: The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia

CHAPTER 5 The Coming of Putin


The Coming of Putin

In the aftermath of the Russian economic crisis of 1998 President Yeltsin appointed three prime ministers in succession. None were economists, but all were closely tied to the security services. Yevgeny Primakov, who had been head of the foreign intelligence service, served as prime minister from September 11, 1998, to May 12, 1999. He was replaced by Sergei Stepashin, who had been director of the FSB in 1995. Then, on August 9, Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin, who had served as director of the FSB from 1998 to 1999.

By the summer of 1999 Russia was slowly and painfully recovering from the economic crisis, and in September Moscow was shaken by two apartment-building bombings that killed 216 people.[1] Chechen terrorists were blamed, and soon a new military offensive was launched in Chechnya in retaliation. But Yeltsin was not afraid of riots or terrorists; he and his entourage only feared his former close allies. A powerful political figure, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, made a bid for the Kremlin. He also launched an attack on Yeltsins family, accusing them of corruption. Yeltsins team watched anxiously when Primakov joined with Luzhkov, and together they formed a new political party called Fatherland, seeking seats in parliament in the election of December 1999 and, it was assumed, the presidency in the contest set for March 2000. Yeltsins term was to end in a few months, and his safety and that of his family was under question.

On Sunday night, May 30, 1999, Yeltsin was stunned as he watched TV in his mansion in Barvikha, a village filled with walled-off mansions of top-level Russian officials, thirteen miles from the Kremlin in the lush green forests outside of Moscow. The influential journalist Yevgeny Kiselev displayed a chart of the presidents family, suggesting they had engaged in corruption and had spirited their illicit gains abroad. This appeared on NTVs widely respected show Itogi, then the most popular political broadcast in Russia.

Kiselev, then forty-two, the most prominent and respectable political host on television, specifically raised questions about the integrity of Yeltsins daughter Tatyana; her husband, Valentin Yumashev, both of whom worked in the presidential administration; as well as Alexander Voloshin, the chief of the administration; and billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich. The photographs on TV reminded me of wanted posters I used to see at factories, bus stations, or moving theatres in Sverdlovsk, Yeltsin later wrote. The posters usually depicted the faces of drunks, thieves, murderers and rapists. Now the police, in the person of NTV, was talking about my so-called Familymyself, Tanya, Voloshin, and Yumashev. All of these people were accused of everything under the sunbribery, corruption, the hoarding of wealth in Swiss bank accounts, and the purchase of villas and castles in Italy and France. The NTV show put me in a state of shock.[2]

Every night the power struggle played out on television. The wealthy oligarch and wheeler-dealer Boris Berezovsky, who was close to Yeltsins team, controlled the first channel, ORT, with a massive audience across Russias eleven time zones, a legacy of Soviet state television. A second force was Gusinskys NTV, a channel that earned its reputation for professionalism in the first Chechen war. Luzhkov, the Moscow mayor, also had his own television channel, popular only in the capital. All of themBerezovsky, Gusinsky, and Luzhkovhad supported Yeltsin in the 1996 reelection effort, but now, in the twilight of Yeltsins second term, they were jockeying for power, anticipating the moment when Yeltsin would leave the scene.

While Yeltsin endured the criticism from Luzhkovs media outlets, he was stunned at the NTV broadside, which he called a stab in the back from people I had thought were of my mind. Gusinskys media empire, called Media-Most, consisting of NTV, the newspaper Segodnya, and the weekly Itogi, had placed their bets on Luzhkov and Primakov in the great power struggle. Like the other oligarchs, Gusinsky wielded power through his media holdings. Investigations of corruption targeting the Kremlin were exposed by NTV, then commented on in Segodnya, and then picked up by other printed media.

For the Yeltsin circle it was a very serious and direct personal threat. Following Kiselevs program, Voloshin summoned journalists in the Kremlin pool to a meeting and told them, rather melodramatically, of Gusinskys Media-Most. Either we break Most, he said, or Most breaks the state. Elena Tregubova, a correspondent of Kommersant, present at the meeting, was certain that Voloshin meant the Kremlin when he was speaking of the state.[3] And the Kremlin decided to retaliate. In July the state-owned Vnesheconombank refused to extend a previously agreed-upon loan to Gusinskys Media-Most, then announced that Media-Most had failed to repay the loan.[4] Later Media-Mosts accounts at the bank were seized, journalists who worked in Media-Most outlets were denied access to the Kremlin, and their accreditations for briefings by Voloshin were annulled.[5] Sergei Parkhomenko, the journalist who had earlier exposed reasons to fear the security services in Merlins Tower articles, recalled that one day his chief political correspondent, Dmitry Pinsker, came to him with bad news. The Kremlin decided to end my access to information, he said. My sources refuse to talk to me and be quoted, so please understand why in my stories there will be more anonymous sources and commentators. Parkhomenko added, It happened not only with information from the Kremlin. When the war in Chechnya started in September, our correspondents were not given access to the military nor provided help in getting to the troops. It was a well-defined strategy.[6] In the view of the Kremlin the journalists working for Gusinskys media were the enemys soldiers.

