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Russia considers stronger powers for KGB's successor

Russian lawmakers are considering two bills that would give the FSB – the former KGB – sweeping powers against extremists. Critics cast it as a Soviet throwback that would enable the Kremlin to crack down on its opponents.

By Correspondent / June 24, 2010


A pair of draft laws making their way through Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, may soon greatly expand the powers and prerogatives of Russia's FSB security service, the former KGB.

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Critics and human rights workers worry that the pending changes, which some see as a response to the rising Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus, will allow the Kremlin to crack down not only on extremists but activists and opposition lawmakers as well. The new legislation also calls into question President Dmitri Medvedev's ability and willingness to implement the more liberal agenda he outlined after ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin stepped aside in 2008, becoming prime minister.

"No one doubts that a country needs the tools to protect itself from crime and terrorism," says Allison Gill, Moscow director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But there are already plenty of strong laws on the books, and the FSB isn't particularly short of powers. My concern is that these laws seem to fly in the face of Medvedev's basic commitment to human rights and democracy.... [These laws] have massive implications for freedom of speech, dissent, and civic activity."

Cash awards for passport data of 'terrorists'

One bill, soon to go into its second reading in the 450-seat chamber, which is dominated by Prime Ministry Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, would empower the FSB to anticipate "extremist" activity in groups and individuals, and employ "special preventive measures ... to eliminate causes and conditions that are conducive to the realization of threats to security."

Experts say the law would effectively hand the FSB sweeping powers to identify potential extremist threats and take action, by calling suspects in for unregulated "conversations" and issuing binding "warnings," under rules that are neither defined nor covered in the existing legal system.

A set of amendments to the law on state secrets, introduced this week by the government, would greatly increase the list of classified secrets under Russian legislation and provide tough penalties for journalists and others who compromise "information on financing counterterrorism activities, as well as information on sources, methods, and plans of counterterrorist activities."

In a separate announcement this week, the FSB said it would revitalize the former Soviet practice of paying informers in order to gain a fresh edge in the war on terrorism. It said it would pay cash awards to anyone who gives addresses or passport data on "terrorists," or provides information leading to the arrest of such a person.

Why now?

"We had a question: Why does the government want such changes now?" says Viktor Ilyukhin, deputy head of the Duma's security commission and a critic of the new bills. "They could not give us an explanation."

Some analysts say the harsh new legislation may be a reaction to the threat of resurgent terrorism from Russia's troubled northern Caucasus region, including a devastating attack by two female suicide bombers on Moscow's crowded metro in late March.