Saturday, July 17, 2010

Russian parliament enlarges powers of KGB successor

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a cabinet meeting in  Moscow on Monday. AP photo
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin chairs a cabinet meeting in Moscow on Monday.

The Russian parliament on Friday passed a controversial bill expanding what rights groups warn are the already formidable powers of the successor to the Soviet-era KGB security service.

Rights activists and some lawmakers say the bill would essentially put the special service above the law and harks back to Soviet times when the much-feared Federal Security Service, FSB, predecessor KGB used warnings to persecute dissidents.

The bill – which President Dmitry Medvedev says was drawn up on his instructions to improve existing legislation – would allow the FSB, to issue official warnings to individuals whose actions are deemed to be creating the conditions for crime.

Individuals deemed to have hindered an FSB employee in his work can also be fined or held in detention for up to 15 days, according to the bill.

A total of 354 deputies in the State Duma, the lower house, voted for the bill on its third and final reading, and 96 against.

The opposition says the FSB security service is already extremely powerful and empowering it further would contravene Medvedev’s pledge to liberalize Russia.

“We believe that this bill both inflicts harm inside the country, ruining its moral atmosphere, and damages Russia’s image abroad,” said lawmaker Mikhail Yemelyanov, whose A Just Russia party voted against the bill.

The ruling United Russia party headed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic party voted in favor of the bill.

In response to protests from human rights activists, lawmakers earlier removed an amendment allowing the FSB to summon people to their offices to hand out the warnings and also publish their warnings in the media.

They also added a provision for people to appeal against the warnings.

Medvedev on Thursday defended the bill saying its aim was to improve Russian legislation.

“Every country has a right to fine-tune its legislation, including in respect to special services,” he said. “And what is happening today – I would like you to know that – has been done on my direct instructions.”

Supporters of the bill like Liberal Democratic party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky argue that many have simply misinterpreted its meaning.

“This is not a repressive law. No one is going to arrest or deprive anyone of freedom. We are only talking about one thing – preventative measures,” Zhirinovsky said.

Under the 2000-2008 presidency of former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, the FSB dramatically increased its influence over Russian society. Human rights activists had hoped his successor at the Kremlin, Medvedev, a lawyer by training without a KGB past, would put the special services in check.

But Medvedev’s critics say the Kremlin chief has promoted only cosmetic reforms and Russians have not become freer under his rule.

Despite several changes to the bill, “the concept of the proposed law remains the same and is extremely dangerous,” the For Human Rights movement said this week.

“The new bill gives the FSB back the powers of special services of totalitarian regimes.”

“The powers of the Federal Security Service in our country have long ago exceeded all sensible bounds,” Memorial rights group added. “FSB in Russia is more than a special service,” it said in a statement this week.

Youth activists from the opposition Yabloko party were repeatedly detained by police after they protested against the bill, most recently on Friday when three party activists wearing prison uniform tried to stage a protest near the State Duma.

To become law, the bill should now be approved by Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, and then signed off by Medvedev.