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Russia: KGB Veterans Leader Has High Hopes For Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB officer, has given a more prominent role to the security services than they held in the past 10 years. Veterans of the KGB say they are pleased to have one of their own in charge. In an interview, Valeri Velichko, head of the KGB veterans association, tells our correspondent Sophie Lambroschini of his hopes that Putin will continue on a path to make Russia what Velichko calls an "enlightened autocracy."

Moscow, 26 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Former KGB officers want to see the statue of their founding father, Felix Dzerzhinsky, standing again in Lubyanka Square.

Dzerzhinsky founded the KGB's predecessor, the Cheka, and is credited with inaugurating 70 years of fear and purges, as well as founding the gulag camps in which millions died. When his statue outside of KGB headquarters was torn down in the aftermath of the failed August putsch in 1991, it symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and of the repressive KGB system. The State Security Veterans Association, a club for former KGB officers, has made an official request to President Vladimir Putin to resurrect the statue. Valeri Velichko, the association's president, says that a KGB man such as Putin may be receptive to the idea.

"The thing is that Putin and I, although he's considerably younger than I am, were brought up in the same times. So I think that Putin's attitude towards Dzerzhinsky does not differ from mine. The thing is that the figure of Dzerzhinsky is not a simple one. You can't paint him just one color -- all black, white, red, green, as you like."

Velichko worked for the KGB's economic counter-intelligence unit, tracking down alleged saboteurs. He is especially proud of the five years he spent from 1980 to 1985 hunting down Soviet citizens who fled the country. Using language not often heard in Russia these days, Velichko says the defectors were "traitors to the Fatherland." He speaks with obvious disgust of people like the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and the ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who he says wanted money more than freedom.

Among current and former secret police officers, Velichko says, the mood since Putin's election is one of cautious optimism.

"Today, a majority of veterans are in the process of observing [Putin]. We are watching what his next steps will be. And if in the next three to four months or half a year we are convinced that when he does serves the state, then he will have many supporters among the veterans. Yes, we did help him during a first stage, during the election campaign. But now, it's time to wait. Putin can go one way, and continue working for the Family, [that is, the influential Yeltsin entourage]. That's one way. Or he can work for the state. Or he can work for himself. For the moment, he hasn't shown anything yet." One sign that Velichko interprets as encouraging, in his eyes, is Putin's appointment of officers of the KGB successor service, the Federal Security Service, or FSB, to top posts. For many years under Yeltsin, the secret police were politically sidelined, although they have slowly regained influence in the past three years.

For example, Putin has appointed Viktor Cherkesov, an FSB colleague of his from Saint Petersburg who used to track dissidents, to become governor general of the Saint Petersburg region. Velichko praised Putin for "not letting himself be bothered by the fact that, for obvious reasons, this appointment won't please the city's intelligentsia."

Velichko hopes that Putin's reliance on secret police officers will lead him to call back to service many of those who left their posts -- or were fired -- after the Soviet Union broke up.

"The authorities are now considering the question of bringing back the veterans. And the veterans, too, are thinking about it. If a year ago, someone had suggested I become an adviser to Yeltsin -- the idea wouldn't have crossed my mind. But now, I and many of my comrades say that we would be ready to put on our uniforms again, if we see that it would be good for the state. The thing is that, for me, going back to serving the [the state security organs] would mean losing a lot financially. Nevertheless, if I see that it's in the state's interest, I am ready to give up my businesses and receive whatever a FSB general gets paid nowadays." Is he talking about restoration of the Soviet system?

Velichko says no. While some communist KGB officers are nostalgic for Soviet days, Velichko says, his generation of KGB officers has seen the benefits of the market economy. He says yearly revenues of his companies reach millions of dollars.

He claims that the security service was the first to understand -- under the brief tenure of Yuri Andropov, a former KGB head -- that the regime as it existed in 1985 was doomed and had to be changed. But then, he says, things got out of hand.

"Believe me, the KGB had enough power to crush any opposition movement at the time. But we, the officers, were Chekists who adhered to the Andropov school. We understood perfectly well that the state couldn't go on the way it did, that serious changes were necessary, but we didn't expect the changes to take such a sharp turn. The ideal scenario is China's evolutionary course. It is slowly developing a market economy, while at the same time maintaining the state regime."

The former KGB general says Russia has been on the wrong track so far. He says readjustments must be made to establish order.

"Enlightened autocracy. That's neither the coarse militarized communism of Pol Pot, nor is it the fascist or half-fascist regime of Pinochet. There are things in between. That's why I think that the presence of KGB people in the administration -- who from an educational and intellectual point of view are part of the country's elite -- can only improve things. It will make it possible for the state to attain the aims it set for itself more quickly and more efficiently."

Velichko says the FSB has an important role to play in Putin's attempts to re-establish central authority over the regions, where local leaders have frequently gained the upper hand over police, courts, and other federal bodies. The FSB, Velichko says, is the only federal institution that has resisted the governors' influence, and is therefore the perfect engine to establish top-down authority.

"In what ways was the state security system so strong? The thing is that the KGB, its regional departments, didn't submit to local power but reported to Moscow. That's why the [FSB's regional] head was free in his evaluations. He did not look to the governor or the regional administration for approval, he communicated directly with the central organ. And from there, the government and the president were informed, and then a decision was made at a high level. The state-controlling, vertical structure made it possible and probably will make it possible to solve many problems."

Asked whether "enlightened autocracy" means an end to hopes of a civil society, Velichko responded that a dictatorship had already been established by Yeltsin -- a dictatorship of money, ruled by corrupt oligarchs. He said he believes the state should take back the media and the natural resources the oligarchs now control.