Russia: President Putin Cracks Down

Critics worry he'll wound democracy

Valeri N. Velichko, 55, is a proud former officer of the KGB, the infamous secret police of the Soviet Union. In 1991 he was booted out of the agency after joining hardliners in a botched coup, intended to prevent the USSR's collapse. But times have changed. Now Velichko, a physicist who once guarded the secrets of Soviet rocketry, serves on a blue ribbon advisory panel to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the KGB's successor agency. That puts Velichko on the cutting edge of changes coming to Russia.

A more muscular secret police is at the heart of Acting President Vladimir Putin's emerging campaign to eradicate the crime running rampant in Russia's nascent democracy. Velichko hankers to enlist. And so do the members of a club over which he presides--an association of 1,500 former KGB agents based in Moscow. This brood views Putin, an ex-KGB colonel, as one of the brethren. "We will help him," Velichko pledges.

On Sunday, Mar. 26, Russians will go to the polls. With Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov as his only weighty opponent, Putin is virtually certain to be elected President--if not in the first round on Sunday, then in a runoff three weeks later. Since Boris Yeltsin tapped him as Acting President nearly three months ago, Putin has won over most Russians with his performance as a tough guy. He has beaten back rebels in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and vowed to establish "a dictatorship of law" in Russia.

The election is shaping up as a sea change for Russia. Yeltsin was elected in 1991 with a mandate to challenge communist power in Russia after seven-plus decades of dictatorship. When the Soviet Union broke apart in December, 1991, Yeltsin set about dismantling the police state. Now, Putin stands on the threshold of a mandate to strengthen law enforcement. The nation's past makes this a tricky proposition, and some fear Russia will tilt backward to a politically repressive system. "If Putin comes to power, people's rights will be violated on a regular basis," worries Lena Apolonova, 33, a fish peddler in a gritty Moscow suburb.

Putin could be trying to create a vast Slavic Singapore, in which lawbreakers are harshly and routinely punished. The Acting President says the state's law-enforcement apparatus will be used to root out public corruption, crack down on tax cheats, and buttress the foundations of a market economy. "Our priority is to protect the market against illegal invasion both by government bureaucrats and criminals," he declared in a Feb. 25 "open letter" to Russia's voters.

Some foreign investors, fed up with Russia's gangster economy, believe this is just what Russia needs. Along with leading Russian businesses, they are encouraged by Putin's call for increased funding of the courts and law-enforcement bodies to reduce incentives for corruption among judges and police. They also want Putin to mobilize the security services to wage war on the racketeers who demand protection money from an estimated 80% of the nation's enterprises. "A greater use of the FSB to protect businesses against organized crime would be good for the economy," says Mikhail M. Friedman, 35, chairman of the board of Alfa Group, a holding company based in Moscow. "We are interested in stable rules of the game," adds Josef Bakaleynik, chief financial officer of Tyumen Oil Co. He expects Putin to slash the bureaucracy, reduce onerous business taxes, and push for clearer legislation on everything from licensing to shareholder rights.

ROLLBACK? Skeptics such as human-rights activist Yelena Bonner are worried that the new President will go too far. In a letter published recently in the Moscow Times newspaper, the widow of Soviet-era dissident Andrei Sakharov, along with other activists, warned that Putin is creating a "modernized Stalinism" in which arbitrary power will be wielded by the secret services to intimidate and punish critics of the government. Under this dark scenario, a "dictatorship of the law" could well lapse into a dictatorship of Putin. Already, critics say the current elections are undemocratic because Yeltsin's abrupt transfer of power to Putin at the end of last year gave him the advantages of the Kremlin and incumbency, all but shutting out his rivals. "The kind of regime that is coming to Russia will be much more strict and more authoritarian than we had under Yeltsin," predicts Yevgenia Albats, author of State Within A State, a 1994 book on the KGB.

