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Russia's New Elite Draws From Old KGB

November 10, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — 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.

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