Yeltsin and his entourage desperately looked for someone to whom they could entrust their fate after his presidency ended. On August 9 Yeltsin named Putin, then forty-six years old and a prot?g? of Berezovsky, as the new prime minister. Yeltsin also made clear that he considered Putin his successor. Putin then appeared on television after the appointment and declared, The main problemI repeat, I have already spoken about thiswhat we have is the lack of political stability. It was a remark aimed directly at preserving the status quo.[7]

In 1999 Putin was not a public figure accustomed to journalists and the free exchange of information. In the perestroika years Putin had been stationed in Germany as a KGB officer, and he missed everything that happened, including Gorbachevs campaign of glasnostor opennesswhen newspapers were competing to expose Stalinist crimes; Soviet apparatchiks argued with dissidents like Andrei Sakharov at Congress of Peoples Deputies, broadcast in real-time on television; and the pages of democratic Moskovskie Novosti were read aloud by Muscovites on Pushkin Square. Putin had little idea of how the West functioned from his posting in East Germany, which was under total control of the secret services. He missed even the fall of the Berlin Wall, because he was serving in Dresden, 125 miles south of Berlin.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg in 1990, Putin was hesitant. He later said he didnt want to remain with the KGB and refused a transfer to the central headquarters in Moscow. I understood this system had no future, he recalled.[8] But he was afraid to leave it entirely, so he chose instead a safe option, asking to be attached to Leningrad University, as a KGB officer, to get a doctorate, which he later abandoned. The following year Putin went to work for Anatoly Sobchak, a prominent democrat who led the Leningrad City Council and became the first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg, the citys imperial name, restored after the Soviet collapse. But Putin formally retired from the KGB on August 20, 1991, when it was crystal clear the coup had failed in Moscow.

In the 1990s Putin hewed to the methods he had been taught at the KGB, especially when he dealt with journalists. He sought to flatter and recruit.

In 1995 a group of journalists from Moskovskie Novosti went to St. Petersburg for a meeting with the newspapers readers. Sobchak was an old admirer of the Moskovskie Novosti but was out of town, so he asked his deputy, Putin, to arrange a dinner for the journalists. Mikhail Shevelev and his colleagues found themselves at the table with Putin, who didnt impress them, though he tried his best to entertain them. He saw they were Jewish and carried on about his recent visit to Israel, praising the country, but his attempts to please them fell flat. That evening I tried to get more drinks to forget him, Shevelev said.[9]

In late December 1998, having come to Moscow and been appointed director of the FSB, Putin took Tregubova, a Kommersant correspondent, to dinner. Seemingly out of the blue he asked Tregubova about her father and described to her, in astonishing detail, a conflict between the institute where her father worked and its competitor in St. Petersburg. Tregubova realized it was an attempt to recruit her.[10]

Putin was FSB director only for a year, from July 1998 to August 1999. One of his accomplishments was to turn on SORM monitoring of the Internet.

Putins formative lessons came from a career in the KGB devoted to protecting the Communist Partys monopoly on power. He joined in 1975, at a time when veterans of Stalins secret services were still serving. He heard something about Stalins mass repressions, but not much, he later said, and he was not supposed to, as the KGB officers were mostly inward-looking officers, and for many of them the service was a source of jobs for members of their family.[11] They strongly believed that access to information and to means of communications should be under control of the state. In the same year Putin joined, Andropov, chairman of the KGB, reported to the Central Committee of the Communist Party about the threat of international phone calls made by Jewish refuseniks, proposing to sharply restrict the use of international communication channels.

Although Putin was trained as a foreign intelligence officer, he was not immediately sent abroad. He spent four and a half years at the Leningrad KGB office in a section recruiting foreigners. He was in the KGB when it crushed dissidents, hunted for samizdat publications, and sought to cut back the international phone lines after the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. This was the organization that shaped Putins view of the world.

