NEWSBUD – The resounding victory of Putin-supported United Russia party in the September 18, 2016 parliamentary elections in which it won 343 out of 450 seats, helped greatly by the changes in the electoral system, will set the stage for the massive transformation of the Russian political system. United Russia, headed by the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, now has enough votes to single-handedly change the Russian constitution, written under the U.S. tutelage in the 1990s. There is no doubt that it will soon avail itself of this power, further centralizing the Russian state apparatus and making its activities more prominent in all areas of social and economic life of the country.
While constitutional changes will probably take some time, personnel changes at the pinnacle of political power in Russia are already taking place. Just a few days after the Central Electoral Commission announced the election results, Putin had a meeting with Sergey Naryshkin, the speaker of the Russian Parliament since the last election in December 2011, and Mikhail Fradkov, the former Russian prime minister who has led the Russian External Intelligence Agency, better known in the West through its Russian acronym SVR, since October 2007.
At this meeting, Putin announced that he was offering Naryshkin the position of the new SVR chief, while Fradkov would assume the position of the chairman of the board of the Russian Railroads, one of the biggest state-controlled companies in Russia.1
This move was no surprise. The rumor of the possible replacement of Fradkov by Naryshkin was circulated as far back as 2010 when the Russian spy activities suffered what the U.S. intelligence community considered a serious blow. In June 2010, the FBI rounded up and arrested a group of alleged Russian spies, known in the intelligence world as “illegals,” since they operated without any official cover.2 These individuals came from various walks of life and worked hard to present themselves as ordinary U.S. residents. One of them, Anna Chapman, gained international media fame as the result of the arrest and later became a celebrity in Russia with her own TV show.3 Chapman and others (including Cynthia Murphy who allegedly developed a source close to Hillary Clinton)4 escaped punitive sanctions by being exchanged for the Russians convicted of spying for the U.S. The scandal died down and Fradkov kept his position.
However, since 2010, the Western intelligence intrigues directed against Russia as well as the Russian counter-intrigues have proliferated and become much more elaborate and complex. Just like during the Cold War, Russia once again came to be labeled by the U.S. military-intelligence complex as the “main adversary.” After nine years at the SVR helm, and allegedly plagued by poor health,5 it appears likely that Fradkov himself wanted to withdraw from the intelligence business and, by taking the prestigious position of the chairman of the Russian Railroads, ease his way into retirement.
I think that the reports claiming that he was fired by Putin for overly optimistic intelligence estimates and operational blunders are not accurate.6 The recent string of Russian overt and covert interventions not only in Syria and Ukraine, but also throughout Eastern Europe and Eurasia, which have no doubt been made possible, at least in part, by the efforts and assistance of the SVR operatives, have been largely successful. Overall, neither Putin nor Fradkov have any significant reasons to be dissatisfied with Fradkov’s SVR leadership.
As to Fradkov’s successor Naryshkin, it first must be pointed out that he is no stranger to the intelligence work. Even though he has been very reluctant to admit any intelligence connections publicly, the most recent example being his first TV interview after the announcement of the appointment,7 it is well-known that he completed a KGB academy in St. Petersburg in the 1970s where he was likely a colleague and friend of Putin.8 His career path also mirrors Putin’s in that he was placed outside of the USSR. While Putin’s position was in Dresden, East Germany, Naryshkin was sent to the Soviet Embassy in Brussels (the seat of NATO and the EU) in the late 1980s.
Considering the importance of this location, it is clear that, just like Putin, Naryshkin belonged to the generation of the mid-level Soviet intelligence operatives who, instead of defending the system as they were supposed to, were forced to deal with the consequences of its demise due to the betrayal of their superiors. Still, just like many other former intelligence officers who later became involved in Russian politics, Naryshkin used his skills and connections to ride the wave of controversial privatizations of the state property successfully and became a very wealthy person in the process. His personal blog, filled with high quality photographs in luxurious settings, testifies that he is among the small minority of individuals who could be considered the main winners of the Russian “transition” to neoliberal market economy, which brought ruin, misery, and death to millions of ordinary Russians.9
The blog also presents Naryshkin as a successful academic with a PhD in economics, specializing in the area of foreign direct investment in Russia. He is the author of five books and almost fifty academic publications. In addition to economics, Naryshkin has an academic interest in Russian history and chairs the Russian Historical Society. In fact, in the TV interview cited above,he spoke about the possibility of opening certain SVR archives to historians in order to chronicle the successes of the Russian intelligence agencies.
However, some analysts are doubtful that Naryshkin’s academic star is as bright as he wants to make it. The research organization “Dissernet” which has investigated many academic theses written by Russian politicians claimed for instance that 40 percent of his dissertation has been plagiarized.10 Naryshkin denied the claim but did not pursue any legal action against the “Dissernet.”
As already pointed out, Naryshkin led the Russian Parliament [the State Duma] for five years. This period was perhaps the most challenging in the post-Soviet Duma’s history. The annexation of Crimea (which the Russians call the re-unification) and the subsequent economic sanctions and political isolation, including the suspension of the Russian parliamentary delegation from the Council of Europe, have placed the Duma in the uncharted and troubled waters. Naryshkin himself is under the sanctions regime and is formally banned from entering the U.S. and the EU, which may make the meetings with his Western counterparts difficult.
At the same time, the Duma under Naryshkin retaliated against the Western policies by passing laws intended to defend Russia from foreign meddling in its internal affairs, which the critics interpreted as imposing restrictions on basic democratic freedoms. This trend will no doubt continue under Naryshkin’s successor. However, the fact remains that it was Naryshkin who made the Duma more assertive on the Russian and international political scene. The Duma’s growing media visibility and the increased involvement in the foreign policy making process contributed to Naryshkin’s being perceived as a successful leader and administrator.
It is likely that, coming on top of Naryshkin’s intelligence background and their long-time friendship, this perceived success in leading the Duma under difficult conditions, led Putin to offer him the top position in the SVR. The SVR is the chief Russian intelligence actor abroad, even though the FSB [the rough equivalent of the U.S. FBI] has also been granted legal authority to conduct operations beyond the Russian borders. In addition, the Russian military has its own foreign intelligence service – the GRU – considered to be more conservative and “Eurasianist” than the KGB successors, the SVR and the FSB.
It is well-known that the rivalry between the GRU and KGB marked the entire Soviet era and there are indications that it continues into the present. It is worth pointing out that the GRU also underwent the leadership change this year after a sudden death of its chief Igor Sergun under what some have claimed to be “mysterious circumstances” in the Middle East.11 The official narrative, however, asserts that Sergun died of a heart attack in Moscow on January 3, 2016.12 He was succeeded by his deputy Igor Korobov which signaled no change in the overall policy direction.13
It is not clear whether Naryshkin will be able to smooth over the decades-old jurisdictional and ideological disputes between the Russian civilian and military intelligence operatives. However, there is no doubt that in running the SVR, he will carry out Putin’s directives to the letter. This might even mean throwing his support behind the merger of the SVR with other civilian intelligence agencies under the centralized ministry of state security, the rumors of which were recently reported by the liberal Russian daily newspaper “Kommersant.”14 This move would in fact be consistent with Russia’s preparing for a much more hostile relations with the U.S. and NATO in the coming period.