Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Is Putin's Russia the First 21st Century Oligarchy?

It looks as though the dream of a truly democratic Russia may turn out to be just a dream.

Vladimir Putin appears to have transformed Russia from a fledgling democracy into something more closely resembling what it was before - an autocratic regime where dissension was brutally suppressed and those in favour got to reap the rewards of that favour.

Three articles today, published in The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Guardian, respectively suggest that Russia and considerable parts of Eastern Europe have fallen to domination by key figures in the former communist state security services.

The Washington Post

"On Nov. 15, the Russian Interior Ministry and Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant, announced three new senior appointments. Oleg Safonov was named a deputy head of the ministry. Yevgeny Shkolov became head of its economic security department. And Valery Golubev was appointed a deputy chief executive at Gazprom.

"All three men had something important in common beyond the timing of their promotions: backgrounds as KGB officers and experience working directly with President Vladimir Putin when he was a KGB operative himself in Germany or later, when he was a rising presence in the local government of St. Petersburg, his home town.

"'If in the Soviet period and the first post-Soviet period, the KGB and FSB [people] were mainly involved in security issues, now half are still involved in security but the other half are involved in business, political parties, NGOs, regional governments, even culture," said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, director of the Moscow-based Center for the Study of Elites. "They started to use all political institutions."

"Kryshtanovskaya recently analyzed the official biographies of 1,016 leading political figures -- departmental heads of the presidential administration, all members of the government, all deputies of both houses of parliament, the heads of federal units and the heads of regional executive and legislative branches. She found that 26 percent had reported serving in the KGB or its successor agencies.

"A more microscopic look at the biographies, she said -- examining unexplained gaps in résumés, unlikely career paths or service in organizations affiliated with the KGB -- suggests the startling figure of 78 percent.

"The widening reach of Russia's national security apparatus is part of the general centralization of power under Putin and a more assertive and self-confident foreign policy backed by vast energy resources.

"A spokesman for the FSB declined to discuss its functions, saying the topics raised in a series of faxed questions touched on classified material. But in interviews with the Russian news media, senior FSB officials have defended the agency's increasing power as a necessary and natural response to a terrorist threat.

"'Western countries condemn Russia for encroaching on democracy but invest in their own special and police services nearly unrestricted powers that encroach on the rights and freedoms of their citizens,' Yuri Gorbunov, deputy director of the FSB, said in an interview in July with the official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta. 'Why? Because they know what a danger terrorism poses.'

Adds The Guardian:

"For a time after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the so-called oligarchs, men such as Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ruled the roost.

"But their time is now over. Mr Berezovsky is in exile in Britain, while Mr Khodorkovsky is in jail after his energy company, Yukos, was broken up.

"Russia now belongs to, for want of a better word, the securocrats. This handy term from the Northern Ireland conflict is regularly used by Gerry Adams, of Sinn Fein, to describe Britain's secret services and the military.

"The securocrats in Russia are old KGB hands - starting, of course with Vladimir Putin, a former operative in Germany, and now the country's president.

"It seems the KGB, now renamed the FSB, is to Russia what the Ecole Nationale d'Administration is to France - a school for the country's top decision-makers.

"Yevgenia Albats, a professor of political science at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, told Foreign Policy magazine recently:

"'The KGB's capacity to be a political organisation is back. And unlike the Soviet era, the secret services are now in full power. Putin was a lieutenant colonel in the FSB, and all his major associates and deputies in the Kremlin are former KGB employees. Major Russian monopolies such as Gazprom and the railroad monopoly are controlled by former KGB agents. Overall, some '6,000 former or current intelligence officers are in the executive and legislature."

And The New York Times Warns This Isn't Confined to Russia

"BUCHAREST, Romania — Communism is gone and democracy is well implanted in the countries of the old Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet era’s security services are still sending shudders through the region nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Some members of the secret police remain in place. Others took advantage of the state-asset fire sale that came with the dismantling of centrally planned economies and are now quietly powerful players.

“'In ’89, only Communism was killed, but the former state security and Communist Party chiefs took the economic power,' said Marius Oprea, president of the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, a Romanian government group.

"As a result, the files that documented many of the era’s darkest deeds, from blackmail to torture to assassination, have remained closed — and few of the agents and informers whose reports fattened the folders of the services have ever been identified.

"But that is changing with the advent of new governments that have displaced those more closely associated with the old Communists, and with pressure from the European Union. A renewed effort is under way across the former Soviet bloc to expose the continued role of the security services and to root out former police agents and collaborators.

"Most of Central and Eastern Europe’s former Communist countries tried to purge their societies of Soviet-era secret police and informers in the aftermath of Communism’s collapse. But the closer they were to Russia, the less effective their purges were.

"While many of the region’s new political leaders look decisively to the West for their future, some former Communists and the secret services that served them are drawn to the revitalized power of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and his F.S.B., the successor to the K.G.B.

"East Germany and the Czech Republic were the most successful with their purges after 1989, opening secret police files and screening public figures for past collaboration with the intelligence services. Poland screened tens of thousands of people in the early 1990s, but the process lost steam — until the nationalist Law and Justice Party came to power last year and revived it."

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