Long after he left the KGB and after he was promoted to prime minister, Putin still retained a deep suspicion of journalists, a legacy of his years in the security service. One day at the Helsinki airport, during his second visit as prime minister overseas, Putin stopped to answer questions from Finnish journalists. One reporter asked, reading from a paper slowly in Russian, about the war in Chechnya. Putin responded harshly, First, we are not on equal terms: You were reading your question prepared beforehand on paper, and I should respond right now.[12] For those trained in Soviet secret services, if a correspondent reads a question, this signaled that someone else had written and prepared the question for the journalist. In fact, however, the Finnish reporter had just wanted to ask the question properly in a foreign language.

The fall of 1999 was full of dramatic events: the apartment bombings in Moscow, the war in Chechnya, and parliamentary elections. The Kremlins political masters saw every critical piece of reporting by journalists of Gusinskys media empireabove all, NTVas yet more signs of a conspiracy against them. In this dramatic battle newspapers were not major players, and the Internet was not taken seriously; television dominated all.

However, one person saw the potential to exploit the Internet for the Kremlin. Gleb Pavlovsky, then forty-eight years old, was a plump, round-faced public relations man with gray hair and brown-framed glasses and always dressed in a sweater. Though self-assured, Pavlovsky harbored memories of his own harrowing experience with the KGB. Born in Odessa, Pavlovsky went to Moscow in 1974, where he continued his involvement with the dissident movement. Under a pseudonym, he wrote a long and critical article about Brezhnevs constitution for the samizdat journal Poiski. In April 1982 the KGB went after him. During the investigation he repented and began to cooperate with the authorities. As a result, instead of being sent to prison camps, he received a few years of exile in the Komi Republic, eight hundred miles northeast of Moscow. Internally, I realized that I crossed the line, Pavlovsky admitted many years later.[13] Although his behavior appalled his former dissident friends, he returned to Moscow in 1985, and soon after perestroika started, he found his way back to democratic circles, with at least some of his former friends accepting him back. In 1989 he founded the very first independent news agency, Postfactum. Pavlovsky saw that sometimes it was possible to cross a line and then to cross back again.

In 1999 Pavlovsky was called on by the Kremlin to help build a new progovernment party, Edinstvo, or Unity, and to devise a smear campaign against the Kremlins opponents, including Luzhkov, Primakov, and the tycoon Gusinsky and his mass media. There was a war with Gusinsky then, Pavlovsky said.[14] His organization, the Foundation for Effective Politics, was a public relations company. It launched a number of websites with kompromat aimed at Luzhkov, a collection of revealing dossiers on various profitable Moscow businesses under the control of the mayors associates. It also created a false site that pretended to be the official website of the Moscow mayor. Television journalists close to the Kremlin then recycled the kompromat posted on these sites.

One day in 1999 Pavlovsky came to the presidential administration with an idea. At the time it was against the law to publish exit polls on Election Day, but the restriction applied only to traditional mediathe law did not cover the Internet. Pavlovsky suggested a way to exploit the gap. On December 16, three days before the parliamentary elections, Pavlovskys foundation launched a website, elections99.com.

On Election Day the website published real-time exit polls from the Russian regions. Widely quoted by traditional media, including TV channels, its data helped sway voter sentiment in favor of Putins Unity Party, helping it gather 23.3 percent of the vote, compared to 13.3 percent for Luzhkovs party, translating to 73 seats in the 450-member State Duma, the lower house. This was a victory for Unity, which had not existed before as a party.

At 9:51 a.m. on Election Day, Pavlovsky, excited, sent a message by pager to Yumashev, Yeltsins son-in-law and a member of the Kremlins inner circle, saying, It looks a lot like victory![15]

Pavlovsky had been busy in other ways too. Putin, having been appointed prime minister, was actively planning to run for president to succeed Yeltsin. Pavlovsky had been regularly going to Putin campaign meetings, which convened at Alexander House near the Kremlin and often included Putin. Putins presidential campaign staff was headed by his loyal ally, Dmitry Medvedev. Pavlovsky spoke up to suggest that Putin should meet with Internet entrepreneurs, explaining that the meeting with the Internet crowd could help shape Putins image as leader of the new generation. After all, he said, Russia was approaching the twenty-first century, and the country wanted to rely on new people. Pavlovsky got a green light to set up the meeting.

In the 1990s Pavlovsky had not been very successful, always close to many promising projects, but he had never really come out on top. His Postfactum news agency had closed in 1996, and although he had been on the board of Kommersant, the most successful Russian business daily, somehow Pavlovsky was always distracted with minor public relations projects throughout the 1990s. Now Putins campaign offered him a new route to success. But he knew the rules: you should have something behind you to be useful, either a reputationwhich Pavlovsky lackedor a TV channel or a newspaper, like the tycoons had; he did not have those either. The one thing he did pay attention to was the Internet. The meeting between Putin and the Internet entrepreneurs could prove to the Kremlin that Pavlovsky was in command of the Internet and, thus, enhance his prestige.

