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26/12/2018 | The inner workings of Vladimir Putin’s state

The Economist Staff

A set of illicit recordings reveal the fall of Alexander Shestun

 

Moscow’s maximum security Lefortovo jail, where the kgb held its most important prisoners, has seen its share of revolutionaries, commissars, dissidents, ministers, oligarchs, governors and generals. Alexander Shestun is different.

Until his arrest in June, he was the head of the district of Serpukhov, an outlying city in the Moscow region. But he matters more than his job title suggests. His rise and fall give an insight into the mechanics of power in Russia and its lever—the Federal Security Service (fsb). Under President Vladimir Putin this has become even more dominant than the Soviet kgbhe once served. Mr Shestun played a part in that transformation; he was also its casualty.

He acted as a “torpedo”—an undisclosed accomplice used by the fsb to blow up its rivals. There are dozens of such people. But Mr Shestun distinguishes himself by his habit of recording incriminating discussions and releasing excerpts on YouTube. His case is revealing because it is typical; it is exceptional because, at the moment of his downfall, when the fsb turned against him, he took the world with him into the room. This is his story.

Alexander Shestun made a name for himself in the 1990s as fearless—an otmorozhenny kommers: literally, a frostbitten businessman; idiomatically, a hard case. “I never paid protection money, never negotiated, always hit back,” he said in an interview not long before his arrest.

Frostbite is a useful attribute in Mr Putin’s Russia; indeed it is one the president himself embodies. To be willing to escalate above and beyond any acceptable level of risk is a powerful strategy. 

Audacity, adventurism and charisma served Mr Shestun well in the lawless but opportunistic decade that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He became the richest man in his area. He also realised that to protect his wealth, he needed legitimacy. So in 2003 he turned himself from a tough, leather-jacketed, gold-chain-wearing kommers into an elected politician.

A mentor running an adjacent district told him to “imagine that the whole district, everything in it is yours: your schools, your kindergartens, your factories, your people, your money.”

Mr Shestun took his advice. What was good for Serpukhov, he reckoned, also had to be good for Shestun—and vice versa. His constituents, with whom he was broadly popular as a man who got things done, accepted this as the way of the world. He built roads, brought in investors, revamped a big park with hotels, horse riding, a spa and a landing strip for sport’s planes.

To stay in the game, he joined the Kremlin’s United Russia party, ensured that he won good results for Mr Putin in elections, and made deals with criminal bosses, the police, parts of the prosecutor general’s office and, most fatefully, the fsb.

But by 2017 the game had turned against him. Mr Shestun was feuding with a more powerful vassal, Andrei Vorobyov, the governor of the Moscow region in which Serpukhov sits. He was seeking to displace Mr Shestun as part of a broader plan to consolidate power.

Unlike the self-made Mr Shestun, who personified the wild capitalism of the 1990s, Mr Vorobyov stands for the crony capitalism that characterised the 2000s. Whatever his other talents, he had a pedigree and connections, and these were essential to his pursuit of money and power. His father was the right-hand man of Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister and one of Mr Putin’s closest and oldest allies; Mr Vorobyov calls him his “political godfather”. Gennady Timchenko, one of Mr Putin’s cronies, is an investor in the Vorobyov family’s fish firm. A member of the prosecutor general’s family works for Mr Vorobyov on a “voluntary basis”. Mr Vorobyov personifies the imbricated business and political networks that Mr Putin oversees.

For much of the 2000s so much money was sloshing around that men like Mr Shestun and Mr Vorobyov could both get rich. But as resources have become scarcer and appetites have grown, the conflicts between local lords have intensified.

Trying to defend his fief, Mr Shestun appealed for justice to Mr Putin, the tsar. On April 19th he uploaded to YouTube a plea to the president, along with extracts from recordings he made a year earlier. They include his conversation with Ivan Tkachev, a top fsb general who had been his handler and who is responsible for jailing some of the most powerful men in Russia, including regional governors, oligarchs, ministers and police generals.

The conversations took place between April 20th and May 2nd 2017. Mr Shestun says that he has released only a part of them. In one, by the entrance to the Office of the Presidential Administration, Mr Tkachev, using the familiar ty, is trying to get Mr Shestun to see reason. Mr Vorobyov has promised that, if Mr Shestun resigns as Serpukhov chief, a legal case against him will go away.

Mr Vorobyov, Mr Tkachev continues, has gone right up to the president. Mr Putin’s deputy chief of staff is personally involved. “Are you kidding! They will simply run you over with a steamroller,” Mr Tkachev says. “That is all. They will pull you in jail, anyway, and you will sit there for as long as they keep you there. You must understand this. Did you see how they steamrollered Surgrobov?” 

An otmorozhenny kommers: literally, a frostbitten businessman; idiomatically, a hard case

Denis Surgrobov ran an economic-crimes task-force and set up a sting operation against one of Mr Tkachev’s men. He is serving a 12-year jail sentence. His colleague, Boris Kolesnikov, is dead, having apparently jumped from a sixth-floor interrogation room. 

