Faced with a simmering, underground opposition, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has expanded the powers of the country's Federal Security Service (FSB) in a move which critics have called a "danger to society."
The new law could be used to silence critics of the Kremlin
Medvedev signed the bill to expand the FSB's powers last week after it passed unhindered through the lower and upper houses of Russia's parliament, the Duma, with 354 votes in favor, mostly from the president's ruling United Russia party. The new law will provide the FSB, the successor to the Soviet Union's KGB security service, with the power to detain citizens it suspects of wrongdoing even if it has no evidence against them.
The security services will be able to issue individuals of whom they are suspicious with official warnings, inviting them to what the law calls "precautionary talks" with the FSB to prevent the possibility of the citizen committing a criminal act "against the country's security" in the future.
Refusing or failing to attend these "precautionary talks" could lead to a fine of around $1,500 (1,140 euros) or detention for as long as 15 days.
Despite being sold as the next step in Russia's fight against terror, critics say that the legislation could be used to target and silence political dissidents and outspoken journalists as well as violent extremists.
"The legislation provides new, preemptive powers for the FSB, which is always controversial," Jana Kobzova, a Russia expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "Some other states may have similar legislation but what is the cause of concern is that this legislation was adopted in Russia where division of powers doesn't really work, where the courts and judicial system enjoy little public trust and corruption among the state officials is rampant. Russia has problems with rule of law and the new legislation doesn’t improve its record."
"Whatever the motif behind the legislation was, it is disturbing that such laws were adopted at the time when the Kremlin’s preparing for the 2012 elections," she added.
"The legislation provides opportunity to use the FSB to achieve political ends - this doesn't mean this will happen but the laws may lead to an atmosphere of fear among the civil society which may lead to self-censorship. My belief is that the main aim of the legislation is not to crackdown on the media or civil society, but to preempt, to create a situation when crackdown is no longer needed."
Opponents fear a return to Soviet-era security powers
The KGB was all-powerful in Soviet-era security affairs
Critics claim the law will consolidate the already powerful FSB's hold over security issues and push Russia further toward an authoritarian police state. It is feared that it would represent a return to a structure similar to the Soviet Union's where the absolute power of the secret services and the control of peaceful citizens kept an iron grip on personal rights.
But not all Russia observers are convinced that the Kremlin is attempting to usher in a KGB-style reinvention of the security structure and use the new law to suppress the opposition.
"I don't think that this is a retreat to Stalinism as some claim," Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Deutsche Welle. "This law is mainly directed toward fighting terrorism in North Caucasus, where the security services prove to be completely helpless. In the end, the law will not work like so many others in Russia."
"There is a big difference between the Soviet era and today's Russia," Kobzova said. "The Soviet state spread the atmosphere of fear to prevent emergence of politics and people's participation in it. Today, the key for the state authorities is to make sure people are not interested in politics. A person who doesn't care about politics or the situation with human rights in Russia may live a comfortable life without ever encountering an FSB officer. What suffers the most is democracy in Russia: the Kremlin is interested in stability, not democracy."
In its former KGB incarnation, the Russian security services often interned political dissidents without trial, a scenario which critics within Russia say could be repeated under the new law should targeted individuals refuse the much-feared FSB's invitation.
The new law is the latest in a long line of slowly implemented changes to the security apparatus which have been increasing the FSB's control since the turn of the millennium.
The FSB's powers grew throughout former KGB agent Vladimir Putin's eight-year presidency but it was hoped that Medvedev, a lawyer by trade without any affiliation with the security services, would dilute the FSB's influence over Russian society when he came to power in 2008.
Medvedev follows Putin's cue and empowers the FSB
Medvedev is continuing Putin's work of empowering the FSB
Instead, critics say that Medvedev has reneged on his pledge to liberalize Russia and has promoted only cosmetic reforms while working to strengthen the powers of the state. Medvedev's new legislation, they say, could lead to the FSB being elevated above the law and could be used to silence the opposition.
The Russian president has defended the law, calling it a necessary improvement on existing legislation. "Every country has a right to fine-tune its legislation, including in respect to special services," he said recently. He also took full credit for the bill, saying it had been drawn up on his personal orders. "I would like you to know that what is happening today has been done on my direct instructions."
Jana Kobzova believes that this statement shows that Medvedev is confident in his level of popularity and the inability of the opposition to mobilise any support capable of challenging his leadership. The president already has enough control to maintain the status quo - and now has a law which could stabilize it should it be challenged.
"Both Putin and Medvedev enjoy considerable public support and top all opinion polls," Kobzova said. "What is more important is that a decrease in the popular support for the duo does not increase the numbers for the opposition, so there is no real political alternative to the current leadership - and the leadership knows it."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge