Russian Clans Drive Kremlin Infighting
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be running a monolithic regime, but it may be more fractious than it seems. Behind the high walls of the Kremlin, rival clans are fighting a brutal battle for wealth and influence.
As NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow, this may be the real contest for power in Russia.
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GREGORY FEIFER: Next to the Kremlin's red brick walls, soldiers still perform Soviet-style goosesteps during a changing of the guard. Just as in Soviet days, what takes place behind these walls involves cold war style Kremlinology, something Winston Churchill compared to watching dogs fighting under a carpet. Anything is possible. Any rumor could be true. And competing conspiracy theories planted by rival groups are just part of the struggle.
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FEIFER: What we do know is that top officials are being arrested. Last October, it was the deputy head of Russia's drug control agency. General Alexander Bulbov was the right-hand man of a former KGB officer, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin believed to lead one of the Kremlin's main clans. Bulbov's lawyer, Sergei Antonov, says the arrest was meant to create an atmosphere of fear.
Mr. SERGEI ANTONOV (Lawyer for Bulbov): (Through translator) Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin used to arrest the wives of his top officials, even Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. They became hostages to make sure people like Molotov didn't act out of line. That's happening again today - not to family members, but to deputies and allies.
FEIFER: Antonov says Bulbov fell victim to a struggle between his boss and rivals inside the Kremlin. Bulbov's chief, Viktor Cherkesov, published an open letter saying such infighting threatens to tear the country apart. He wrote, there can be no winners in this war.
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FEIFER: The marble lobby of Moscow's super fancy Ritz Carlton Hotel overlooking Red Square is a favorite meeting place for the rich and powerful. But it's not lobbyists and politicians peddling influence here. It's Kremlin clans.
Mr. ALEC SCHWARTZMAN(ph) (Manager of Financial Group): (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: One of the well-dressed young people is Alec Schwartzman. He's the manager of a financial group who says he's buying private companies on behalf of powerful former KGB officers. Schwartzman says he's helping put the country's strategically important assets back under state control, a process he calls a velvet re-privatization.
Mr. SCHWARTZMAN: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: There's no such thing as someone who doesn't want to sell, he says. If he doesn't want to do it for a hundred rubles, he'll do it with pleasure for two hundred. But if we are turned away, we don't give up, he continues. Maybe a company hasn't paid all its taxes. Then we can acquire it with the help of law enforcement.
When Schwartzman's revelations first appeared in a recent newspaper interview, he achieved instant notoriety. Many believe his claims provide a rear glimpse into just how Kremlin insiders are seizing control over the country's economy.
But some say Schwartzman is being used as a pawn of officials connected to President Vladimir Putin's successor, Dmitry Medvedev. Those analysts say Putin has maintained himself in power by pitting rival clans against each other. Medvedev apparently doesn't have a KGB background. So one theory states he was chosen precisely to check the accumulation of wealth and influence by former KGB officers.
The FSB's headquarters are here in the forbidding Stalinist Lubyanka building. Under the Soviet Union, the Communist Party held power, and the KGB was only its tool. Now, the security service officers in the building behind me have more political power than ever before. Putin has been balancing the interests of the competing clans, and that's why many inside this building are nervous about what will happen if, as expected, Dmitri Medvedev takes over in March.
But political expert Stanislav Belkovsky says any perceived differences of conviction between apparently liberal Medvedev and the Kremlin's hardliners are part of a Kremlin-generated myth aimed at obscuring their real nature.
Mr. STANISLAV BELKOVSKY (Political expert, Russia): All of those groups of influence aren't actually business groups, but by their philosophy, by their ideology, by their life purposes, they do not differ from each other.
FEIFER: Belkovsky made waves recently by publicizing rumors that Putin himself has secretly amassed a fortune worth more than $40 billion. Of course, some believe that claim is only part of the continuing clan war inside the Kremlin.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.
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