WASHINGTON --Russia’s lower house of parliament has passed a controversial bill that widens the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet-era KBG.
Under the legislation, the FSB is granted the right to issue official warnings to individuals who are deemed to be creating the conditions for a criminal act “against the country’s security.” The bill also imposes fines and detention of up to 15 days for individuals judged to have hindered the work of an FSB employee.
The bill had the backing of the ruling United Russia party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The vote was 354 in favor and 96 against. Opponents were from the Communist party and left-leaning A Just Russia party.
To become law, the bill must pass the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house of parliament, which is widely considered a rubber-stamp body for the government.
Proposed in the aftermath of deadly suicide attacks that rocked Moscow’s metro in late March, the bill’s supporters say the measure will help prevent terrorism and prevent radicalism among the country’s youth.
At a July 15 press conference in Yekaterinberg with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the bill was aimed at “improving” existing laws.
"Every country has the right to improve its legislation, including regarding its security services, and we will do that too. And I want you to know that [this bill was drawn up] on my direct instructions," he said.
The bill that passed the Duma was a weakened version of an original bill that would have expanded the FSB’s powers even more.
Earlier this month, after protest from rights groups, the Duma’s Security Committee agreed to remove provisions that would have allowed the FSB to summon people it believes are about to commit a crime and punish those who disobey. The FSB's right to make public its warnings to individuals was also removed from the legislation, and a mechanism to appeal against the warnings was added.
Lawyers, civil rights activists, and members of the opposition say that under the guise of making Russia more secure, the law could be used to intimidate opponents of the government and stifle protests.
Outside the Duma building today, three deputies of the opposition Russian United Democrat Party (Yabloko), which is not represented in parliament, were arrested as they protested the new measure.
Speaking to a Reuters correspondent in Moscow, Yan Rachinsky, of the human rights organization Memorial, said the vagueness of the new provisions could lead to an abuse of power. "The ambiguity of definitions [in this legislation] and the mystery surrounding the powers that it gives [to security agencies] make us very worried," Rachinsky said.
In an open letter to the Russian Federation Council, the head of Memorial, Oleg Orlov, Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Moscow Bar Association President Genry Reznik, opposition members, and writers said the law would be a blow to personal rights and represented a return to the days when the KGB had absolute power.
The letter says the new measures undermine the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’
But Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party, which supported the bill, said opponents of the legislation are misinterpreting it. He denied that the law is repressive, saying, “No one is going to arrest or deprive anyone of freedom. We are only talking about one thing: preventative measures."
Lyubov Sliska, the Duma’s deputy speaker, also defended the new measures, saying that security service agents are not above the law and therefore cannot use the bill to cover up abuses of power.
"I don't think [security officers] are going to abuse their powers because this law concerns them as well. They are also Russian citizens and if they break this law or abuse it, there is also the prosecutor's office that oversees the implementation of legislation," he said.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, human rights campaigner and former Soviet political prisoner Aleksandr Podrabinek said the bill could represent a power-play within the government. He said he doesn’t see it as a sincere attempt to improve security.
"Security services are now trying to broaden their powers, even by such nonsensical means, and they are doing it not to perform their functions better, but to improve their image, perhaps in the eyes of other government agencies. I think it's an ambitious political game."
During the 2000-2008 presidency of Vladimir Putin, who himself was a former KGB agent, the FSB markedly increased its influence over Russian society.
Human rights activists had hoped his successor, Medvedev, would scale back the FSB’s authority, but now say that he has only instituted cosmetic changes.
Written by Richard Solash with agency material and contributions from RFE/RL’s Russian Service.