In the aftermath of the March 29 metro bombings in Moscow, critics alleged that Russia's security services were so busy harassing Kremlin opponents and -- in the words of Solidarity leader Boris Nemtsov -- "protecting the kleptocratic authorities," that they were woefully ineffective at preventing terrorism.
There was even some faint hope that the attacks in the capital, which took dozens of lives, would shock the authorities into reassessing the way the security services work and rethinking the anti-terrorism policies that have been in place for the past decade. Most observers, however, expected the "siloviki" to simply use the attacks as an excuse to grab more power.
Now it appears that the power grab has begun.
The daily "Kommersant" is reporting today that the government has submitted a bill to the State Duma that would allow the Federal Security Service (FSB) to take "preventive measures," including warnings and fines, against individuals suspected of engaging in the vaguely defined activity of "extremism."
Current legislation allows the FSB to impose such measures on organizations -- but not individuals -- whose activities it deems extremist.
Human rights activists are predictably alarmed. Lev Levinson of the Moscow-based Human Rights Institute says the bill would "set the FSB loose" to search for pretexts to accuse opposition figures of extremism. "It all boils down to the fight against political dissent," he told the daily.
Interestingly, members of the ruling United Russia party refused to comment for the "Kommersant" story. They must be waiting for their talking points from Lubyanka.
But members of other factions, including the domesticated "opposition," were more forthcoming -- and their assessments of the bill were not positive.
Gennady Gudkov, head of A Just Russia's faction in the Duma, said the law revives " a Soviet-era practice that was used against dissidents and those who distributed ideologically harmful literature and engaged in similarly harmful conversations."
Viktor Ilyukhin of the Communist Party said the bill would be used to quell anti-government protests. "How can we not be scared?" Ilyukhin told Kommersant. "The new bill regards 'stoking social hatred' as an extremist action. So now a warning can be given to anyone who criticizes the authorities."
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the nationalist Liberal Democrats -- who is facing disciplinary actions over his broadside last week against Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov -- has not yet weighed in (as of this writing, of course).
United Russia, of course, has a sufficiently large majority that they can pass the legislation without any other party's support.
We'll be keeping an eye on this to see where it goes. We'll also be watching to see whether President Dmitry Medvedev weighs in to curtail the measure, as he did with a controversial bill last year that would have expanded the definition of treason and espionage.
-- Brian Whitmore