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Russia: Putin Transforms Security Council

By Donald Jensen

Russian President Vladimir Putin has transformed the country's Security Council, traditionally an advisory body, into a major policy-making forum. It is unclear, however, whether he seeks to use the council as a counterweight to other structures or give it a pivotal role in governing the country. RFE/RL's Donald Jensen reports.

Prague, 8 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The council is led by Putin ally Sergei Ivanov, who is perhaps the second most powerful politician in Russia after Putin. But Ivanov reportedly may be lined up to be the next defense or prime minister and his departure as council head could weaken the body.

In addition to Ivanov and Putin, who serves as ex officio chairman, council members include Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev, Chief of the General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin as well as other cabinet members, the heads of the foreign and domestic intelligence services and law enforcement officials.

Since its creation in 1992, the council has functioned -- not always successfully - as a permanent presidential staff and a forum for discussing policy. Although Yeltsin originally set up the council as an alternative to existing security structures, opposition from entrenched bureaucratic interests prevented the council from becoming fully established. Nevertheless, the body served as an effective war council during the first Chechnya conflict, when then-head Aleksandr Lebed used it to broker a settlement. (The council also was influential when oligarch Boris Berezovsky held the post of deputy secretary in 1996-97.)

In 1999, Putin combined the post of Security Council secretary with that of head of the Federal Security Service. He began to build up the council when he became acting president a year ago and named Ivanov, who like Putin is a career KGB officer from St. Petersburg, to head the body.

Under Ivanov the council has given the broadest possible interpretation to the concept of national security, the scope of its work often matching that of the old Soviet Politburo. The council has helped draft the country's new national security and foreign policy doctrines, took the lead in military reform -- it was the arbiter of a dispute last summer between Defense Minster Sergeyev and Kvashnin -- and led the recent reorganization of the military-industrial complex.

In addition, the council has crafted the so-called information concept that would impose restrictions on the press, and debated the country's hemorrhaging of capital abroad.

There have been several missteps along the way. It was the council, according to press reports, which recommended the Kremlin back Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic until just before his fall. Putin sent an initial draft of the military doctrine back to the council for review after some Russian generals complained about its provisions.

Ivanov has repeatedly denied the Security Council plays a role in policy-making. He claims it is advisory only and notes that many government ministers are members. In recent months, however, the council has taken on executive and administrative functions. Several sources suggest the security services have used the council, via Ivanov, to lobby for increasing the state's role in the economy and for initiating a severe crackdown on Russia's oligarchs.

As with other Russian politicians, Ivanov has been linked to large sums of money. The recent reorganization of the country's lucrative arms export industry reportedly puts the profits from that sector under the control of Ivanov and his KGB associates from St. Petersburg.

The council's clout derives, above all, from Ivanov's close relationship to Putin. Ivanov is reportedly one of the few officials with direct access to the president and often accompanies Putin on his trips abroad. The council's centralized, hierarchical structure, also matches Putin's governing style.

Yet Putin has not indicated unequivocally that he wants to make the Security Council his principal instrument of rule. The president has given Ivanov responsibility for the seven viceroys overseeing Russia's provinces -- regional policy had previously been the purview of the presidential administration, the council's powerful bureaucratic rival. But Putin has publicly stated that presidential administration chief Voloshin, a Yeltsin holdover, will continue in his post. Voloshin continues to play a key policy-making role.

Competition between the two bodies is likely to continue --especially as Ivanov and Voloshin reportedly disagree on how much control to exert over the media and how the Kremlin should deal with the business oligarchs. They also backed different candidates in recent gubernatorial elections in Kursk and Kaliningrad. Although this competition can create policy confusion, it gives Putin political cover by allowing him to maneuver via an informal system of checks and balances.

In the coming months, the Security Council's formal authority may grow. A bill pending in parliament provides that in cases of acute national crisis, the president can decree a state of emergency under which the Security Council would run the country. Another proposal would give council secretary the power to compel other officials to comply with its decisions.

There are signs, however, that Ivanov may soon move on. His formal retirement as an intelligence officer last month was widely interpreted as a first step toward his becoming a civilian defense minister -- out of uniform, Ivanov might be better able to restructure the armed forces, whose leaders have sometimes publicly disagreed with him. He is also seen by many as a possible replacement for Kasyanov, to whom Ivanov's rival, Voloshin, reportedly has close ties. Without Ivanov to head it, however, and given the court politics of the Kremlin -- where personality counts for much -- the Security Council might fade again into obscurity.