Russia’s most feared counterintelligence service took on even wider powers under a law approved Friday in parliament, and critics warned that the country was sliding back toward Soviet-era repressions.
The FSB, a modern-day successor to the Soviet KGB, will now have the authority to issue warnings to people who have broken no laws but are viewed as potential criminals.
Rights monitors have criticized the law as a throwback to the times when Russians lived in fear of state persecution for appearing ideologically objectionable. Many warn that the measure will be used to further silence dissent against the government.
“It’s a plain attempt on the part of the FSB to return to the old KGB methods … when a person committed no crime but still became an object of KGB attention,” said Nikita Petrov, a historian with the Memorial human rights group who specializes in the history of the KGB. “So they approached him and applied pressure, making him worry, making him scared.”
Even the Moscow city council had raised concerns as the bill worked its way through the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament. The city government had urged lawmakers without success to stipulate that the FSB had to seek approval from a prosecutor before issuing warnings.
Despite the outcry, the bill sailed to a 354-96 vote in the Duma on its final reading Friday. The bill still needs the approval of the upper house, but that step is widely seen as a foregone conclusion.
Government officials have sharply defended the move to empower the counterintelligence agency.
“This warning is made to give the person a right to change his mind,” FSB head Yuri Gorbunov said in a statement posted on the organization’s website. “It is exclusively a prevention measure meant to warn a person against the possibility of committing a more grievous crime in the near future.”
Earlier versions of the law had given the FSB authority to fine or imprison people who ignored its warnings. Those provisions were stripped from the measure before passage, but the intimidating effect of receiving a warning remained.
Observers speculated that the law originated from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent. President Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s longtime underling and chosen successor, has claimed that he had directly instructed lawmakers about the bill.
“The law on the FSB is our domestic bill,” a curt Medvedev said this week in response to a German reporter’s question. “Every country has the right to improve its legislation, including related to the special services.”
Since Putin’s rise to power, critics have complained that the FSB has been slowly moving to assert itself onto society in the mold of the KGB.
“They are confident that by using the old methods they can restore not only the power of the KGB but the might of the state,” said Vladimir Voinovich, a Russian writer who was persecuted by the KGB. “They will fail in the end, but in the process they will ruin the lives of many, many people.”