Russian public approves of newly assertive spies

'Confidence' in the FSB has climbed from 44 percent in 1995 to almost 60 percent.

It was a memorial service, and in accordance with Russian custom, friends and colleagues rose one by one to offer words of praise.

Several diplomats, academics - even a politician - paid warm tribute to the deceased Soviet diplomat, a man who had served with great distinction in the US and in several Asian countries.

Then, a tall, square-shouldered stranger stood up and identified himself as a retired officer of the KGB.

"Perhaps some of you didn't know that Tolya [the deceased] was one of us throughout his career," he said.

The former agent described their youthful experiences at KGB training school more than 40 years before, and concluded in a tone of genuine pride: "Tolya was a fine Russian, a first-rate intelligence man, and a real leader."

Another guest - a Russian scholar of oriental studies - commented as she was leaving: "I have never seen this type of people speaking so openly. It's something new."

With one of their own in the Kremlin and a reform-battered public yearning for order, Russia's special services are enjoying an almost unprecedented revival of influence and prestige.

"Members of the security services are not only proud of themselves, they are also sure they have come to power in the past couple years," says Sergei Grigoryants, head of the Glasnost Foundation, a Moscow-based human rights watchdog.

"Their possibilities seem unlimited right now," adds Mr. Grigoryants, who was a dissident during the Soviet era. On June 7, he was detained by the security services for five hours before being allowed to depart for a conference in Washington.

President Vladimir Putin and growing numbers of his top appointees are veterans of the KGB's foreign-intelligence wing. The security forces are reviving some Soviet-era social controls and, despite a decade of life without Communism, few Russians are objecting.

"Society is exhausted after a decade of tumultuous changes," says Alexander Gasparishvili, head of Moscow State University's social research center. "The Stalin-era abuses of the special services are far in the past. Now they are seen as the only uncorruptible element of society, the ones who can fight crime and bring order."

Though Mr. Putin's year-and-a-half record in office is still sparse on the democratic reforms he espouses, there is no mistaking the upsurge in activity by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's domestic successor.

A wave of high-profile treason trials instigated by the FSB has targeted an American businessman, two Russian scientists, a diplomat, and an environmentalist over the past couple of years.

Another example of the FSB's growing power is a new directive to the Russian Academy of Sciences, requiring the country's 910,000 registered scientists and scholars to begin reporting their contacts with foreigners, at home or abroad, as of June 1. This Soviet practice was discontinued a decade ago, but the surprise is, at least some scientists want it back.

"There has been chaos in science, and many Russian ideas and technologies have been sold for a song to the West" during post-Soviet years, says Sergei Blagovolin, deputy director of the official Institute of International Economy and World Relations.

Another sign is a Russian Supreme Court decision two months ago, upholding the right of security agents to act on anonymous tips. The first elected Soviet parliament under Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev banned the practice in 1989, citing millions of Russians who were imprisoned, or worse, during the Stalin era without ever knowing the names of their accusers.

"We thought we had seen the last of secret police investigating citizens just because someone anonymously denounced them, but now it's back," says Yevgeny Ikhlov, a lawyer with For Human Rights, an independent monitoring group. "It throws our society back to the worst of Communist times."

But aside from a few liberals and human rights activists, the newly assertive and openly tough-talking FSB appears to be meeting mostly with public approval. A tracking survey conducted over the past eight years by the independent VTsIOM public opinion agency found that positive "confidence" in the security forces among Russians has gone from a post-Soviet low of 44 percent in 1995 to almost 60 percent last year.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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