Russia’s FSB – successor to the KGB – has become even more powerful on Vladimir Putin’s watch. How have the security services come to occupy such a prominent position in the world’s largest country?
Russia’s security services have enjoyed a significant role in the life of the country for more than 500 years.
From Ivan the Terrible’s black-clad Oprichniki in the 16th century, through the czarist Okhrana, NKVD and KGB, to the present-day FSB, the world’s largest country has always relied on secret agencies to enforce its authority.
Indeed, it was the Cheka – the first incarnation of the Soviet secret police – which gave the Russian language the word “chekist”, describing the sometimes pervasive power wielded by secret police.
And many of the main personalities in the USSR’s 69-year history had strong ties with the security services. Yagoda, Beria and Yuri Andropov were all directors of the secret services who enjoyed a public profile – Andropov was Leonid Brezhnev’s short-lived successor as Soviet president between 1982 and 1984.
Vladimir Putin, who this month stands for a controversial third term as Russian president, grew up under – and inside – the Soviet secret police, joining the KGB in the 1970s.
In 1998 Boris Yeltsin, promoted him to lead the Federal Security Service (FSB), established in 1995 to replace the KGB as Russia’s primary secret police agency. Less than two years later Mr Putin succeeded Yeltsin as Russian president.
Now the FSB is under nobody’s control. It’s absolutely independent and they do whatever Putin tells them. Oleg Gordievsky
The FSB’s responsibilities have continued to accumulate in the new century. Officially, they now include protecting Russia’s borders, assuring the country’s security against the threat of terrorist attacks, and fighting drug trafficking and arms trading, as well combating organised crime and foreign espionage.
A controversial bill passed in 2010 allows the FSB to fine and detain people it deems to be hindering the work of one of its employees. Critics say the new law actually sanctions FSB intimidation of its opponents.
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Critics argue that the FSB, even more so than its KGB predecessor, now plays a formative and malign role in Russian life.
Kremlinologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya noted in 2006: “If in the Soviet period and the first post-Soviet period, the KGB and FSB were mainly involved in security issues, now half are still involved in security but the other half are involved in business, political parties, NGOs, regional governments, even culture.”
That view is endorsed by Andrei Soldatov, editor of Agentura, a Russian website describing itself as a “secret services watchdog”. In his book The New Nobility, he argues that the power of the KGB was ultimately delimited by the fact that it was under Communist Party control.
“But the FSB has no such external control. It’s not answerable to the public but to the Kremlin,” Mr Soldatov told Channel 4 News.
Former KGB Colonel Oleg Gordievsky, who defected to the UK in 1985, is equally unequivocal. “The KGB was under Communist control,” he says. “Now the FSB is under nobody’s control. It’s absolutely independent and they do whatever Putin tells them.
“Putin is now the KGB, the central committee and the Politburo.”
What is more, says Andrei Soldatov, Mr Putin’s accession to presidency saw him place former colleagues in positions of influence across the Russian establishment.
“Putin needed his own men in high positions in the state. The only human resource for him was the department of the FSB.
“That’s why he was obliged to appoint these guys – not only in the security services but in different positions.”
In the UK, the FSB does not yet enjoy the profile of its predecessor, the KGB. But its affairs spilled over Russia’s borders in 2006 when Alexander Litvinenko, formerly a lieutenant-colonel with Russia’s security services, was poisoned with polonium-210 in London.
Litvinenko, based in the UK since 2000, was said to have fallen out with Mr Putin. Throughout his time in this country, he waged a campaign to denounce his former employers, alleging, among other things, that the Russian security services were at the centre of terrorist activities across the world.
He also claimed that Vladimir Putin was directly responsible for ordering the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya in the elevator of her apartment block in October 2006.
Politkovskaya had also been a prominent and outspoken critic of Mr Putin. Her book Putin’s Russia was an extended critique of how the country appeared to have become the fiefdom of the security services.
Writing in 2004, ahead of Mr Putin’s second presidential term, Politkovskaya said, in a clear reference to the FSB: “Putin has backers and helpers, people with a vested interest in his second ascent of the throne, people now concentrated in the president’s office.
“This is the institution which today really rules the country, not the government which implements the president’s decision, not the parliament which rubber-stamps whichever laws he wants passed.”
Vladimir Putin is a near-certainty to be returned as president this month, which will mean a further reinforcement of FSB power.
An article in The Economist in 2007 estimated there were some 500,000 operatives across the world. Observers such as Oleg Gordievsky suggest that number has undoubtedly increased since the FSB’s formation.
Moreover, Olga Kryshtanovskaya reckons that some three-quarters of Russia’s senior bureaucrats can now be categorized as siloviki – literally “people of power” but specifically members of the military or security services.
But the existence of an elite that is at the same time so dominant and so apparently ad hoc could carry the seeds of future discontent. Andrei Soldatov believes the ossified nature of the FSB means it faces a deep internal crisis.
“Most of the FSB generals were appointed by Putin,” he says, “and most of them were his own age, approaching 60, at which age you have to retire according to Russian law.
“The FSB now has a lot of colonels who should be promoted to the position of generals, but the old guard still occupies important positions. Nobody knows what to do with this.”
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