Siloviki

The Financial Times (subscription required, but article also available from here) has an in-depth analysis of the increasing role of the siloviki (strong men/men of power) in the Russian government…

When Mr Putin came to power in 2000, three political forces were jostling for influence. One group consisted of liberal economists appointed by Mr Putin to implement reforms; a second group included Mr Putin’s former colleagues from St Petersburg, where the president began his KGB career and later served as deputy mayor; and the third group comprised members of the entourage of Boris Yeltsin, the outgoing president. Four years on, the liberal economists have lost much of their political influence and those who surrounded Mr Yeltsin are all but gone.

The siloviki are not a homogeneous bloc: there are long-standing rivalries between the security services, the army and the interior ministry. But they are united in their belief in the supremacy of a strong state and see themselves as its legitimate guardians.

“The main purpose of the siloviki bloc is to prove the strength of state power in the country and to show that nobody can be above the state,” says Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB operative who runs a private security firm.

Becuase of their background in security organisations such as the KGB the siloviki are thought to know details of the backroom deals that fuelled the privatisation binge of the early 1990s.

Perhaps most threatening to the business environment, however, is the sense of fear that is spreading through Russia’s business community. Armed with intelligence about murky privatisation deals of the 1990s, the siloviki can keep most Russian oligarchs in fear of prosecution. “None of us is protected against what happened to Khodorkovsky,” one Russian oligarch says.

It appears that their power may be such that only one man can stop them…

How far the siloviki will be allowed to go in pursuit of their aims will depend almost entirely on the biggest silovik of all: Mr Putin. Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at Carnegie Moscow Centre, is confident that Mr Putin will be able to rein in the siloviki when he chooses. “Putin does not want to become a hostage of the siloviki. He will use them as guard dogs but will never hand out to them full political control.”

Putin doesn’t want to exchage being hostage to the interests of the Yeltsin old-guard for becoming hostage to the siloviki. But he is taking the same gamble as the Russian people. By giving up large chunks of power to small groups in the hope that they will bring the stability that Russia does need they, and he, risk giving away so much power that it cannot be wrested back.

Eventually, when the economy is stable and strong enough, the Russian people will want to turn their country into a fully-functioning democracy. If they give away too much power in return for stability, however, they risk having to go through another traumatic revolution to achieve this. If they give away too little, they risk never finding the economic stability needed for a successful democracy. The next four years will be the most critical years in Russia’s history since the Gorbachev era. What happens during Putin’s next presidential term will shape the destiny of Russia for decades to come.

Hat tip: Oxblog

Update: Serge at Russpundit corrects me, and the Financial Times, on my use of the word siloviki

siloviki – it is just a term for group of ministers which include defence ministry, security services and police. Yes, they have an appropriate role in the goverment, but no need to confuse them with another group, which role is really increasing – with group of Putin`s fellows, those worked with him in St. Petersburg.

I’m the first to admit that my Russian sucks, and I never really got an exact handle on what the word means in Russian. However, I wonder if the word, which doesn’t seem to have an exact counterpart in English, has begun to take on a slightly different meaning for people outside of Russia?

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5 Responses

  1. Serge says:

    My English sucks more, I think :). But what I`d like to explain – your understanding of term is right, but use of it is wrong, `cause siloviki and group of executives who are with Putin – it is just two different groups.

  2. euge_s says:

    Hi, as a native speaker of Russian I feel I must step in. I beg to disagree with Serge(i). The word itself is nouveau Russian, silovik or siloviki in plural, and the word sounds both amazingly and amusingly similar to Polish word silnik, which is engine in Polish (pl. silniki). The root or the stem of both Russian and Polish words is same – sil/a, which is force, power or violence. Because you now know how this new word has been formed, you can easily comprehend – or at least intelligently guess – its meaning. A silovik in contemporary Russian is anyone in possession of or with useful access to the state monopoly on violence or someone who has power of coercion. So, if you apply the same concept to the United States for example, then such diverse and disparate entities and people as Department of Defense (or I guess offence would be more appropriate term nowadays), Department of Treasury and IRS, FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Department of Justice, Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, state and municipal police forces, court prosecutors, the entire penitentiary system, jail wardens, traffic cops ? these are siloviki. A concept like that summarized in one single word does not exist in English (or in German or in French). What the Financial Times meant and many Russian commentators noticed well before Financial Times did, is the fact that Putin has surrounded himself with individuals who have either military or low-enforcement or KGB or some other kind of security or ?justice? background.

  3. Sugar Plum Fairy says:

    Interesting discussions of the word origins here.

    I’m on the hunt for more information about this change…

    SL, do you know where I might be able to find this article in its entirety (without registering at FT.com)?

  4. Andy says:

    Sorry – I didn’t know the FT.com required registration until the day after I posted. If I had, I would have given the full title as well. I guess their articles are only free for the first day. Damn those corporate newspapers and their need to make a profit!

    But, fear not, your intrepid correspondent has scoured the net for another link to this article, and come up with this Rusnet page. Better move quick, before it also becomes subscription only!

  5. Sugar Plum Fairy says:

    Thanks Andy, that’s great!

    By the way, let me just say again that I like your site. Hope you can keep it up.