Fighting Terror and Dissent in Putin’s Russia

January 17, 2014
Security personnel watch screens from the CCTV cameras in Sochi (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks and during times of societal turmoil, it is quite common to see the introduction of security or emergency measures which give security services increased powers. Sometimes these powers are time-constrained and meant as a temporary measure to—at least publicly—reduce the constraints on the security services ability to counter terrorism, and also reassure a frightened public (often the goal of terrorists is to provoke an overreaction by the state which will alienate the public). This is especially true in the age of mass media where constant images of twisted metal and bloody survivors act as powerful agents of influence among society, inculcating fear and paranoia. One does not have to look further than the U.S. or the U.K. to see a raft of measures that were introduced in the wake of horrific terrorist attacks. And at first glance the fact that Russia has introduced bills which would grant the security services even greater powers can be seen as a normal, even rational, response to the attacks at Volgograd. Yet, the recently introduced bills are not meant to repair glaring deficiencies in the ability of the security services to prevent terror attacks (or, as in the U.S. case, to help reform the entire law enforcement and intelligence services to improve coordination and information sharing) but rather to legitimize the ability and power of the security services to collect information and to punish not just terrorists, but any opponents, whether political or security related. The bills before the Russian State Duma, along with other similar bills that have been passed in recent months, are a strategic ploy by the security services to manipulate the climate of fear and anxiety in the wake of the Volgograd attacks to increase their power and capabilities.

There are currently three bills that were introduced into the Duma—you can find the listing of the bills and full texts here—and were drafted after close consultation with the FSB, the MVD (the Interior Ministry) and Rosfinmonitoring (Russia’s financial intelligence service). “All of these bills are aimed at allowing law enforcement agencies to fight terrorist acts before they happen,” remarked A Just Russia deputy Leonid Levin. The bills before the Duma would allow the FSB the right to inspect people, their belongings and vehicles suspected of terrorism—a right that is currently reserved for police officers. However the FSB was already given these temporary powers around Sochi and in the Caucasus in preparation for the upcoming Olympic Games. The other two bills would require internet forums, e-mail providers, and other such means of electronic communications (such as Skype) to store data for six months (including user information), along with limiting the processing of online payments and dramatically limiting the amount of web payments to NGO’s from abroad. The bills also increase the penalties and punishments for terror offenses and for failing to follow the new requirements.

Beyond institutional competition, the new law also requires online communication services and forums to register with the government and maintain user information for six months. This is on top of a recently passed bill that requires internet service providers to store all internet traffic for 12 hours—and unlike in the U.S, Russia’s surveillance equipment is directly connected to the service providers, allowing the security services the ability to directly access information with a warrant that they do not have to show anyone. This is in addition to limiting web transfers to $30 a transaction and no more than $450 a month, along with allowing the government (Rosfinmonitoring) the ability to monitor transactions to NGO’s from abroad if they are more than $3,000. (The proposed law led to Qiwi, a leading Russian provider of VISA linked online payments and listed on the NASDAQ, stock to drop nearly 20%.) This is ostensibly to prevent terrorist financing, and follows the creation of a law that allows federal authorities to inspect and seize assets belonging to the families or relatives of those suspected of engaging in terrorist activities.

And while this may like’s it’s only a threat to the overactive trolls on message boards and comment sections, it is in fact a strengthening of the central pillar of control in Russia: the collection of compromising materials, kompromat, which can be collected and used against those unlucky enough to find them in bad graces of the ruling elite. Kompromat is collected in case there is a need to create legal charges and threats against a person’s family and financial resources to ensure a somewhat forced loyalty. The collection of such vast information—and the bills would require an almost incalculable amount of information—is the continuation of the regime’s attempts to solidify its kompromat compilation. The information will allow the regime, and the various security agencies, the ability to strengthen their collection of kompromat and their ability to introduce criminal charges against those they deem a threat. The fact that Rosfinmonitoring will now have the authority to review and monitor transactions to NGO’s from abroad strengthens the ability of the regime to pressure NGO’s that speak out negatively or elucidate facts the regime would rather the population not know about (especially since Rosfinmonitoring acts as Putin’s personal financial collector).

The potential expansion of the security services power has understandably led to accusations of a power grab by the security services, but has been portrayed by the Russian government as both necessary and vital to counter the threat of terrorism: “There is no threat that the adoption of these laws will turn the country into a police state, like some critics say,” remarked Federation Council member Alexei Alexandrov, “These laws do not generally affect ordinary individuals. For them, this will be invisible.”

But unfortunately time and again we have seen the application of legal measures and the security services to suppress dissent and to maintain control of the elite. It is not beyond belief that one could imagine the FSB applying its expanded search powers to political opponents. It is also not impossible that the bills are designed to make the powers the FSB was temporarily given to secure Sochi permanent. The new law is also emblematic of a constant and underlying power struggle among the various security agencies for power and jurisdictional control. We have seen a steady attempt by all agencies to not only expand but solidify their powers and areas of control, regardless of actually falling under that agencies regulatory purview; the Investigative Committee recently gained the power to initiate tax investigations, or the Federal Prisons Service (FSIN) gaining access to SORM, Russia’s own version of the NSA program, PRISM. And there is no better time to push through legislation expanding a security services power than in the wake of an event which spreads fear throughout society. Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director of Human Rights Watch, recently commented that the security buildup around Sochi provided the security services with a: “window of opportunity to push through legislation they see as beneficial to their work.”

The recent legislation exemplifies how in Russia the exertion of control by the regime is measured by its ability to manipulate the countries legal and political institutions to provide it with a veneer of legality. It is also the latest in a series of moves to solidify the structures of power and to increase the penalties for challenging the regime. Whether it’s merging the independent minded Arbitrazhniy Court with the Supreme Court, or expanding its control over the internet, the authorities are slowly constricting the freedom of dissent and independent thought in Russia.