In a surprise move late last week, Vladimir Putin replaced the long-time head of the Federal Protection Service (FSO), one of the most powerful and least transparent security services in Russia. The FSO is now being run by Dmitry Kochnev, whose bio has never officially been published, but who had headed the Presidential Security Service—an FSO department—before that.
The outgoing FSO head, the 70-year-old General Evgeny Murov, resigned after running the service for 16 years. He had served in the KGB, working in the foreign intelligence department in the 1970s. In the 1990s, he was the deputy chief of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in St. Petersburg, where he first met Vladimir Putin. Shortly after being elected Russian President in May of 2000, Putin appointed General Murov the head of the FSO. (The FSO’s predecessor in Soviet times was the 9th Department of the KGB. The FSO as it appears today was officially constituted 20 years ago.)
A source inside the Kremlin says there were two reasons for Murov’s departure and replacement. The first is the General’s advanced age and declining health: he had recently undergone surgery, allegedly in Germany, for an unspecified illness. The second is a longstanding conflict between the FSO and FSB. Both services are key components of the so-called siloviki, the military and security successors of the KGB, which also happen to be major pillars supporting Putin’s rule.
The fight between the two organizations has been on and off, but in March, the FSB dealt two heavy blows against its rival:
First, the FSB launched an investigation into a “crime ring”, allegedly organized out of the Ministry of Culture, to defraud the state through the use of inflated tenders for the restoration of buildings and monuments. Among those arrested was businessman Dmitri Sergeev, the CEO of the Balstroi construction company, a firm that is part of a holding company called Forum. The Russian investigative journal New Times reports that in 2011, Balstroi began to win major restoration contracts from the state. This happened to coincide with the arrival of Sergeev’s friend, Stanislav Kuner, to a prominent leadership role at the FSO’s commercial venture “ATEKS”. A Balstroi-affiliated firm also won a 5.7 billion ruble ($86 billion) state contract for the construction of a reception center at Novo-Ogarevo—Putin’s official residence. The crime ring was accused of defrauding the state for a grand total of 50 million rubles ($761,000).
Then, two weeks later, a billionaire from St. Petersburg, the CEO of the aforementioned Forum holding company (and a friend of Murov), Dmitry Mikhalchenko, was arrested in Moscow. Mikhalchenko was accused of smuggling in €600,000 worth of alcohol—wine and brandy, mostly. The New Times reported that the real reason for his arrest, however, is a fight over St. Petersburg’s deep water port of Bronka, which the FSB allegedly wants to take under its control.
The resignation of Murov is the latest of Putin’s reshuffles among the siloviki. Earlier this year, Putin created the National Guards—a brand new security service, made up of around 170,000 Interior Ministry troops, that reports directly to the Russian President. As commander-in-chief of the National Guard, Putin appointed his de-facto bodyguard, General Viktor Zolotov, who had headed the Presidential Security Service of the FSO for 13 years.
Putin’s promotion of two prominent figures from the Presidential Security Service speaks to two tendencies:
First, Russia’s President fears for his personal safety. His worries, however, are not limited to palace coups. He is also clearly nervous about the possibility of popular protests modeled on the Maidan or the Arab Spring starting on Russian territory. (Even before the law creating the National Guard was officially announced, the Open Russia Foundation managed to record video of a secret training exercise outside Moscow that specifically was preparing the troops to suppress large-scale public unrest.)
And second, there is clearly an ongoing fight inside Putin’s inner circle between various factions of his siloviki—hardly what could be called a healthy competition between rivals in a free market.