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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Days Of The Chekists

By Paul Goble Paul Goble Paul Goble

Washington, 20 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Today (Wednesday) is the 83rd anniversary of the formation of the Soviet secret police. How Moscow celebrates that event may provide important clues as to the direction the Russian government is heading.

Six weeks after the October 1917 revolution, Vladimir Lenin created the first Soviet secret police, the Extraordinary Commission or Cheka. Under Joseph Stalin, that day became a holiday called "the Day of the Chekist." And throughout the Soviet period, officers in Moscow's variously named intelligence agencies proudly called themselves "Chekists" in honor of that first name.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union, fewer people did so openly and officials did little or nothing to mark that anniversary -- until last year, when then-Prime Minister and now President Vladimir Putin took part, telling the Chekists they should be proud of their work. Later, he went even further and said that no government, let alone his own, could get along without secret agents.

Since last year's commemoration of the creation of an institution Lenin said was bound by no law except the defense of the revolution, Putin, himself a former KGB intelligence officer, has chosen many people with intelligence backgrounds to work for him as aides, as representatives to the regions, and as his preferred candidates for governorships and other senior positions.

Indeed, Putin's suggestion that his own promotion reflected "a successful penetration operation" of the Russian government by the country's security services frightened many Russian democrats and others involved in the defense of human rights in that country.

Such groups have been particularly concerned because of their conviction that Putin has selected precisely those former intelligence officers who at the end of the Soviet period worked to stifle dissent and human rights.

Writing in the current issue of the "Moscow Times," sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky argues that the interaction between the KGB at the end of the Soviet period and democrats who failed to understand the distinction between necessary intelligence functions and security activities that threaten society has left Russia with "a security apparatus that is worse than the one [Russia] had under Brezhnev."

Kagarlitsky suggests that the antipathy between the intelligence operatives and the democrats led not to the depoliticization of an agency that advertised itself as "the sword and shield" of the Communist Party but rather to the proliferation of special security services public and private most of which remain the tools of the powerful and are unconstrained by legal regulation.

With the KGB itself in shambles at the end of Mikhail Gorbachev's reign in office, "every agency of government felt the need to create its own armed security organization," Kagarlitsky says. "It became a status symbol." At the same time, he notes, "former KGB officers opened a host of private security agencies, most of which then formed their own close ties with various parts of the state structure."

These two developments combined with the intense hostility of many democratic reformers to any intelligence operation to produce a disaster. Because "the generation of KGB agents who experienced Gorbachev's reforms moved to the private sector," Kagarlitsky says, "their places were filled by newcomers" who lacked the experiences of the reform period and had no one to guide them in their work.

As a result, he argues, "the 'psychological type' of this newcomer is closer to the NKVD standard of the 1930s than to the Western image of an intelligence professional," a pattern that by itself invites the kinds of abuses that post-Stalinist leaders worked so hard to contain lest they themselves fall victim to them."

If Russia had "a political structure or any working democratic institutions," Kagarlitsky continues, they might prove "capable of controlling the secret police [and] protecting society from political repression." But in the absence of such structures and institutions, he insists, Russian society and Russia's fragile democracy remain at risk on this "Day of the Chekist" as on other such days in the past.

Given the restoration of other Soviet-era symbols in recent weeks, how the Russian government marks this holiday is likely to serve as a litmus test for the prospects of democracy and freedom in a country where the Cheka in the past regularly worked to suppress both.