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Russia: Anticorruption Drive Touches The 'Untouchable' FSB

The FSB's Moscow headquarters (ITAR-TASS) Corruption is a perennial issue in Russia, and a favored tool for policymakers looking to stir public opinion. President Vladimir Putin once again raised the matter during his May 10 state of the nation speech, pointing to the damaging impact of corruption on the country's economy, and pledging to rid Russia once and for all of a "serious obstacle."

With that, Putin appeared to cast out the dragnet, launching a series of high-profile dismissals of security, customs, and law enforcement officials -- the most recent of which came June 2, with the Federation Council approving a Kremlin order to fire a reputed loyalist, Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov -- who himself recently characterized corruption as "acquiring the character of a national threat." The reason for his dismissal is unclear.

Surprise Sackings

But perhaps the most surprising move came early on, with the dismissal of three top officials from Putin's own professional alma mater, the Federal Security Service, or FSB. News agencies reported that major generals Yevgeny Kolesnikov and Aleksandr Plotnikov, both FSB deputy heads, were let go, together with a third officer, Lieutenant General Sergei Fomenko.
Some observers say it's not corruption that's the issue, but the Kremlin's desire to purge troublesome political elements ahead of the country's 2008 presidential elections.

Apart from a reorganization drive launched in the summer of 2004, the FSB had managed to evade earlier anticorruption sweeps, and the three dismissals raise questions about the nature of the transgressions. Kolesnikov and Plotnikov worked for the service's Department for the Protection of the Constitutional System and the Fight against Terrorism. The department is one of the most influential units in the FSB; its top staff have direct access to Putin and his closest advisers.

The third officer, Fomenko, headed the FSB section battling contraband and the narcotics trade. He was also the deputy head of the department for economic security. None of the three is believed to have been charged with a crime.

Political Theories

Stanislav Belkovsky, the founder of Russia's National Strategy Institute, put forth a possible explanation for the dismissals of Kolesnikov and Plotnikov in a recent edition of Austria's "Profil" magazine. He said he believed the firings are tied to two more sackings to follow Putin's speech -- those of Federation Council members Aleksandr Sabadash of Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Arkady Sarkisyan of the Khakasia Republic.

Belkovsky said both Sabadash and Sarkisyan -- both officially accused of abuse of office -- had created political empires that threatened the interests of the Kremlin "siloviki," Putin's inner circle of former FSB colleagues. Both men, he suggested, had established direct links with regional FSB heads that may have extended to include contact with Kolesnikov and Plotnikov.

His comments echo sentiments that many of those fired during the recent wave of sackings to follow Putin's speech are motivated not by anticorruption efforts, but by the Kremlin's desire to purge government structures of troublesome elements ahead of the country's 2008 presidential elections.

A Winnable War?

Gleb Pavlovsky, a key adviser to the head of the Russian presidential administration, has unsurprisingly come out in support of Putin's anticorruption efforts, saying the campaign in genuine and likely to deliver satisfying results.

But not everyone is convinced. Some say the sackings may indeed target corrupt individuals, but not the problem of corruption itself. An Ekho Moskvy radio poll conducted in the wake of the Putin speech also found that 93 percent of respondents expressed doubt the president was serious in his stated endeavor to root out corruption -- in the FSB or anywhere else.

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