Putin tries to end feud in Russian security elite

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MOSCOW, Oct 22 (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped in to try to smooth out feuding in his secret service power base that some observers say could spoil his plans for a trouble-free handover of power, newspapers said today.

Viktor Cherkesov, a Putin associate and head of the state anti-drugs service, said this month there was internecine warfare inside the community of serving and ex-secret service officers that forms the bedrock of Putin's team.

Cherkesov, an ex-state security agent issued the warning after the Federal Security Service (FSB), headed by another Putin ally Nikolai Patrushev, detained several senior officers in the anti-drugs service on charges of corruption and abuse of office.

Putin on Friday signed a decree giving extra powers to Cherkesov by forming an anti-drugs committee similar to an anti-terrorism committee that Patrushev heads, according to the Kremlin Web site.

Russian newspapers said the move by Putin -- who is to step down next year when his second term in office ends -- was aimed at balancing the power of the two rivals.

''Putin has said his piece in the war of the special services,'' the Nezavisimaya newspaper said on its front page.

''The president has put the head of the anti-drugs service and the head of the FSB on the same level,'' said Vedomosti business daily, adding that Putin had ''turned away from Patrushev'' by creating the new organisation.

Since he was elected president in 2000, Putin, a former KGB spy who served in East Germany, has put former colleagues from the secret services in key posts.

These so-called ''chekisty'' -- named after one of the organisations that preceded the KGB -- have been a key factor in allowing Putin to build a bureaucratic power base and create a loyal, disciplined team.

Some analysts said the infighting could be evidence that Russia's elite was breaking ranks and jostling for access to power and resources after Putin steps down next year.

SECRET SERVICE WAR Putin, who is hugely popular with voters, has said he will endorse one of his team to replace him. Opinion polls suggest most people will back that candidate in the March 2008 presidential election.

Rifts inside the elite though, are seen by analysts as the biggest threat to a smooth handover.

In a previous intervention in the feud between Cherkesov and the FSB, Putin scolded the anti-drugs service chief for making his row public.

''If I was in the shoes of the people who are trying to protect the honour of their uniform, I would not throw out accusations left and right, especially not through the media,'' Kommersant newspaper quoted Putin as saying.

''If someone is behaving in this way, making these sort of accusations about a war among secret services, that person himself must be beyond reproach.'' In an open letter that first exposed the feud, Cherkesov described the network of serving and ex-secret service officers as a corporation which had helped rescue Russia from collapse under Putin.

But he said the network was being threatened by members who were preoccupied with making money, not protecting Russia. ''You cannot try to be a trader and a warrior at the same time. It does not work,'' he said.

Cherkesov was deputy head of the FSB, the main successor organisation to the KGB, in the late 1990s when Putin led the service.

REUTERS SS AS1353

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