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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Spies Versus Oligarchs

Washington, 8 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Newly inaugurated Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to use the country's intelligence services to break the power of the oligarchs as part of his drive to establish a stronger and more centralized state.

Such an effort at the very least sets the stage for increased tensions both between the newly inaugurated president and the oligarchs as a group as well as between those oligarchs aligned with Putin and others linked to rival political groups.

But more than that, Putin's plan to use the Russian intelligence agencies for domestic control recalls one of the worst features of the Soviet system and could undermine the chance that Russia will move in a more democratic direction anytime soon.

A former KGB officer himself, Putin has made no secret of his readiness to rely on Russia's still powerful intelligence agencies. Indeed, he has even joked about their successful penetration of the Russian government during his watch.

But the clearest indication of just how far he may be prepared to go in this direction and just what that might mean for the country as a whole came in a purported Kremlin planning document leaked to the Russian press last week.

Because the document was described in "Kommersant," a newspaper owned by an oligarch -- Boris Berezovsky -- who has opposed Putin on many occasions, some commentators have questioned its genuineness or played down its significance.

Nonetheless, the ideas presented in the document appear both consistent with or at most extensions of proposals Putin and his closest aides have made in the past. And as such, they merit scrutiny -- even if Putin ultimately backs away from them.

As outlined by "Kommersant," the document calls for the fusion of the intelligence services and a new presidential political directorate and the use of this combination to build a power base for the presidency independent of the political process by undermining any opposition to his person or polices.

Sometimes, the document is said to argue, this new agency will seek compromising information about these opponents; sometimes, it will plant unfavorable stories about them in the press; and sometimes, it is implied it will use other, unspecified methods.

Such an arrangement, the document states, will give the president "real control over political processes in Russia," reducing the government to the executor of presidential policies and protecting his agents from the kind of criticism democracy requires.

Even more disturbing, the document suggests that this new presidential security arrangement will allow Putin to "actually manage political and social processes in Russia and in nearby foreign countries," an apparent reference to the former Soviet republics.

All of this, "Kommersant" concludes, will allow Putin to impose his preferred form of economic reforms regardless of what powerful economic interests and Russian society more broadly in fact say they want through the media and the ballot box.

In sum, "Kommersant" suggests, the realization of the provisions of this document will transform Russia's current "self-regulating and self-managing" political system into one resembling "Chili under Pinochet."

Such an arrangement is likely to prove popular with many in both Russia and the West. On the one hand, many in both places long for the restoration of stability in Moscow even at the cost of democratic procedures.

And on the other hand, Putin appears ready to use the enhanced power that such an arrangement might give to promote economic reforms that would challenge the economic and political power of the oligarchs to dominate the political scene. But if Putin's plans may be greeted in some quarters, there are three reasons why they are likely to create more problems than they solve.

First, the very fact that this document was leaked suggests that not everyone in the Kremlin is happy with increased reliance on the security services. Indeed, many people within the government may try to undermine it and thereby further weakening the regime.

Second, the publication of commentary on this document highlights just one of the ways the oligarchs would fight the implementation of such a plan. Any effort to suppress that resistance would be long, costly and almost certainly counterproductive.

And third, any effort by a newly expanded presidential security apparatus to suppress democracy even in the name of economic reform would generate resistance even among Putin's own supporters in the population at large.

Those Russians who have welcomed Putin's toughness vis-a-vis the Chechens are unlikely to be so supportive if he visits a similar toughness against Russian society. His support has been broad, but it is not deep; and such efforts could erode it quickly.

That in turn would set the stage either for his retreat from a security-service-based form of rule or its even more rigorous application, either of which would cast a shadow on his presidency even as it has just begun.