo Airlines, the St. Petersburg Telephone Network and Moscow's central waterworks.

These siloviki, or "powerful ones," are said to have set their sights on bringing to heel Russia's billionaire oligarchs, clamping down on independent media and minimizing the role of international business. Analysts say they were probably the strongest political force behind last month's arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former chief of Yukos Oil Co., who was openly critical of the influence of the siloviki in Putin's government.

The fact that Putin may not have ordered the oil tycoon's arrest and appears constantly to be trying to minimize its chilling effects on foreign investors is evidence, in the view of some analysts, that the siloviki have become so powerful that not even the president completely controls them.

"These are people who are very prone to using authoritarian methods. They don't understand and they don't like democracy. They think the most important thing Putin is doing now is he's trying to restore their status and bring back their authority," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who conducted the studies on "Putin's elite" for the Academy of Sciences.

"We're talking about the whole system," she said. "It is a plan that has been code-named 'putting things back in order in the country.' "

Putin's senior siloviki raise the concept of "low profile" to a professional art. Hardly anyone knows what his powerful deputy administration chief, Igor Sechin, looks like. The former translator, who is widely reported to have been involved in intelligence work, is very rarely photographed. He and 20-year KGB veteran Viktor Ivanov, another senior member of Putin's team, are described as intensely loyal to the president and intolerant of those who do not show appropriate respect for the apparatus of the state.

Sechin "has a very good education. His communicative skills are superb. But his main asset is his loyalty. He would never allow himself to speak about his own point of view on a decision already taken by Putin," said Valery Pavlov, an editor who worked with Sechin and Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor's office in the 1980s.

Kryshtanovskaya, who has developed close contacts among the siloviki through her years of study, said they had strong objections to Khodorkovsky's political involvement.

Where Khodorkovsky really crossed the line, she said, was arriving at the Kremlin dressed in his usual attire, a sport coat and open-collared shirt. "He showed up for an audience with Putin without a necktie," she said. "Those people told me quite openly, it was the last straw, it was beyond the bounds of decency."

The siloviki won another round last month with the departure of Putin Chief of Staff Alexander S. Voloshin, who had been a champion of business and Western-oriented reforms. Voloshin stepped down almost immediately after Khodorkovsky's arrest, signaling the decline of the only major faction in the Kremlin that had countered the influence of Sechin and Ivanov.

But in characteristically cautious fashion, Putin blocked a siloviki checkmate by making his new chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev, a 38-year-old St. Petersburg lawyer who immediately questioned Khodorkovsky's arrest and warned that it could have serious consequences for the economy. So neither side achieved full control.

"What Putin is doing is playing several simultaneous games of chess. He has to view the situation in general and keep the balance," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst close to Voloshin who has warned of the rise of the siloviki's influence.

"So far, none of the liberal legislative reforms has been shelved. On the other hand, the public support for Putin's reforms has weakened considerably. The dialogue has been suspended for now. There's a certain degree of mistrust, and here is the visible success of the people I call the power-wielding bureaucracy," Pavlovsky said. "I think today there is a danger these people could go too far to exacerbate the crisis."

What many people forget, said former KGB Lt. Col. Konstantin Preobrazhensky, is that Putin himself virtually grew up in the KGB, posted in the former East Germany.

"When I hear him speak on TV, I immediately get this deja vu feeling, as if I am back in the 1980s, inside a KGB building," said Preobrazhensky, who quit the agency in 1991 and now lives in the United States. "He has other typical KGB traits -- he comes from a poor family, and this is why he has hated the rich all his life. He is embittered ... he remembers the evil done to him by other people forever."

It would be wrong "to think that Putin is an innocent lamb surrounded and controlled by a group of KGB wolves who have finally made it to power," he said. "Putin is a wolf himself.... And I have been trying to explain to all those willing to listen that the security officers in power today are dreaming about one single thing -- to restore totalitarianism in Russia."

Outside the political domain, former agents such as Lebedev are reminders that the security and intelligence services bring to the boardroom histories of high education, facility with foreign languages, loyalty and relative incorruptibility that have made them sought after as managers.

"Regardless of the KGB's fearful past, we must bear in mind that a person could become a KGB officer only through a very careful selection process. Even in the years of stagnation, you couldn't make a career without being really smart, professional, disciplined and organized in many ways. It was probably the only meaningful part of society which was not touched by corruption," said a former KGB foreign officer, now a Moscow businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Agency veterans went into "moral crisis" with the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, he said, "processing material that nobody needed anymore." At foreign embassies, "your colleagues would look at you in a queer way and try to avoid you, as if you carried some contagious disease."

Then came capitalism. New businesses opened. Regional governments formed. The federal government needed to figure out how to write a constitution, set up a court system, nurture a market economy. "Analysts of all kinds were all of a sudden in great demand. And it turned out that there were no real analysts anywhere in Russia -- anywhere but in the KGB," the former agent said.

"All our work throughout the years was about processing and analyzing information and making conclusions and keeping our mouths shut about what we know. And that is exactly what companies needed."

Lebedev said his work as a foreign intelligence officer gave him access to information that no other Soviet citizen would have been allowed to see. As a result, he was more than prepared to operate in a market economy when it arrived.

"The way I was learning about the British and the United States' economy, I was given real information that other [Soviet] people were not allowed to have," he said.

Lebedev displays no totalitarian impulses. But his politics are distinctly not those of Russia's robber-baron oligarchs, either. Though he controls a company with assets of $1.5 billion, Lebedev supports a measure that would impose billions of dollars a year in "natural rent" taxes on companies that market Russia's vast oil and mineral wealth, regardless of their economic performance.

"I'm inclined to want to see much more social justice in this society," Lebedev said. "We all know private business has not been very good about paying taxes."

The think tank thought to be most closely allied with the views of the siloviki is the National Strategy Council of Russia, which released a report this year predicting that the country was in danger of an "oligarchic coup" aiming to control the parliament, seize power from the presidency and appoint an oligarch -- Khodorkovsky? -- as prime minister.

As for the siloviki, said Stanislav Belkovsky, who wrote the report, there is nothing to fear: It is not in their nature to seek power for themselves.

"You should understand the psychology of the Russian KGB," he said. "They are an instrument of power, but they are not seekers of power."

Belkovsky recalled the day in August 1991 when about 100 pro-democracy demonstrators marched into Lubyanka Square, over which KGB headquarters has always loomed, and pulled down the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the agency that would become the KGB.

"There were 2,000 KGB officers with guns inside that building, and all the power to protect that monument, and they were just staring out into Lubyanka Square from their windows. Nobody came out of their offices. And no one tried to rescue the statue," Belkovsky said.

"Why? Because no one gave them an order."

*

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
54°