South Ossetia: KGB Backyard in the Caucasus
South Ossetia has been exposed to an extensive KGB presence. Russia is, according to its friendship treaty with South Ossetia, entitled to deploy its Border Guards there. These are part of the KGB’s successor, the FSB (the Federal Security Service). They will not only be guarding the South Ossetian border but are also intended to conduct espionage against Georgia. Such intelligence capacities would be quite sufficient for a small country. Beyond this, however, South Ossetia has established its own KGB and even its own Foreign Intelligence Service, staffed also with Russian personnel, but which provide Moscow with deniability.
BACKGROUND: The Russian Border Guards force are subordinated to the FSB, having maintained their own Intelligence Directorate. It is eligible to gather intelligence on Georgian territory, not only by visual monitoring, but also by recruiting its citizens.
The Intelligence Directorate of the Border Guards is part of the little-known FSB Intelligence Service. It is the third Russian intelligence service besides the SVR (Foreign Intelligence Service, formerly the First Chief Directorate of the KGB) and the GRU (the Chief Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Army). The FSB intelligence Service was organized in the early 1990s on the basis of the First Departments of the provincial directorates of the Soviet KGB. The First Departments were managing foreign intelligence mostly by recruiting foreigners visiting their regions. Nowadays, the FSB Intelligence Service mainly targets the republics of the former Soviet Union.
Since breaking away from Georgia de facto in the early 1990s with Russian help, South Ossetia also established its own KGB (keeping this unreformed name), headed and run by Russian citizens.
Indeed, a number of South Ossetia’s leaders have an explicit KGB background. Its current Prime Minister, Aslanbek Bulantsev, is an ethnic Ossetian but a citizen of Russia. He is a typical official of the Putin era: a former officer of the KGB Financial Department, who was appointed a minister. In 1986-2006, Bulantsev served as Head of the Financial Department of the KGB/ FSB in the Russian republic of North Ossetia. South Ossetia’s Defense Minister for many years, Vasily Lunev, used to be a military commissar in Perm Oblast, and the Secretary of South Ossetia’s Security Council, Anatoly Barankevich, is a former deputy military commissar of Stavropol Krai and previously served in rebellious Chechnya. Neither is an ethnic Ossetian.
Barankevich served as a Deputy Head of the military commissariat of Chechnya during the war there.
Russian military commissariats are managing drafts in the Russian Army, but hold few similarities with U.S. Army recruitment centers. Firstly, the Russian military commissariats are sending conscripts not only to the Army, but also to the FSB and police. Secondly, Russian men are subject to a total military conscription. That is why the military commissariats possess a database of all Russian men and many women, which they are supposed to share with the FSB and police. The FSB can use military commissariats as a cover, for example when it plans secret home searches without a warrant and needs a key to open the door, it orders the local military commissariat to call the home owner for a medical check. During this procedure, a KGB officer dressed in a white lab coat would steal a key from his pocket, mould and return it. The next day, in the absence of the homeowner, the FSB team would visit his house secretively.
During his time in Chechnya, Barankevich’s main occupation was most probably to register all the male population of Chechnya to disclose terrorists and their family members, a task otherwise performed by the FSB. Barankevich could thus well have been covering for FSB searches on behalf of the military commissariat.
The advancement of former KGB financial department officers has received some attention since President Putin’s ascendance to power. South Ossetian Prime Minister Bulantsev follows the example of Andrei Belyaminov, the Head of the Russian Federal Custom Service, which is notoriously corrupt. But in the KGB First Chief Directorate (Intelligence), he was only a cashier. Every month, he gave out monthly salaries to the intelligence officers, including the present author, who personally recalls standing in line to receive a stack of rubles from Belyaminov, sometimes at the side of Sergei Ivanov, the future Russian Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. In the late 1980s, Belyaminov was posted at the KGB station in East Germany and made friends with Putin there, undoubtedly his path to promotion.
IMPLICATIONS: The fact that the South Ossetia counter-intelligence service, headed by Russian citizens, has been named in the Soviet manner as the KGB (and not the FSB like in contemporary Russia) merits attention. This is ironic, because the abbreviation KGB initially had a somewhat disparaging connotation. In 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev deprived the powerful Ministry of State Security (MGB) of its ministerial status, and lowered it to the status of Committee: a term reserved for less important governmental bodies, such as the Committee for Sports. This was intended as a punishment for its participation in the massive repressions under Stalin. But later, the KGB become notoriously known as the symbol of the Soviet era, and its originally humiliating implication has been forgotten. The abbreviation “KGB” has come to be pronounced with great respect in Putin’s Russia. But this name cannot be used openly inside Russia, given the negative Soviet connotations, not least internationally. However, this does not apply to South Ossetia, where the acronym symbolizes the nostalgia for the USSR prevalent not only among the South Ossetian leadership but among the Russian officers tasked to administer the enclave.
In the Soviet period, the KGB managed both counter-intelligence and intelligence operations. But the KGB of South Ossetia is not allowed to manage espionage. In October 2008, following Russia’s recognition, South Ossetia obtained its own Foreign Intelligence Service. Given that there has never been a single professional spy in this tiny provincial republic, it is obvious that this service will be manned by intelligence professionals coming from Russia. But given that the territory of Georgia is already covered by the FSB, the question of this agency’s rationale remains unanswered. It appears likely that the “South Ossetian” foreign intelligence service has been created to spy on the American interests in Georgia, just as its “big brother”, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, is spying on American interests all over the world. Crucially, the South Ossetian service will remain formally independent, indeed, in Russian parlance the service of an independent state. That will allow Moscow the ability to disclaim responsibility should its activities be uncovered.
Russian journalist Yulia Latynina has noted that “South Ossetia is not a territory, nor a country, nor a regime. It is joint venture of siloviki generals and Ossetian bandits for making money in a conflict with Georgia.” The promotion of a KGB financial specialist to the post of Prime Minister of South Ossetia in October 2008, in this context, could have two reasons. Firstly, his professional knowledge of the governmental financial system made him an expert in money-laundering. Secondly, his belonging to the privileged KGB elite could provide him with impunity.
CONCLUSIONS: South Ossetia is independent only on paper, and is now incorporated in Russia’s budgetary system. 80% of its population are Russian citizens, and its is for all practical purposes a KGB-governed territory. It is run by an elite motivated by the revision of the borders redefined by the break-up of the USSR. Their nostalgia for the USSR has manifested itself not only in the invasion of Georgia in August 2008, but also in giving the South Ossetia security ministry the Soviet name, KGB. In Russia, the KGB has been involved not only in espionage but also in massive corruption. This Russian pattern of managing state affairs has been exported to South Ossetia. This dirt-poor territory is effectively being transformed into an arena of both anti-American espionage and money-laundering, managed simultaneously by one and the same organization: Putin’s KGB.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Konstantin Preobrazhensky served in the KGB from 1976 to 1991, when he resigned from the service and began to work as an intelligence expert and columnist for the Moscow Times. He now lives in the United States. His latest book is KGB/FSB’s New Trojan Horse: Americans of Russian Descent.