The news that United Russia has secured a constitutional majority in the election, together with rumors of the possible creation of an MGB [Ministry of State Security] incorporating the SVR [Foreign Intelligence Service] and the FSO [Federal Protection Service], became symbolic. It was reminiscent of the feeling in September 2011: Vladimir Putin’s address and announcement at a United Russia pre-election congress that he will run [for president] came like a bolt from the blue. After all, then, too, «everybody knew everything» and rationally understood that Putin was bound to make a comeback (to cede power, this time for six years, to a successor who, by then, had clearly played himself into the role would have been extremely naive), but an overwhelming majority of the liberal public and the elite refused to believe this. Many people saw the September congress as a very heavy iron fence that suddenly fell on the road and made it impossible, for a long time, to continue living as before. There was an intuitive understanding that the country was making a U-turn and heading toward the past, but few people realized that this would happen so swiftly and completely.
This election campaign was merely a political backdrop — as if it did not exist. The elections, which were dull for both the authorities and the opposition, were of little interest to experts and voters. Everything seemed to be predictable and uninteresting, but then suddenly… This anticipation of «suddenly» was really very strong and very naive, just like it was in September 2011 when Medvedev «suddenly» capitulated politically and Putin regained everything even before he was elected. This was a milestone that set a new direction for the country.
And 19 September proved to be another milestone. The new Duma will be more politically homogenous, conservative, and dependent on the Kremlin. This will be a spoiler parliament, rather than the driver parliament [former Russian Finance Minister] Aleksey Kudrin spoke about. This must have been wishful thinking on his part. With this Duma, it will be much harder to implement reforms.
While the authorities were, consciously or not so consciously, attaching this spoiler to the state machinery, the machinery realigned itself in a completely different direction — not toward reforms, but toward preservation and regression. The FSB [Federal Security Service] is now preparing for a final battle for its resurrection.
Putin made the first step toward this back in 2003 when he gave the FSB the border service and some of the functions of FAPSI [the now defunct Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information] (they were divided between the FSO and the FSB). However, the FSO itself and the SVR remained independent. The FSB, despite a certain restoration, remained in a relatively competitive field of security forces. Moreover, the FSO, jointly with the Federal Drug Control Service, which was founded in 2003, «herded» security agency officers for several years, which evolved into the security agency wars of 2005-2007. Putin, in a certain sense, managed to reduce the confrontation after major reshuffles in the FSKN and, partly, in the FSB, but the president failed to put an end to constant rivalry between the FSO and the FSB.
The prevailing view has always been that Putin is deliberately maintaining animosity between his security agencies in order to control them better. This makes sense, but may not be quite correct.
The scandal exposing security agency officers’ role in the «furniture case» of the mid-2000s, the FSKN tapping generals’ phones (the Bulbov base), the FSB’s retaliatory attack, constant personnel shakeups, leaks, staffers informing on each other — all of this was not so much about control as about pulling apart those who were simply fighting to divide power and influence. The manner in which these conflicts were resolved suggested that this was an extra burden for Putin, a waste of effort and time, and ultimately a consequence of an ineffective system of security agencies. Constant spats also led to «the washing of dirty linen in public,» which Putin does not tolerate on a genetic level.
But neither does Putin tolerate drastic institutional or personnel steps. His decisions, as we already know full well, mature for years. Let the sleeping dog lie; better be safe than sorry — the president has said these words repeatedly. Meanwhile, Putin’s cautious approach enabled the FSB gradually to gain influence — first politically and later personnel-wise and institutionally. Everybody has already read about the 6th department of the FSB’s Internal Security Directorate, which investigates all high-profile criminal cases against officials and [regional] governors. In 2016, it was the Internal Security Directorate that, through well-known contraband cases, «devoured» Yevgeniy Murov [FSO director from 2000 through May 2016]. This meant not just speeding up his long-awaited resignation, but switching the FSO to a new mode of personnel operation where people without political experience or ambitions who were only recently colonels have found themselves in charge of the service itself and its key division, the Presidential Security Service. Thus the influential institution has first lost its leader and then its political capacity and identity.
While the country was debating what reforms should be implemented and when, and while the State Duma was preparing for «competitive and transparent elections,» the process of expansion by security agency officers was in full swing in a parallel reality.
After Murov was devoured, it was the turn of the FSB’s Economic Security Service (SEB) and the SKR [Russian Investigations Committee] The latter was inflicted a devastating blow, which should logically lead to another major institutional decision — the abolition of the SKR and the distribution of its functions between the Procurator General’s Office and the FSB. «It is contemplated that MGB officers will not simply track and support the investigation of criminal cases instituted on the basis of their material by the SKR and MVD [Internal Affairs Ministry], but also exercise procedural oversight. Meanwhile, the investigations department of the MGB, which will acquire main-administration status, will be able to deal with the most high-profile criminal cases and those of state significance, whose investigative jurisdiction, under the Code of Criminal Procedure, is currently assigned to the SKR and the MVD,» Kommersant wrote.
It would be logical to incorporate the SVR into the future MGB. The current SVR chief, Mikhail Fradkov, has been in the post since 2007 and has long been preparing to make way for someone more active. But the main contender to replace him, Sergey Naryshkin, will, with a high degree of probability, stay in the State Duma (and is likely to keep the post of speaker [Naryshkin was appointed SVR director on 22 September]). This is further evidence of the impact of the election results on the conservative trend in the country’s development: The obscenely high result of the party of power has contributed to the Duma status quo being maintained. Security service officers got lucky again: It is easier to absorb an agency that has no influential leader. And this is the right time to get hold of the FSO, while its young leaders still lack experience and audacity. Only the Presidential Security Service remains independent.
It is important to understand that all the things described above are a «whim» by the FSB, which must feel that its own political opportunities are expanding. Just as in late 2011, security agency officers, «dirigiste» officials, and United Russia members have been waiting for the right moment to take revenge and restore their position following the despised Medvedev thaw. The FSB is now clearing the field for itself by taking advantage of the weakness of its «rivals,» their weaker political and personnel position, reputational problems, corruption scandals, and their having been discredited in the eyes of the president. And the president is wistfully observing his decaying entourage while being happy about the strong mandate of popular trust (that is precisely how the president interprets the election results). Falling behind the people is the FSB, the infallible eternal companion so nicely portraying itself as the only unblemished structure, in which experienced and selfless colonels «devour blood sausage» and live off their salaries while fighting on the invisible fronts of their vast Motherland.
Putin is ending 2016 in the people’s embrace, hand in hand with the trusty FSB. It was only recently that he was being told that the ratings of the party of power were falling, there were gaps in the budget, and people were about to stage violent protests. Liberals were painting a grim future with disappearing sovereign funds and low oil prices, pushing for an unpleasant and painful decision — the postponement of the presidential election and the subsequent launch of reforms. «Enough,» Putin said yesterday. No shock therapy. Enough of bad news. After all, it is clear to him now that the people love him and will understand everything while the FSB will protect and provide guarantees of stability, reliability, and steadiness. It seems that this is how the Duma elections have put paid to the main intrigue of 2017 — whether or not there will be reforms — and have given the FSB a new argument to keep the steamroller of security service officers rolling.