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Analysis: 'The Burden Of Maintaining The State Has Been Laid On Our Shoulders'

Is Putin's control of his government slipping? A growing number of Russia watchers seem to be coming to the conclusion that the political machine of President Vladimir Putin is entering a profound, systemic crisis that has been provoked by a string of political failures both at home and abroad (see "Russia On The Verge Of A Breakdown" --> /featuresarticle/2005/2/954DA9C3-67C7-4BAB-B263-CB41BD325A5B.html ).

Over the last 10 months or so, Moscow has been shaken by a number of setbacks, including the assassination in May of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, a large-scale raid by Chechen militants into the Republic of Ingushetia in June, the simultaneous terrorist bombings in August of two passenger airliners, the horrific hostage taking in Beslan in September that left more than 300 dead, and a wave of social unrest in the North Caucasus Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia.

These domestic incidents were compounded by failures abroad such as the scandalous convictions in June of two Russian security-services employees in Qatar in connection with the assassination there in February of former acting Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Other such foreign setbacks include the collapse of the pro-Moscow administration of Aslan Abashidze in the Georgian province of Adjara, the failures of pro-Russian candidates in elections in the Georgian Republic of Abkhazia and Ukraine.

All of these events occurred against the backdrop of the long saga of the de facto renationalization of oil giant Yukos. And now this litany of failure appears to be being capped off by massive national unrest against the government's effort to convert the in-kind social benefits that were the heart of the Soviet-era safety net into cash payments.

Many analysts place responsibility for the resulting crisis on the so-called silovik oligarchy, a group of security-apparatus veterans, or chekisty, within the Putin administration that replaced the Yeltsin-era commercial oligarchy as Russia's ruling elite. Perhaps as a reaction to such criticism, one leading member of this group, Colonel General Viktor Cherkesov, published in "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 29 December a long programmatic article that might be considered something of a "Chekist Manifesto." Cherkesov, who is director of the Federal Antinarcotics Service, worked for many years in the Leningrad branch of the KGB, where he earned a reputation as a dissident hunter. He is a close friend of Putin's and formerly served as Putin's envoy to the Northwest Federal District. According to recent media rumors, Cherkesov is in line to replace Nikolai Patrushev as head of the Federal Security Service (FSB).
"No matter what the name of the agency I am heading is and regardless of my rank and status, I have been and remain a chekist." - Cherkesov

In his article, Cherkesov states directly that "the chekisty and contemporary Russia have become historically intertwined." "We should understand that we are one single entity," he wrote. "None of us strove for power or wanted to gain the role of the dominant estate in Russia. But history turned out such that the burden of maintaining the Russian state has been laid on our shoulders."

Cherkesov's article is alarmist and repeats some points already made by Putin and others. In a speech to the country in the aftermath of the Beslan events, Putin said, "Russia is threatened both from the East and the West" (see "The Kremlin After Beslan"). Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov in October gave a long interview to "Komsomolskaya pravda" in which he denounced a "fifth column" of liberal politicians and activists who were undermining Russia (see "Kremlin Articulates Its Ideological Platform").

In his article, Cherkesov dismisses criticism of the chekist elite as a campaign directed against Russia by its enemies, who are threatening the country's territorial integrity. He writes that Russia faces a real threat of disintegration, and even admitted that the chekisty often failed to appreciate dangers confronting the country. "Even very recently it seemed as if all danger was behind us," Cherkesov wrote. "It seemed as if we were entering a period of relative stability. I am not shirking responsibility for mistakes that were made. And in admitting this, I remain loyal to the main thing, the purpose of my work and fate as a chekist. No matter what the name of the agency I am heading is and regardless of my rank and status, I have been and remain a chekist."

Cherkesov's article condemns the entrenched nomenklatura of the old Communist Party for the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Clinging to power that they were unable to wield, cut off from responsibility, and having lost a sense of reality, this arrogant and helpless caste dragged the state, society, their own ideology, and their own historical mission to their graves."

However, he says, the contemporary chekisty will not leave the historical scene so easily or "repeat the shameful fate of the degenerate Soviet nomenklatura."

"I believe in our community, in our caste that supports the state, in our ability to appreciate threats, to discard petty concerns, in our ability to remain true to our oath," Cherkesov wrote.

