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Russia: President Boosts Powers Of Security Service

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian President Vladimir Putin boosted the powers of the country's security service as part of a cabinet reshuffle yesterday. Putin said the move will make the agency more efficient, but critics say it represents another sign that the agency -- a successor to the KGB -- is regaining the influence it lost with the Soviet collapse.

Moscow, 12 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin yesterday boosted the powers of Russia's security service, giving it control over electronic intelligence gathering and the country's border guards. Experts say the increased authority of the Federal Security Service (FSB) gives it clout approaching that of its powerful Soviet-era predecessor, the KGB.

The move came as part of a rare cabinet reshuffle. Putin said it would increase the FSB's efficiency and step up the fight against terrorism and the illegal drugs trade. "In terms of criminal acts against individuals, one of the state's most important tasks is the fight against the illegal production of drugs and psychotropic substances and the fight against terrorism. In this regard, we can't say the authorities are acting effectively enough or adequately coordinating their efforts in this very important sphere," Putin said.

Officials say the changes reflect measures taken in other countries to fight terrorism following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Critics say the move is intended to boost the FSB's role in public life.

Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov is co-head of the Liberal Russia party and a former military officer. He said the FSB reorganization represents a dangerous tendency in which the authorities are extending control over the public's actions and thoughts. "This, in fact, signals the rebirth of the KGB. It signals the strengthening of control over the activity of active citizens, first of all, in the sphere of politics, as well as business. The concentration of information and enforcement resources in one agency effectively signals the liquidation of freedoms and the previously confirmed separation of power between the branches of power in our system," Yushenkov said.

The new changes hand the FSB control over the country's border guards. They also give the agency, and the Defense Ministry, sway over the functions of the now-disbanded Federal Agency of Governmental Communications and Information (FAPSI), which oversaw electronic intelligence gathering, including telephone and Internet monitoring.

Putin also disbanded the Federal Tax Police, splitting its functions between the Interior Ministry and a newly created antidrug committee.

Putin put his envoy to the country's Northwest Federal District, former KGB officer Victor Cherkesov, in charge of the antidrug agency and appointed Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko to Cherkesov's old post.

Former President Boris Yeltsin split the KGB into separate agencies following the Soviet collapse in 1991. These included the domestic FSB and the Foreign Intelligence Service, which is responsible for espionage abroad and which will remain a separate entity.

While the KGB's circumstances differed from the FSB's because it kept order in a state that strictly enforced a single political ideology, the new changes counteract a division meant to weaken the secret service's broad influence.

Dominion over the border guards will hand the FSB control of more than 100,000 troops, as well as artillery, boats, and planes.

Former FSB chief Putin made his career as a KGB spy and has in the past praised the agency's history. He has also assigned key government positions, as well as lower-level staff jobs in many state agencies, to former security-service colleagues, a move analysts say is aimed at boosting Putin's own political power within the state bureaucracy.

The FSB has, meanwhile, in recent years launched a number of high-profile trials against researchers it has accused of spying.

Yesterday's FSB reshuffle is seen as a victory within Putin's administration for the so-called chekists, largely former members of the secret service who chiefly control "power" ministries. They are said to vie for influence with the so-called Family, members of former President Yeltsin's political and business elite who generally hold sway over economic policy.

Conservative groups such as the Communists and the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party have pushed for boosting the FSB's powers in the past.

Putin increased the agency's role last year by putting it in charge of the ongoing war in Chechnya.

While Putin issued the latest reorganization by decree, some of its provisions must be passed by the State Duma.

Speaking on TVS television yesterday, liberal Yabloko party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii praised the move to increase the security service's efficiency but said it is too early to say exactly what the reorganization will change in practice. "Whether [the reorganization] will bring about powers of 'total' structures, such as that held by the KGB, will depend on decisions made in the Duma from the point of view of the functions of the new departments. The relevant documents have been introduced to the Duma. They haven't yet been examined, and apparently the decisions will be made there," Yavlinskii said.

Liberal Russia's Yushenkov criticizes such statements, saying Yavlinskii and other prominent liberals are afraid of speaking their minds on the issue because they want to curry favor with the Kremlin.

Yushenkov said Putin has broken the law by single-handedly restructuring the FSB. "He issued a decree that contradicts many laws: laws on the border guards, the FSB, FAPSI, and on the government. This obvious violation reflects the absolute disregard the Russian head of state shows for Russian legislation," Yushenkov said.

Yushenkov said that strengthening the FSB is part of a strategy aimed at resurrecting parts of the Soviet-era political system and casting the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in the role of the old Communist Party and the presidential administration as the Politburo.

He said society has little control over such actions by the authorities, who are concerned not with public welfare but with maintaining their own power.