“Don’t you want to live any longer?” Mr Tkachev inquires.

“Don’t you feel sorry?’ Mr Shestun asks. “I have five children.” 

“I do, but that is not what this is about.” To soften things, Mr Tkachev adds encouragingly that it’s not as though Mr Vorobyov is going to be around that long, either. But Mr Shestun, the frostbitten businessman, refuses to back down. To give in would be to lose status, power, money and above all dignity.

Mr Tkachev has a last try. “Listen, this is a command of the president!...Whether you want to or not, you won’t stay. I am telling you this.” He brings up the cases of two regional governors who were recently jailed after digging in their heels. “All the election lists—from governors to heads of districts—go through me. I see who will get steamrollered in one month, who in two, who in three, who will get replaced, who is scared.”

Mr Tkachev then ushers Mr Shestun into the Office of the Presidential Administration, where a high-level official tells him to write an undated resignation letter and promises protection. When Mr Shestun refuses, he tells him: “You should have accepted my proposal. You did not. So let’s consider that this conversation never happened. ok? That is it, thank you. Goodbye.”

In his appeal to Mr Putin, Mr Shestun said the words reminded him of a gangster movie. “I could not believe that things like this could be coming from gosudarevy lyudi [literally, the sovereign’s servants], that they can be openly blackmailing me and my family.”

Mr Shestun’s disbelief was feigned. He clearly knew that gosudarevy lyudibehave this way all the time. He did not object to the feudal rules as such, just to them being overstepped.

Mr Shestun had first met Mr Tkachev in 2009. A group of corrupt prosecutors and a businessman, acting as their intermediary, were trying to blackmail him, extract protection money and gain control over some natural resources. Fighting off the racketeers, he made a pact with the fsb. They put a wire on him so that he could collect evidence of corruption in the prosecutor general’s office. This would serve as ammunition for the fsb’s own fight to become the dominant security service.

The fsb’s rivals in the prosecutor general’s office hit back, arresting Mr Shestun’s deputy and opening a case against Mr Shestun himself. Mr Tkachev assured Mr Shestun that he could protect him. Mr Shestun decided to hedge his bets. He recorded a public appeal to Dmitry Medvedev, who was then serving as president, and uploaded it on YouTube. It included excerpts in which the prosecutors tried to extort money.

Mr Medvedev is said to have watched the video. The case against Mr Shestun was dropped. But the prosecutor general’s office refused to endorse charges against its own men and they stayed in their jobs. Mr Shestun’s deputy stayed in jail. A stand-off.

Two years later Mr Putin prepared to return to the Kremlin as president, and the fsb sought dominance over the prosecutor general’s office. Mr Shestun once again proved a valuable asset, informing the fsb about a chain of illegal casinos being run by the prosecutors.

Gambling was outlawed in most Russian cities in 2009, but continued to operate under the protection of the prosecutors and the police. “You will get a great pr case,” Mr Shestun recalled telling his fsb handlers. “Every tvchannel will show news reports featuring a spinning roulette wheel, weeping old ladies who gambled their pensions away and you, their protectors against greedy prosecutors. You will be the heroes. The prosecutors won’t be able to get off.”

A media campaign followed. Photographs and videos were leaked of prosecutors celebrating their birthdays with buckets of black caviar and vodka. Several prosecutors were arrested and many more fired. The name of Artem Chaika, the prosecutor general’s son, and his connections with casino prosecutors surfaced in a court hearing.

Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general, saved his son and his own job. His deputies were less fortunate. One officer in the prosecutor general’s office who oversaw the work of the fsb was said to have attempted suicide and died in hospital five days later. Another was run over by a dustbin lorry while crossing a street in Moscow. Mr Shestun knew both men. He had shared his tapes with them and urged them to rein in their people.

The Kremlin did not mind the infighting between its enforcers. It yielded compromising material on its top officials, an essential instrument for wielding power. Mr Putin has built a system where everyone spies on everyone. Rivalry over Russia’s riches feeds a war of all against all, letting Mr Putin act as the ultimate arbiter. The fsb achieved its main goal—it made the prosecutor general pliable and dependent.

At first Mr Shestun thrived from this rivalry. A picture of the fsb’s director hung over his desk. He played volleyball with a former head of the fsband current Secretary of the Security Council. His status was well above that of a provincial district head.

But in 2013 his fortunes turned. That was when Mr Shoigu, governor of the Moscow region and one of Mr Putin’s closest allies, became minister of defence. Mr Vorobyov, his deputy, stepped into the vacancy. Whereas Mr Shoigu had preserved the balance of power in the region, Mr Vorobyov quickly moved to seize control.

