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Russian Opposition Sees Shadow of KGB in New Security Bill

Russia's upper house of parliament has approved a controversial bill expanding the powers of the domestic security agency. Opponents say the new law will make the agency more like its Soviet-era predecessor the KGB.

A new bill approved by the Russian parliament gives the country's domestic intelligence agency, known as the FSB, the power to issue warnings to people suspected of plotting crimes.

It passed by a large majority in the Duma with the support of the ruling United Russia party headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Following approval by the Federation Council, the bill now goes to President Dmitri Medvedev for his signature.

Sergei Markov, a Duma deputy and member of United Russia, supports the bill, and says the changes it will bring have been greatly exaggerated by opponents.

"It's almost nothing. It just the right to send some kind of warning to the people the FSB has information that their activity could potentially lead to a contradiction to the law," said Markov. "I think criticism of this law is more propaganda."

He says mostly the law is intended to confront terror threats originating in the North Caucasus, the scene of ongoing violence linked to Islamist extremists. As an example of how the law could be helpful, he says it could alert non-governmental organizations that terrorists are attempting to infiltrate their ranks.

But some rights groups believe the new law has an alternate purpose: to stifle dissent and to scare political activists away from holding protests and rallies.

Markov says that is not the case and that there are no consequences for ignoring a warning from the FSB.

"After receiving such general warning from FSB, every political figure has the right to do what they really want to do," added Markov. "If they really want to organize a protest rally they can do this very easily and pay no attention to such kind of warning."

Rights activist Ludmilla Alexeeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, is not convinced. She says the new law reminds her of a warning she received for her political activities in 1974, when KGB agents arrived at her place of work in a black car and immediately detained her.

She says a lot will depend on how Russians respond to it.

She says "People might protest actively against FSB intrusion into their personal and social life, or the might behave like scared rabbits." She adds, "Let's wait and see. Some laws just don't work."

Hoping to get wider backing, supporters watered down the legislation. Initially under the legislation, if FSB, suspected a citizen of preparing to commit a crime, the agency could summon the person for an interview. Failing to appear could mean jail time. That language was removed.

Opposition groups have been actively protesting the bill as it has moved through parliament. Three activists with the liberal Yabloko party were reportedly detained Friday as they protested outside the Duma.