Pavlovsky called Anton Nossik, the then thirty-three-year-old editor-in-chief of a new online media outlet, Lenta.ru, and invited him to attend the meeting with Putin. Nossik had few illusions about Putin and his KGB past. His family was a part of rebellious liberal-minded Moscow intelligentsia who didnt like official Soviet policy regarding art. Nossik was quite certain that his generation was smarter and had brighter prospects than the old Yeltsin elite. It didnt help that a week before the scheduled meeting, on December 20, Putin went to FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square to celebrate the Day of Security Organizations and made a famous remark: Dear comrades, I can report that the group of agents you sent to infiltrate the government has accomplished the first part of its mission. This was followed by approving laughter from FSB officers.[16]

Nossik wasnt surprised by the invitation; his new project was part of Pavlovskys collection of online media. I had known Anton for long, over ten years maybe, and I invited him to launch Lenta.ru, said Pavlovsky. And Nossik recalled that all our projects then were with Pavlovsky. Nossiks office was located in the hulking building of the state-owned news agency RIA Novosti on Zubovsky Boulevard that also housed Pavlovskys online media.

Pavlovsky asked Nossik and Marina Litvinovich, a young online journalist well connected in Moscows Internet subculture and working in Pavlovskys foundation, to select people for the meeting with the prime minister. Nossik selected his young friends, most in their twenties, including colleagues at Pavlovskys organization, and people who had websites and online media.

But the preparations took time, and word of the meeting filtered over to the offices of the Russian government, the formal structure of ministries and agencies, led by Prime Minister Putin. One of those who heard about it was Oleg Rykov, a veteran adviser to the government on information technology.[17] In the 1980s he had been involved in a top-secret, ambitious, and very expensive program, supervised by the KGB, to build a system of managing the Soviet Union during war with underground city bunkers built all over the country as well as powerful computer centers burrowed deep underground. He knew a lot about computers and hated secrecy; he was sure that in most cases it just covered up incompetence. He was also very skeptical of government intrusion into the Internet.

Rykov became alarmed when he heard of a plan drafted by Mikhail Lesin, then minister in charge of the news media, that would effectively hand over the distribution of domain names from the nongovernmental organization based at the Kurchatov Institute to the government. For him, it meant only one thing. Lesin wanted to take away the entire Internet, Rykov said later.[18] Rykov learned that Lesin would present the plan at the meeting with Putin that, if approved, would effectively put the Russian Internet under direct control of the state, determining who used which domain names.

Rykov immediately called Alexey Soldatov and warned him about Lesins worrisome plan. Officially the Information Department of the government was tasked to select the meetings participants, so Rykov lobbied to include his government department, the Department of Science, as one of the official organizers. Finally it was agreed that both departments would jointly select the twenty attendees. Rykov and Soldatov huddled to make choices for their slots, choosing mostly veterans of the Internet of the early 1990s.

Simultaneously Soldatov, seeking to build a united front against Lesins initiative, called Anatoly Levenchuk and asked him to find Nossik. Levenchuk put all his energy into it and tried for two weeks to locate Nossik, but without success.

When the date of the meeting was announced, Soldatov gathered his group at the offices of Relcom, still next door to the Kurchatov Institute, to establish their strategy. They decided that Soldatov was to speak first and that they would try to kill the Lesin proposal.

On December 28, 1999, two groups of people went separately to the White House. Eight years after Yeltsin and his supporters had barricaded themselves inside and seven years after the violent confrontation with hardliners in 1993, when it was shelled by tanks, there were no visible traces. The building was now renovated and surrounded by high fences and checkpoints, and demonstrations were prohibited near the building.

The two groups saw each other for the first time in the lobby, then took the elevator to the fifth floor, to the so-called central zone of the Dom Pravitelstva, or house of government. As they waited outside the conference hall on the fifth floor, they didnt talk much to each other.

They looked as different as they felt. The younger ones were dressed casually, whereas the older generation wore suits. The younger group was another crowd, recalled Alexey Platonov, a director of the nongovernmental organization that managed domain names and a friend of Soldatov. We were dealing with the infrastructure, Platonov said. There are several levels of the Internet, and ours was the low and the middle levels, and then on the top there is the add-on that became known as the Internet. They then considered themselves the elite, and they called us communication people, plumbers.[19]

Finally the participants were shown into the large conference hall with a long horseshoe-shaped table with chairs lined up shoulder to shoulder. They sat as they wished. Putin was at the head of the table, along with a deputy and two ministersLesin and Leonid Reiman, who was minister of communications. Soldatov sat to the right of Putin, and Nossik sat opposite him. Pavlovsky, who had thought up the idea of the meeting, did not attend.

