Putin moves to rein in military by installing political agents

In echo of Soviet era, officials ferret out dissent and disloyalty

February 16, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- With a war on in Chechnya, the Russian army has been enjoying unparalleled influence within the government, but now Vladimir V. Putin has reminded his generals who's boss.

The acting president -- and one-time chief spy -- has put units of the Federal Security Service back to work within the Russian military to keep an eye on its officers and men.

In a decree signed over the weekend, Putin re-established the "special departments" of Soviet times, made up of untouchable counterintelligence officers whose main job is to seek out and expose any political disloyalty.

They also are charged with counteracting the intrigues of foreign espionage agents, uncovering corruption and curbing any activities that might be to the "detriment of state security."

Neither army commanders nor the prosecutor's office will have the right to interfere in their work.

"This is a real throwback to the past," Nikita Petrov, a historian of the KGB and its successor agencies, said yesterday. "It's unworthy of a civilized society."

Stanislav Terekhov, a retired army officer and chairman of the Officers Union, said the move is rooted in the understanding that the government has to keep the army under its control.

"The authorities understand only too well that their very existence depends on the subordination of the army," he said. "And the army is far from what it used to be in the Soviet era. With bad conditions and low salaries, this causes dissatisfaction among the servicemen. And this is a threat."

The "special departments" were created in 1918, when the army was warily absorbing officers who had served under the just-deposed czar. The Communist party didn't trust them. But long after the last of these old veterans had died off -- or been sent to prison camps -- the counterintelligence units continued to thrive.

Army officers and soldiers could find themselves heading to the gulag for an ill-considered wisecrack or vodka-fueled outburst of frustration. It happened to Alexander Solzhenitsyn, at the end of World War II, and to thousands of others. There was no appeal.

Easing the grip

Boris N. Yeltsin freed the military from the grip of the special services in 1993, although there was not a complete break. The agency now known by its Russian initials as the FSB continued to have a much-reduced presence and sharply curtailed powers.

Since then, as Petrov pointed out, the army has done a poor job combating corruption, theft, hazing and other serious failings. It's riding high now because of its relative success in Chechnya but is still racked by intractable problems. And perhaps it is precisely because of the army's new-found prowess that the Kremlin felt the need to bring it back under control.

Putin's decree re-establishes the autonomy and wide-ranging brief of the spy agency to ferret out trouble.

"It could be," said Terekhov, "that, as in the old days, people who think differently will not only have to resign but will have criminal proceedings instituted against them."

Nikolai Bezborodov, a general who is a member of parliament, said the military leadership will hail the acting president's decree as a "safeguard of national security."

"These regulations do not cause any anxiety," he said. "In this country democratization was understood to mean that all is permissible. This is anarchy, and it is wrong. Democratization should not be detrimental to the national interest."

Hallmark of post-Yeltsin era

Bezborodov said there have been breaches of state secrecy and this had to be stopped. He was clearly reflecting the mood of the Kremlin under Putin, who constantly trumpets the good work of the FSB and whose underlings almost as constantly speak of devious plots by foreign intelligence agencies. The obsession with "special services" is quickly becoming one of the hallmarks of post-Yeltsin Russia.

But it is apparent that, just as in Soviet days, the real aim of the "special departments" has little to do with counterintelligence aimed at foreign foes and a great deal to do with political control of the Russian army.

"The leadership of the country always wants to have some repressive apparatus at hand," said Petrov, "especially against the army. But the army can't be changed by repressive methods. We need a real reform. We need its professionalization, and not just a reliance on Soviet methods that already have outlived themselves."

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