Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Korzhakov: In the Open, Under Fire

Once safely in the shadows, suspected by a few daring reporters of being the Kremlin's grey cardinal, Major General Alexander Korzhakov has suddenly been trapped in the public spotlight, forced to defend himself against attacks from former and currently top-ranking officials.

Only a week ago, it was virtually impossible to persuade any official to talk on the subject of Korzhakov, the chief of President Boris Yeltsin's security service, the estimated strength of which is anywhere from 1,500 to 20,000 men under arms.

His influence over policy making appears to have come to a peak during the Chechen crisis, where he has been widely identified as the linchpin of the so-called "party of war."

But in recent days, Korzhakov's star appears to have waned and Wednesday, Mayor Yury Luzhkov sharply criticized the presidential bodyguard on state television. The liberal weekly Obschaya Gazeta on Thursday published an interview with an ex-minister who accused Korzhakov of tapping Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's phone.

Korzhakov, with his well-known dislike of the press, is now forced to give interviews and write letters to newspapers downplaying his prominent policymaking role.

Analysts suggest that the storm of criticism against Korzhakov is really directed at Yeltsin rather than his bodyguard.

"So far, Korzhakov is merely Yeltsin's loyal slave," said Sergei Markov, a political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for Russian and Eurasian Programs.

"The fact that all these people are criticizing Korzhakov shows that they feel they can afford to kick Yeltsin now," said Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Center for Strategic Studies, an independent Moscow think tank. "If even Luzhkov believes he can now take an independent stand, it shows what a personal and political vacuum Yeltsin is in."Even so, Yeltsin's chief bodyguard and close companion of 10 years is thought unlikely to lose his job or his considerable influence on the nation's affairs any time soon.

His role as chief of the Presidential Security Service, an independent agency with a status equal to that of the ex-KGB Federal Counterintelligence Service, may even increase as Russia's government grows more autocratic, Markov suggested.

"As Yeltsin consolidates his personal power, structures like his security service are constantly strengthening," he said.

An article in Obschaya Gazeta Thursday said the security service had at its disposal a paratroop division and several other army units. Markov said he knew of plans to make several elite army units of the Moscow Military District subordinate to Korzhakov's service, which already includes the crack Alfa anti-terrorist unit.

"Russia's political system is very close to being dictatorial now," Markov said. "Under such a system, Yeltsin's personal guard means more than a nominally higher-ranking official, even the defense minister. A monarch's groom is often stronger than a minister."

Korzhakov's press secretary, Andrei Olegov, flatly denied allegations that the security service controls or plans to get control of military units. He said the security service numbered 1,500 people, though Obschaya Gazeta said that even without military units the service employed 4,000.

Both Olegov and Korzhakov acknowledge that the president's security service is more than just a bodyguard.

"There are different ways of protecting the president," Olegov said, adding that despite having extensive bodyguard services many of Russia's top bankers have been killed.

In an interview with the weekly Argumenty i Fakty published Wednesday, Korzhakov said recent criticism of his actions was " a consequence of the struggle against corruption we began."

"Many large-scale crooks are afraid of it and they try to portray themselves as victims of political persecution on my part," the general said.

Korzhakov's men last month raided the headquarters of Most Bank, one of Russia's strongest financial groups, severely beating up several bank employees. The official reason for the raid was that a car belonging to the bank broke into a presidential motorcade on a highway outside Moscow.

Mayor Luzhkov, normally deferential when speaking of the president, was highly critical of the guards' actions in an interview with Russian Television's Double Portrait program Wednesday night.

"They were just trying to show who's boss in Moscow," he said. "The presidential bodyguard should stick to its duty of guarding the president's life. I would never allow my security service to act like that."

Vladimir Kvasov, Chernomyrdin's former chief of staff, told Obschaya Gazeta in an interview published Thursday that he had had several run-ins with Korzhakov.

Kvasov said Korzhakov had once called him to demand a favor for another close Yeltsin associate, sports adviser Shamil Tarpischev.

"I had not been with the government long and I did not know who Korzhakov was," Kvasov said. "I told him that if he was head of the bodyguard he should stick to bodyguard work and mind his own business. After that all my telephones, including high-frequency ones, were promptly cut off."

Olegov, when told of Kvasov's allegation that his own and Chernomyrdin's telephones had been tapped by Korzhakov, responded that the security service was empowered by law to tap phones, but only with a prosecutor's permission.

"All these retirees always talk about their phones being tapped," Olegov said. "What is it they say over the phone that's so interesting?"