Cherkesov's "manifesto" appeared before the current wave of protests against the government's efforts to convert Soviet-era in-kind benefits to cash payments. These protests have proven a further embarrassment to the Kremlin and the chekisty, who clearly miscalculated the extent of the passivity and apathy of the citizenry. For instance, during an appearance on TV-Tsentr on 16 December, political scientist and Experimental Creative Center Director Sergei Kurginyan expressed skepticism that Russians would protest the reforms. "There are only two real national ideas in Russia today," Kurginyan said, "the 'hedonist consensus' and the 'plundering mainstream.' The 'hedonist consensus' is the desire of each individual to have fun at any price, whether by gulping down cheap alcohol in the company of beggars or taking a posh vacation on the French Riviera. The 'plundering mainstream' is the desire of all social groups to steal what they can, regardless of their standard of living, with only the amount and value of the things being stolen varying."

Embarrassed by the widespread unrest, the Kremlin initially tried to blame the regional authorities for the "poorly implemented reforms." However, Institute of Globalization Director and Duma Deputy Mikhail Delyagin (Motherland) has said that many protestors are directing their animus at President Putin personally. "Attacks on Putin became widespread not because someone in the West spent an extra million [dollars] on such a campaign, but because Putin's policy has begun to threaten Russia's existence and has become more destructive than the efforts of all our external enemies taken together," "Zavtra," No. 3, reported.

Frightened by the scale of the protests, the Kremlin and local administrations quickly began making concessions to all the social groups participating in the demonstrations. Analyst Aleksei Pushkov, speaking on TV-Tsentr on 29 January, laid out several reasons for this fairly rapid retreat. First, although only about 360,000 people -- of Russia's 38 million pensioners -- participated in the rallies as of the end of January, the demonstrations were scattered throughout the country, raising the specter of a national strike action. Second, pensioners are the most politically active part of the Russian electorate and they generally support the Communist Party. Although the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party managed to siphon away a lot of Communist supporters in the December 2003 Duma elections, reducing the party's support from 24 percent to 14 percent, continued protests threaten to reverse this new correlation of political forces, Pushkov said.

According to Pushkov, the Kremlin also fears that students and young people might join the protesting pensioners. This concern is particularly vivid in the light of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which students were the main driving force behind a compelling display of civil disobedience. The Kremlin has noted that a new generation of post-Soviet leaders is emerging, including Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. In a joint statement, the two presidents stated that the Georgian and Ukrainian revolutions "represent a new wave of the liberation of Europe that will lead to the ultimate victory of freedom and democracy on the European continent."

In addition to these arguments by Pushkov, some analysts also cite the personal loyalty of the chekisty to their leader, President Putin. This issue is especially interesting in the context of the events in Kyiv, where, according to "The New York Times" on 17 January, the peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian revolution was made possible by the decisive role played by Ukrainian siloviki in blocking the fraudulent ascent to power of former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and countering efforts by army units loyal to Yanukovych to use force against the demonstrators.

In Russia, the police and the military are also suffering from the benefits reform and their reliability might be in doubt. In the case of a serious disturbance, Putin can rely on the loyal FSB, as well as on a virtual shadow army of security-services and military veterans. Political scientist Kirill Zubkov told on 9 December that, unlike Ukraine, which has had virtually no experience of war and terrorism over the last decade, Russia has seen nearly continuous combat in Chechnya. More than 1 million soldiers have performed military duty in the rebellious republic.

Many of these combat veterans are now united into semi-commercial, semi-criminal organizations and private security services, Zubkov noted. Since November, Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov has served as liaison to veterans' organizations in the government of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov. Shamanov, a former commander of federal forces in Chechnya, was one of the key "Chechen" generals whose support helped Putin gain the presidency in 2000.

Gennadii Troshev, another general who came to prominence during the Chechen campaigns, is now a presidential adviser for Cossack affairs. Troshev, Shamanov, and other Chechnya generals understand that the disappearance of Putin from the political scene could create personal difficulties for them and they will rally to defend the regime, Zubkov argued. He also states that these militarized networks are driven by the ideals of the White Guard from the time of the Russian Civil War. "We are seeing how, without much public attention, a kind of volunteer army is forming that has a vested interest in preserving the current regime," Zubkov wrote.

One of the heroes of this network, Zubkov wrote, was White Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak. Zubkov noted that there have been stepped-up efforts recently to secure Kolchak's political rehabilitation, that a monument to Kolchak was recently erected in Omsk, and that a new state holiday -- People's Unity Day -- has been declared on 4 November, Kolchak's birthday. Instead of an Orange Revolution, the future of Russia might hold a White or Gray Counterrevolution, Zubkov concluded.