Despite these concerns, it's true that Russians enjoy many more freedoms now than in the communist era. They are free to travel, worship, and earn money operating their own businesses. They are also free to vote for a variety of political parties, a right unheard of in the KGB's heyday. Such hard-won liberties would be difficult to roll back--and Putin says he has no plans to do so. "Only by protecting the principles of democracy in all spheres--in mass media, in courts, in law-enforcement agencies--can we protect an ordinary man from witch-hunting and persecutions," he said in a recent radio interview.

Still, there's no denying that the security services are gaining new influence in Putin's Russia. In a recent interview with a Moscow newspaper, Putin described the KGB's infamous citizen-informer network as the patriotic backbone of the USSR, whose collapse he attributed to internal "laxness." Avid collaboration between citizens and today's secret police is essential to maintaining state security, he said.

Laxness is now out. Back in the saddle is the FSB, Russia's domestic intelligence-gathering agency--80,000 members strong--charged with guarding the internal security of the nation. The FSB has launched a spate of initiatives aimed at improving its ability to detect threats. It has ordered all Internet service providers to hand over a list of their e-mail subscribers and install computer links to regional offices to permit agency officials to monitor e-mail traffic of crime suspects.

Many nations are launching Internet surveillance programs, but in Russia the FSB is requiring providers to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the hookups as well as to train officers on how to use them. Not everyone is complying. Volgograd-based Internet service provider Bayard-Slavia Communications is contesting the constitutionality of the Internet program in court. "I think I have to fight because otherwise the 10 years of our transition and democratic development can fail," says Nail Murakhanov, director of the company. He adds that FSB agents have threatened to shut down his business if he doesn't comply. And in recent weeks his company's electricity was mysteriously cut off.

Meanwhile, a recent agreement with Russia's local-telephone monopoly, Svyazinvest Co., envisions hiring FSB officials to work at the company, which is now in the hands of Putin associates from St. Petersburg. And a recent Putin decree resurrects the use of secret-police counterintelligence units in the military, which the KGB employed in Soviet times to guard against disloyalty. The idea is to recruit informers from within the ranks.

It was these units that ratted on Alexander Solzhenitsyn, sending him to the Gulag at the end of World War II after he made remarks mildly critical of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin had allowed the units to lapse into disuse. Although Putin has a legitimate stake in rooting out corrupt soldiers who commit such crimes as selling weapons to gangsters, military analysts say the driving force behind the decree is political, to squelch dissatisfaction caused by low pay and the rigors of the harsh Chechen campaign.

Such steps may be just the beginning of the FSB's expansion in Putin's Russia. The agency's leaders, FSB Director Nikolai P. Patrushev and First Deputy Victor V. Cherkesov, KGB veterans and close Putin loyalists, are fashioning plans that would recombine under one roof all or most of the parts of the KGB that were split into separate agencies by Yeltsin. Included could be the Foreign Intelligence Service, Russia's agency for collecting intelligence outside the country.

That proposal may not be politically ripe, but former FSB Director Nikolai D. Kovalev, now a Duma deputy, has high hopes for his plan to remove legal shackles that Yeltsin imposed on the FSB. Kovalev wants to permit FSB officers to proceed on their own with investigations of organized-crime figures--rather than pass on raw intelligence they get to the Interior Ministry, as now required by law. "If we want to have a strong state, we have to have strong security services," he declares.

BAD HABITS. Of course, the FSB could be of enormous use in helping Putin solve Russia's manifest crime problems. And it could be enlisted in Putin's campaign to root out corruption in regional administrations, including illicit ties between governors and business lords. As part of this drive, Putin aims to place funding for the courts exclusively in the hands of the federal government, freeing them from any dependence on local bodies. He has begun appointing his own team of "presidential representatives" to the regions, including several former FSB officials. Under "Operation Import," the FSB is working with the tax police and other agencies to thwart widespread evasion of customs duties.