Putin made a brief introduction. Soldatov immediately raised a hand.[20] He delivered a lecture, speaking somewhat slowly and clearly, about the history of the Internet in Russia. Then, following a plan agreed beforehand, Soldatov turned to Mikhail Yakushev, a well-known jurist, who explained with equal care how the Internet was regulated.

Putin nodded and then suddenly produced a file. Inside it was a description of the Lesin plan to take over the domain names, agreed upon with Reiman. It had two chapters, titled, On Ordering the Allocation and Use of Domain Names and On the Establishment of a National System of Registration of Domain Names. Taken together, they would deliver control over the domain .ru to a government body and to make all kinds of organizations, from joint-stock companies to media to schools, use these domain names and launch their corporate sites by December 31, 2000.[21]

Putin asked what everyone at the table thought about the proposal. They all pretended to be surprised. Nossik raised his hand. This is exactly why we are afraid of the government, he said. Like a magician, you pull out of your sleeve some government regulation, after which everyone can go home![22]

A close friend of Nossik, Artemy Lebedev, a young website designer, arrived late to the meeting and took an empty chair, followed by his girlfriend, Marina Litvinovich, who worked for Pavlovsky. Lebedev, the son of a famous Russian writer, Tatiana Tolstaya, wore a bandana over his head, and was always carefully unshaven, with the manners of a creative type. Lebedev at once launched into an attack on the nongovernmental organization that was controlling the domain names. The director, Platonov, sat directly opposite Lebedev during the tirade. Lebedev accused the organization of unfairly setting prices too high for domain names.

Platonov, forty-five years old, was a nuclear physicist who had spent his entire career at the Kurchatov Institute. Sitting there, the target for a verbal attack right in front of a prime minister whom he just met for the first time, he was evidently confused. Platonov surmised that Lebedevs angry speech was not accidental. The main topic of the meeting was state regulation and, in particular, the question of what to do with the domain .ru. For Platonov, the idea of state regulation of domain nameswhat Lesin was proposingseemed some sort of a racket: you have something profitablegive it to me. And Lebedevs attack in front of Putin provided the government arguments for why the status quo should be changed. Platonov responded emotionally.[23] The volume of the discussion and the cross talk soon became unmanageable, but it was clear that everyone at the table, both old and young generations, were dead set against the Lesin proposal.

Soldatov raised his hand again. When Putin nodded, he said, I suggest we should have the project subjected to public discussion.

Putin immediately responded, Agreed. Lets decide that this project, and all projects in the area of the Internet, will be subject to public debate.

With that, the Lesin proposal was effectively killed off. The meeting had lasted more than an hour and a half.

Arkady Volozh, founder of the Yandex search engine and present at the meeting, though mostly silent, took with him a pencil from the White House, which his son put up for sale the next day on the online auction Molotok.ru for 2,500 rubles, with the description, A pencil stolen from Putins meeting with the Internet professionals.[24]

To Nossik, the meeting was pure theater. He was certain that Putin knew the script and how it would turn out. He concluded that the real purpose of the meeting was to improve Putins image as an advanced and liberal-minded leader of Russia. After all, Putin was, at the time, making parallel efforts to persuade Western businessmen that he accepted the free-market system and would be committed to Yeltsins path. Nossik also thought that the Internet crowd was summoned to show their support, and they delivered. Thanks to me, thanks to all of us, Putin got what he wanted, Nossik recalled. He was supported by the most advanced part of society.

Nossik never thought the Lesin project had a real chance of being implemented. But Soldatov believed the project was for real, and he felt great relief when they secured Putins promise not to sign anything without a public debate. For years the Kremlin kept this promise. We got what we wanted, Soldatov recalled.

For all of the Internet people who came to the White House that day, the encounter left the rules as they were. The status quo remained in place, and that was what they wanted.

Putin took away a different impression. In 1999 Putin was not very familiar with the brave new world of the Internet. He didnt have e-mail, and he was given information from the Internet on printouts. As always, he tried to shape the people he saw into his understanding of the world, defined by his KGB background and his tough years in St. Petersburg in the early 1990s. And what he saw was that the most important figures in this new area were all closely tied to the Kremlin in one way or anotherthrough his spin doctors or government agencies, many of them dependent on government contracts. He also saw, in Lebedevs remarks, that these people could be easily manipulated. They could be divided and subdivided. This was a KGB method, but for now he didnt need to do anything.

Three days later, on New Years Eve, Yeltsin announced he was resigning and then handed over his powers to Putin.

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