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Medvedev Signs Law To Broaden Powers For Security Service


FSB officers close an underground casino in Makhachkala, Daghestan in April.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed into law a bill handing increased authority to the Federal Security Service (FSB) to issue warnings to people it believes present a criminal threat.

The controversial bill, which passed its third parliamentary reading on July 19, empowers the FSB to issue official warnings to people judged to be laying the groundwork for a criminal act "against the country's security."

The law also establishes fines and detentions of up to 15 days for people seen as hindering the work of an FSB employee.

The final version is tamer than the original draft, which proposed the FSB could summon potential suspects to their office and even publish its warnings in the media. But it still has plenty of critics.

The Kremlin says the legislation will contribute to the fight against extremism and help people steer clear of behavior they may not even realize is illegal, such as participating in unsanctioned protest rallies.

Equal Before The Law?

Rights defenders, however, say the legislation will put the KGB successor agency above the law and hand it Soviet-style powers to intimidate journalists and political opponents at will.

Overall, however, few Russians appear to be aware of the new legislation or its impact. A July 18-22 poll by the independent Levada polling agency showed that 67 percent of respondents nationwide had not even heard of the bill. Only 3 percent reported that they were "closely following" the debate.

Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada center, said Russians are generally "evenly split" between those who oppose the FSB and those who value it as a protector of state interests.

"For the most part, that kind of positive sentiment is held by people who aren't very well educated, those living in villages or towns with limited access to information and very dependent on state propaganda -- meaning, from television," Gudkov said. "Negative sentiments regarding the KGB and FSB are basically held by more educated and mature people. Their associations are those of mass repressions, terror, purges, executions, and the persecution of dissidents and opponents."

'Stepping On The Same Rakes'

The FSB, which gained power with Vladimir Putin's ascent to the presidency in 2000, has sought in recent years to portray itself as a firewall protecting the public against the rising threat of terrorism and Islamic extremism.

Not everyone is convinced, however.

"I view them with a great deal of trepidation, because I agree with those who say that Russia is dangling from the Chekists' hook," said one man who spoke to RFE/RL in the city of Pskov.

Another added that it was "disgusting" to be repeating a mistake of the Soviet past. "We went through all this in the '70s and '80s, when all of those in civil society working for human rights found themselves under the pressure of the KGB," the man said. "And today we're stepping on the same rakes."

Such skepticism is not universal. Other Russians cite the frequency of reports claiming that security organs have thwarted one or another terrorist attack.

One woman praised the fact that she and her compatriots "live quietly" thanks to efforts by the FSB and other official efforts.

"We live fairly safely, without even knowing about those potential threats or espionage attempts that Western governments are very likely plotting," said another man in Pskov. "That, probably, is something we owe to the [security] organs."

'Absolutely Ineffective'

The bill on broadening FSB powers was first submitted to the State Duma in April, less than a month after twin suicide blasts in the Moscow metro left some 40 people dead.

Many saw the bill as a response to the bombings. The FSB and other law-enforcement agencies have frequently argued they need greater resources and authority to adequately battle terrorism and extremism. The new law is likely to help security organs enforce Russia's 2007 anti-extremism law, which makes criticism of the authorities -- and antagonizing distinctive "social groups," including the FSB -- a punishable crime.

Igor Korotchenko, editor of the journal "National Defense," says he is a staunch supporter of passing stronger laws to defend the country against terrorist attack. But the new FSB law, he believes, will have little effect.

"I think that this law won't help the fight against terrorism. Because the people planning and carrying out those acts are people who have put themselves on the path of a deliberate battle. So any warnings or threats directed at them will be absolutely ineffective," he says. "Instead, I think the law will be to a large degree directed at blocking all kinds of forms of social protest."

The law has been a particular disappointment to activists who had hoped to see Medvedev honor his pledge to liberalize Russia.

Instead, Medvedev has staunchly defended the law, saying its aim is to clarify Russian legislation and has been drafted according to his personal specifications.

written by Daisy Sindelar; with contributions from RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Veronika Bode and Anna Lipina
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