Putin sees a strong state as a fundamental prerequisite to investment growth. "People are entitled to be assured that their business will not be grabbed by a group of bandits," the Acting President declared in his open letter to voters. "If the state does not offer such guarantees, the vacuum is quickly filled by criminal groups."

The trouble is that old habits die hard. The recharged FSB has also revived Soviet-style efforts to intimidate government critics in the media. Its chief target is NTV, the independent television network with access to 70% of Russia's population. Unlike its brethren in Russian state-owned television, NTV has offered more balanced coverage of the Chechen conflict. Recently, an FSB officer tried to recruit an NTV journalist, using as leverage her son's brush with police in a purse-snatching case. "We have information that the FSB is now monitoring telephone talks between Media Most managers," says Dmitri Ostalsky, a spokesman for Media Most, the holding company that owns NTV. The FSB declined to comment for this story.

The allegations point to the largely unreconstructed culture of the Russian secret service community. Although Yeltsin broke the KGB into different parts after the failed 1991 coup, there was no overhaul of its charter and no effort to create a new regimen to operate in a society that had broken with totalitarian rule. Other former Soviet republics, such as Lithuania, established "truth commissions" to air secret-police misdeeds. In Russia, the FSB operates out of the Lubyanka, the KGB's old fortress in central Moscow, where political prisoners were executed.

At the nearby KGB museum, a book of photographs of secret service chiefs starts with Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet Cheka police in 1917, and ends with FSB director Patrushev.

Putin has a place in that museum book, too--he headed the FSB for a year before Yeltsin named him Prime Minister last August. During his tenure, he revived the "constitutional security" directorate, intended to counter political extremism and mass-media abuses, and used by the KGB to monitor dissidents. The FSB officer who tried to recruit the NTV journalist was from this directorate.

There's no evidence that Putin himself ordered the FSB to intimidate NTV. But he set an example when he disciplined Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky. The Radio Liberty reporter was arrested and detained by the government after filing reports from the Chechen lines showing heavy losses taken by Russian soldiers. In a recent interview with the Russian newspaper Kommersant-Daily, Putin characterized Babitsky as an enemy of the state, saying that "what Babitsky did is much more dangerous than firing a machine gun."

Putin appears to see the security services much as they are heroically depicted in the KGB museum. There they are shown as part of a patriotic tradition dating back to the time when Peter the Great disguised himself on a trip to Western Europe to pick up intelligence on the military and scientific advances of the age. "Agents," as Putin called citizen-informers, "work in the interest of the state," he told Kommersant-Daily. "The important thing is on what basis cooperation takes place. It's one thing if it is based on betrayal and material gain. And it's quite another if it is based on ideological principles. And the struggle against banditry? You can't get anywhere without secret agents."

Russia needs to have better law and order. But what it needs even more is a vibrant civil society. The development of a semi-police state would stifle that. Some of the FSB's efforts will no doubt fail through sheer ineptitude: Parts of the agency remain as rusted as the old Soviet state was. But Russia's best hope of checking security-police zeal is resistance from unfrightened citizens who, having inhaled the fresh air of an open society, are unwilling to retreat.

Putin, who is only 47, seems to have set his sights on a long rule. Saying that a four-year term is not long enough for a President to accomplish a program, he recently suggested amending the constitution to provide for seven-year terms. The change would be introduced in the election of 2004, thus setting up the possibility of a Putin reign of at least 11 years.

That would suit ex-KGBer Velichko just fine. Putin represents "enlightened autocracy," he says. On a wall in his Moscow suite of offices hangs a portrait of Soviet secret-police founder Dzerzhinsky. A giant statue of Dzerzhinsky for many years stood outside the KGB's Lubyanka fortress, but it was hauled down by jubilant Russians after the failure of the 1991 coup. Velichko is certain that the day will come when the statue returns to its old spot--with the support of the people of Putin's Russia. It will be up to the people to prove him wrong.

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