Empowered by Mr Putin, Mr Vorobyov abolished direct elections of district and municipality chiefs in the Moscow region. He also stripped them of the right to distribute land and issue construction licences. Mr Shestun resisted. He engineered special provisions to protect his elected position and confronted Mr Vorobyov when his men tried to shake down a business partner.

And so Mr Vorobyov blocked flows of regional cash into Serpukhov. The only new projects that came its way were two rubbish dumps and a prison. Mr Shestun turned down all three.

In April 2017, as Mr Shestun began to think about the end of his term, Mr Vorobyov prepared to pounce. A faction in the fsb opened an investigation into the sale of the land on which Mr Shestun’s house had been built, threatening to seize it. Mr Vorobyov sent his chief of staff to tell Mr Shestun that the fsb would drop the case if he resigned. Mr Vorobyov would guarantee his immunity.  

Mr Shestun once again refused to do Mr Vorobyov’s bidding. That was when Mr Tkachev was enlisted to talk some sense into his torpedo. Mr Shestun recorded their conversation, this time off his own bat.

When Mr Shestun told his wife about his conversations, she advised him to resign. Instead, he let Mr Tkachev know that he had the tapes and was willing to go public if he felt in danger. Shestun says that Mr Tkachev told him: “‘Be my guest. Publish what you like. I will say that I have never seen you before.’” 

With less than a year before the presidential election in March 2018, an informal moratorium on political infighting meant that everything went quiet. In late 2017, though, came the landfill crisis. An old landfill in Serpukhov, designed for 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, had received 1.2m tonnes of the stuff. Nearby residents did not like being used as an increasingly noxious dumping ground for Moscow’s waste. In November a few hundred men and women tried to block the access to the site. The entire police force of Serpukhov came to drag them away. But Mr Shestun turned up in his stretch Mercedes to stop them. 

In March 2018 the residents of Volokolamsk, another town in the Moscow region, staged a mass protest against Mr Vorobyov with pitchforks made out of cardboard. They threw snowballs at him and nearly tore apart his local district chief. The landfill issue stoked anger at the inequality between the elites in Moscow and themselves and their run-down surroundings. “If my grandson dies in hospital I will shove these glasses into your arse,” one protester told a bespectacled official. Several towns planned a co-ordinated demonstration on April 14th, Mr Vorobyov’s birthday. In early April Mr Tkachev called Mr Shestun and told him to ban these protests.

Mr Shestun heard him out, recorded him and doubled down. When April 14th came, instead of banning the protest, Mr Shestun spearheaded it, helping demonstrators through police cordons. He also won a court case against the firm operating the landfill, ordering it to close down. And despite having been told not to run for re-election in September, he put himself forward as a candidate. Having run out of allies in the fsb and the police, he decided to join his constituents. Like a genuinely democratic politician, he sought shelter with the people who had elected him.

On April 19th the fsb searched his office and found some envelopes full of cash, which Mr Shestun says they had planted. He realised that his arrest would come next. That afternoon, he released a video appeal to Mr Putin and uploaded the taped threats from Mr Tkachev and others to YouTube. Nobody, possibly not even Mr Shestun, knows why. Friends say he was expecting changes in the government after the elections. Did someone use him as a torpedo against Mr Tkachev or Mr Vorobyov? Or did he just decide to go down like a true otmorozhenny kommers

Out in the cold

In the early morning of June 13th, the first day for registering candidates in local elections, the police blocked the road to Mr Shestun’s house. Some 40 men in black masks armed with machine guns burst in. His wife recorded his arrest. He held his teenage son in his arms for as long as he was able. Then he was bundled into a van and driven away to Lefortovo prison. 

Mr Tkachev would not comment to a Russian journalist on Mr Shestun’s allegations. Asked if he had troubles after the tapes, Mr Tkachev replied: “No troubles. Everything is fine. I am always open for a conversation.” The fsb has not responded to our questions. Neither has Mr Vorobyov, though he did tell the Russian media that Mr Shestun’s case was with the courts.

After a hunger strike, Mr Shestun was transferred to a hospital facility in another prison, Matrosskaya Tishina—“Sailors’ silence”—then back to Lefortovo. He offered to testify against high-ranking fsb officers.

He is writing letters and has released more recordings of Mr Tkachev trying to win his co-operation. “You are a normal guy, not a traitor, you know how to take a punch,” Mr Tkachev says. “It would have been better if you had clashed with criminals.” He explains the game: “The president is also talking to [criminal bosses]. How can he not? Of course he does. Such is life, you see.” Mr Shestun is a fool to trust the Russian people; they are “cowardly and manageable”.

Prosecutors want to send Mr Shestun for a psychiatric assessment. Russia has a long, ignoble tradition of declaring rebels mad. But Mr Shestun fights on. “Unless I get killed, it could end badly for any opponent. I never go into ‘reverse’. I will fight to the end.” 

The Economist (Reino Unido)

 



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03/04/2005|

ver + notas
 
Center for the Study of the Presidency
Freedom House