One of the crowning achievements of former President Boris Yeltsin's decade-long rule was the break up of the secret services that so terrorized citizens under Soviet rule.
But in the little more than a month that his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, has governed, an uneasiness about a possible revival of repression has surfaced.
Mr. Putin's background as a spymaster added a sinister aura to his firm handling of the Chechen war, to his goal of increasing the state's role in all spheres of life, and to a clampdown on investigative journalists. But his promise to restore order makes Putin popular with Russians yearning for a strong leader, and he probably will be confirmed as president in March 26 elections.
But human rights watchers are worried about a possible resurrection of the KGB, which Mr. Yeltsin dismantled.
"I don 't think life will resemble that under Stalin, because the secret services have changed. But I'm not sure things will be better now," says leading human rights activist Sergei Grigoriants, who was jailed for several years as a dissident in Soviet times.
There are some disturbing developments. Virtually all journalists covering the five-month conflict in Chechnya find their access routinely blocked, even to military hospitals and social centers frequented by soldiers far from the war zone. Almost all who have tried to get close to the fighting in recent weeks report being harassed and often detained by security agents.
The most worrisome case involves Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, a Russian citizen arrested Jan. 17 after covering the battle for Grozny from behind Chechen lines. Since then, he has been neither seen nor heard from.
Russian authorities claim they turned him over to Chechen rebels on Feb. 3, in exchange for as many as five Russian prisoners of war - and have televised an edited videotape purporting to prove Mr. Babitsky went voluntarily.
But he still hasn't surfaced. "This supposed exchange of Babitsky ... completely returns us to the Soviet style of dividing our own people into enemies and loyal citizens," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "Treating journalists as enemies is the old KGB way. It's a complete violation of international law, and a very scary sign of where we're headed."
In a separate case, one of Russia's best-known investigative journalists, Alexander Khinshtein, has gone into hiding. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, frequently a target of his journalistic exposs, accuses Mr. Khinshtein of illegally obtaining a driver's license.
Khinshtein was ordered to take a psychiatric examination at an Interior Ministry-run clinic in a city several hours from his Moscow home. That rings loud alarm bells with human rights workers, who remember the Soviet KGB's routine use of psychiatric clinics to subdue dissidents.
It is not just the media that is feeling the heat. Using the excuse of possible terrorist attacks, law-enforcement groups are stepping up random checks in key Russian cities. And last month, Alexander Voloshin, the Kremlin chief of staff, ordered security officials to prevent "foreigners" from exerting influence over the March presidential vote. Authorities recently told the Glasnost Foundation, a human rights organization, that its foreign guests must be vetted by the Interior Ministry.
Then there are moves to spy via the Internet. Under a new system known as SORM, secret services allegedly could monitor all e-mail traffic. Russian media report that officers from the Foreign Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, have already closed down regional Internet service providers in Volgograd and Orekhovo-Zuyevo.
Technical, ideological, social, and psychological conditions have been created for the special services to have nonsanctioned access to personal information," says Joseph Dzyaloshininsky of the Commission on Freedom of Information Human Rights Foundation in Moscow.
Putin repeatedly has denied that there will be any turning back of the clock on civil liberties. "Talk about an iron hand and a forthcoming dictatorship have become more frequent. Any reason for the revival of public fears should not be given," he said Jan. 21.
But this does not reassure those who suffered under the Soviet totalitarianism that dominated the last century.
Many Russians are pondering whether Putin could revive the influence of the secret services, which once counted on 300,000 active members and the collaboration of perhaps 30 percent of the population. The common wisdom has been that they were whittled down by budget cuts following the Soviet Union's demise in 1991.
But recently, Putin has allocated more funding to the security forces, amid speculation, denied by the government, that the FSB and the Interior Ministry will be merged to become stronger.
Analysts say the thousands of agents who left the services maintain an old-boy network. Countless parliamentarians once worked for the KGB. And Yeltsin's last three prime ministers - including Putin - were former spymasters. Putin himself has summoned ex-KGB colleagues from his native St Petersburg to join his staff.
Such men are pre-disposed to less liberal thinking, says Vyasheslav Nikonov, a political analyst who served as an aide to the last KGB chief, Vadim Bakatin. "Those in their 40s, like Putin, are the pragmatic generation. But KGB people are more inclined to support tougher measures," he says.
Tough measures against perceived enemies were indeed Putin's mark during his brief tenure as FSB head and then as prime minister. Under his stewardship, the services spent time harassing an enviromentalist for revealing secret information. Kremlin insiders also allege security services were behind the leak of a sexually explicit videotape meant to damage a Yeltsin foe, former Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov. And authorities have been lethargic in solving the 1998 murder of a leading democrat, Galina Staravoitova, despite the arrest of a suspect by neighboring Latvia.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society