Russian PM appointment raises Cold War spectres of KGB spies

 

When journalists were issued with an official biography of the new Prime Minister, Mr Vladimir Putin, in Moscow they discovered that 21 years of his life were unaccounted for. Mr Putin is a former head of Russia's security service and before that was a spy in Germany for the KGB.

He is merely the latest ex-KGB officer to move into an important position and there are indications one of them was once active in Ireland.

German newspapers have reacted strongly to the information on the Prime Minister's past activities, even though Mr Putin is believed to have operated only in East Germany, which was effectively under Soviet control at that time.

His rise to power, however, highlights the increasing influence of KGB men in today's democratic Russia. Known as a "state within a state", the Committee of State Security (KGB) was broken into a number of sections after President Yeltsin came to power.

The foreign intelligence service was placed under a body called the SVR, internal intelligence under the FSB and communications intelligence under FAPSI. Three acronyms replaced the one while the vast majority of the old operatives remained in their jobs. The state within the state remained effectively in existence.

Mr Putin's predecessor, Mr Sergei Stepa shin, was head of the FSB, and the last prime minister but one, Mr Yevgeny Primakov, was head of the SVR. Mr Alexey Chestaperov, head of the large state company Rostek, is a former second-in-command of FAPSI.

Secret service personnel have also risen to the top in sections of the media. The deputy head of the ITAR-TASS news agency, Mr Yuri Kobaladze, is a KGB general with Irish connections.

Over lunch in the Pescatore Italian restaurant on Prospekt Mira in Moscow in the summer of 1994, Mr Kobaladze spoke to me of his Irish visits when his cover was as a London correspondent for Radio Moscow. Usually, he told me, he took the ferry from Holyhead.

Known to his colleagues as Koba, a pseudonym used by his fellow Georgian, Josef Stalin, Mr Kobaladze came into the open after the dismantling of the Soviet Union, when he was appointed public relations officer for the SVR.

His professed positive feelings towards Ireland were not, however, strong enough to allow me visit the KGB archives, as I had requested.

Mr Kobaladze had been proposed as head of the state TV service before moving to the ITAR-TASS job. The head of the TV service's information section, Mr Lev Koshlyakov, was formerly with the counterintelligence service.

Mr Yeltsin, himself an old communist boss, has always been careful about appointing "trustworthy" people. One of those he trusted most over the longest period was the head of his personal bodyguard, a 16,000-strong force, a former KGB general, Mr Alexander Korzhakov.

While Mr Korzhakov was ousted shortly before the presidential election in 1996 there were plenty of KGB officers to fill important government posts.

KGB Gen Nikolai Bordyuzha headed Mr Yeltsin's cabinet with another man from the Lubyanka, Mr Vladimir Makarov, as his deputy.

Until earlier this month KGB Gen Grigory Rapota headed Rosvooruzheniye, Russia's vast arms exporting company.

Mr Putin has announced his intention to stand for Russia's presidency in next summer's elections. If he succeeds, he will be the second man from the KGB to make it to the very top in the Kremlin.

Mr Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB from 1967 to 1982, succeeded Mr Leonid Brezhnev as leader of the Soviet Union. In the US, former president George Bush was once head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Hannah Cleaver adds from Berlin:

In response to German newspaper reports, Prof Heinrich Vogel, director of the Federal Institute for Eastern Studies, said: "Putin is someone who controls mud-slinging perfectly. As secret service chief he knows the darkest secrets of Yeltsin's opponents and knows how to get rid of them politically."