The arrest of Barsukov was a huge shot over the Cherkesov Clan's bow, reminiscent perhaps of the way that Putin's attack on Khodorkovsky began with the secret arrest of Yukos' head of security, Alexei Pichugin, a few weeks before turning on the top oligarchs and the oil company.
After that, an intense power struggle ensued: an FSB officer was arrested by Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika (said to be aligned with Cherkasov) and charged in the Politkovskaya murder case, then subsequently released, in a humiliating slapdown for Chaika. A new Prime Minister, Viktor Zubkov, with long ties to Putin and long experience overseeing money-laundering investigations, took power. In September, the Prosecutor-General's office was formally stripped of many of its investigative powers, and 10,000 key employees, which were transferred to a new structure called the Investigative Committee, headed by Aleksandr Bastrykin, a former law school classmate of Putin's. Bastrykin allegedly is close to the Patrushev-Sechin clan, FSB-1, but as I'll argue, I have my doubts.
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This month, five of Cherkesov's top people in the Anti-Narcotics Agency were taken down in mass public arrests, including his right-hand man, General Aleksandr Bulbov. This past Monday, Chaika's Prosecutor's Office demanded that Bulbov be released on technical grounnds, but the new Investigative Committee now trumps the power of the Prosecutor's Office. Meanwhile, kompromat reports are leaking to the media about Cherkesov's various business interests, including his lucrative ties to Semyon Vainshtok, the former head of Transneft, the oil and gas pipeline monopoly. Vainshtok was just replaced this week by Nikolai Tokarev, who served with Putin in the KGB in East Germany in the 1980s.
The Accounting Chamber, which monitors the federal government, has been rocked by a series of high-profile arrests over the past few weeks. The Chamber's head, former FSB chief Sergei Stepashin, responded by giving an interview in which he warned that those who were arresting his Accounting Chamber deputies today could be the ones arrested tomorrow. After the interview was published, Stepashin claimed that it was a fake and he'd never said a thing. The weirdness is accelerating with each day.
Putin hired his old mentor, the ass-kicker Viktor Zubkov, as his prime minister, and announced his Plan for staying in power by running for parliament on the United Russia ticket. Almost overnight, the Just Russia party, the Kremlin's long-held project to create a loyal left-opposition party, has collapsed.
What is happening?
I'll repeat: It's the End of the Putin Era as we know it. The struggle is on.
Here is how I see the current situation, from reading the various Russian reports and talking to people.
Putin had hoped or lulled himself into believing that he'd really set up the stable regime everyone thought Russia had become. The alleged stability had a kind of narcotic effect, convincing Putin's supporters that he'd done good, and his detractors that he'd gone Fascist or neo-Soviet. In fact, these two filters have led all of us to completely misunderstand what is really happening in Russia, and how potentially unstable the political power is, including Putin's own position.
There has been factional infighting all along, between various silovik clans, oligarch clans, and, to a lesser degree, Western interests. The infighting has been kept under control until recently by Putin's undisputed power, which he wielded to try to ensure some measure of balance. However, just as the Banker's War of 1997 showed, competing clans are never happy with their share of the "balance." As this autumn election season loomed, the two silovik clans' internecine war started breaking out, Putin, who may have wanted to step down from power and retire from glory, understood that things were potentially slipping out of his control as the clans battled for position and worked to weaken the other. Given Russian history, and given the high scary-factor of the two silovik clans, Putin should have every reason to worry about how badly he's going to sleep once he leaves the Kremlin. If power passed to one or the other clan, then London or Siberia or the untraceable-poison intensive care ward are all serious possibilities. The people poised to take power after Putin are pretty much guaranteed to make a lot of his detractors miss him.