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.
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"This is a reaction to what's happening in the Caucasus, which the FSB seems powerless to do anything about," says Yulia Latynina, an independent investigative journalist who specializes in security issues. "They can't stop the violence, so they will apply this law to stop the flow of information. It's disastrous, because the FSB is basically being licensed to cover up its incompetence."Skip to next paragraph
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Vladimir Gruzdev, a Duma deputy with United Russia, said in a statement posted on his website last week that critics are overreacting to the draft changes.
"Giving special services new powers is always met with suspicion," he said. "But only people who are unaware of the specific duties of state security could think this bill would impinge on anyone's rights."
"Our goal is to prevent crime, not to return to 1937," when the Stalin-era security services ran the USSR by terror, he added.
Putin chess move ahead of 2012 elections?
Mr. Medvedev, who started out his current US trip with a reconnaissance trip to Silicon Valley, has cultivated a more liberal image than Mr. Putin, his predecessor and possible rival for the presidency in Russia's 2012 elections.
Mr. Ilyukhin, the deputy head of the Duma's security commission, suggests that the boosting of FSB powers may even be part of a power play by former KGB agent Putin, in advance of that upcoming struggle.
"I have been working in the Duma for 16 years and it has always been the president who presented all draft laws and amendments about [the security services]," he says. "That is the president's control zone. But this time it was the government [headed by Prime Minister Putin] that presented this draft law. My personal version is that when they came to the president with this law he decided not to support it, so they went to the head of the government, who is an ex-FSB man, and he decided to give green light to the draft."
Laws give FSB power to define 'extremism,' rather than courts
Critics of the Kremlin worry that, despite the laws' focus on terrorism and extremism, the new rules will end up being used against them, as has happened in the past.
"The main accent of police work devoted to 'extremism' is already aimed at opposition leaders," says Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights campaigner.
"It's already the rule that opposition leaders are closely watched, all their movements recorded, and they are regularly summoned for 'talks' " with the security police, he says. "I fear this will lead to more work against the opposition, and not against real extremists."
One element of the draft law expanding the FSB's powers that prompts special concern is a rule that would entitle security police to call in anyone for a "conversation," without any of the rights that are accorded to people who are designated as witnesses or suspects under the law.
"This coercive power to summon people for 'conversations,' and to issue 'warnings,' leaves it extremely unclear what the legal status of these conversations would actually be," says Ms. Gill. "In effect, it takes the jurisdiction for defining 'extremism' away from the courts and gives it to the FSB. Further, if the FSB warns someone against posting a particular article, or holding a certain protest meeting, they are required [under this draft law] to heed that warning or face further sanctions. It creates a much lower level of legal protection for individuals."
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