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Russia's Security Services: A Checklist for Reform
Protection of human rights, according to Russian law, is the first duty of the security and intelligence services of the post-Soviet state. Even more, the "special services" or "organs," as they are called, are under new legal checks and balances to minimize abuse and maximize accountability. This dramatic break with the totalitarian past is intended to help institutionalizing democratic and market reforms by ensuring that the secret police and spy agencies never again abuse citizens of the Russian Federation, threaten the integrity of the government, or earn Moscow pariah status in what a former Russian intelligence chief calls the "civilized world."
How well do these grandly stated intentions conform with reality? The failed Soviet putsch of August 1991 portended the end not only of the Communist Party and its Committee for State Security (KGB), but the impunity that went with them. Indeed, Vadim Bakatin, the former USSR Minister of Internal Affairs, ousted in 1990 at KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov's insistence, refused to accept the job as Kryuchkov's successor until a reluctant Mikhail Gorbachev gave him written authority to dismember--not merely reform--the KGB. (1)
Some observers draw benign conclusions about Russian state security today by contrasting it with the Stalinist terror or Brezhnev's stagnant totalitarianism. This is a false comparison. No serious economist would measure the Russian economy of 1997 with the Soviet economy of 1938 as a standard. Nor could one usefully attempt to gauge political reform with the dark Brezhnev years of one-party rule. The logical benchmark lies among the Western norms promised and expected in 1991.
The Bakatin Interregnum
By his own admission, Bakatin was a product of the Communist Party apparatus, and his actions must be seen in that context. It was his idea, for example, to name Yevgeni Primakov as foreign intelligence chief, viewing Primakov as one of the few other members of Gorbachev's presidential council who opposed the putsch and one of the only high-level Soviet officials with substantive foreign policy experience. He also had no intention of tearing up the KGB in its entirety and starting anew as Vaclav Havel had done in the Czech Republic. He thought that, with fresh leadership, the security apparat could be reformed.(3)
Nevertheless, Bakatin was by far the most liberal chief of any of Moscow's secret services, before or since. Though lacking a blueprint to carry out what he wanted to do--he never expected to be in such a position--he envisioned a three-directional plan of action: "disintegration" or dismemberment of the KGB into independent functional components, "decentralization" to hand power to the union republics across the USSR and the major regions within the Russian Federation, and "de-ideologization." Many interpret the latter as de-politicizing the organs of its Communist Party affiliation, but Bakatin's plan went much further: "the repudiation of the ideology of Chekism," the cult-like self-identity of the organs as the historical successors to the Bolshevik Cheka. (4)
Bakatin also committed the ultimate crime against the chekists: He attempted genuine cooperation with the United States. In an historic gesture that earned him the permanent enmity of the organs and of many politicians, Bakatin met with the American ambassador to Moscow and turned over to him the KGB blueprints of the massive electronic eavesdropping system implanted in the structure of the new American Embassy building. The legacy of political repression and covert warfare against Western democracies, he declared, was over.
At the same time, the Russian leader kept the internal security services in a constant state of flux by continuous bureaucratic reorganization, creation of new security and intelligence agencies, and frequent top-level personnel changes. The principal internal security organ, the Federal Security Service (FSB), underwent six name changes and six leadership changes in six years. Part of this state of uncertainty has been caused by Yel'tsin's byzantine form of divide-and-rule governing, but at least an equal part is due to clan warfare within the power structures and ruling elite.
While Yel'tsin recruited young, visionary economists--whatever their shortcomings--from far outside his inner circle to implement a Western-style reform with the advice of hundreds of American experts, he assembled a state security team of KGB professionals and personal cronies. His first security minister, MVD General Viktor Barannikov, immediately sought to merge the former KGB internal security organs with the MVD in what critics across the political spectrum denounced as a return to a Stalin-era repressive machine.(5) The chief of his personal guard, Aleksandr Korzhakov, built up his own security empire complete with its own intelligence service and business operations.
Similarly, old traditions were preserved. Yel'tsin's first state security initiative, re-naming the USSR KGB components and placing them under his authority, was contained in a set of decrees postdated to take effect on 20 December 1991, "Chekists' Day," in observance of the founding of the Cheka on that same date in 1917. The Cheka sword and shield remain the crest of the main internal security organ, the Federal Security Service, as well as of the External Intelligence Service, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), and the State Procuracy. Along with those symbols survived the chekist mentality of impunity.
Newly built checks and balances were short-lived. The new Constitutional Court, albeit backed overwhelmingly by public opinion, posed the first major resistance to re-centralization of the organs. Yel'tsin ultimately abolished it. The Russian Federation Supreme Soviet had a Committee on Defense and Security headed by Sergei Stepashin, a former MVD officer who initially endorsed reforms. Yel'tsin disbanded the parliament and laid siege to it in October 1993. The subsequently elected parliaments proved far more politically backward than the Supreme Soviet, and though the new laws governing the security organs paid tribute to human rights, in fact they ceded power to the services themselves. The present Federal Assembly has funded the organs rather generously with an $8.8 billion appropriation for 1997, which is triple the federal budget for science and agriculture and nearly equal to the combined outlays for industry, power engineering, and construction.(6)
Public demands for order in the face of sharply increased violence and crime overshadowed the post-putsch sentiment that ran so heavily against the organs. Yel'tsin and parliament incrementally broadened the powers of security services to conduct surveillance and even arrest and detain individuals. These periodic increases in chekist power were tolerated in the name of waging war on street crime, organized crime, government corruption, and terrorist violence. As if these reasons were insufficient, the organs--often fueled from above by inflammatory pronouncements by Yel'tsin himself--declared Russia to be under espionage attack from the West and initiated a new campaign against "traitors" and "spies."
One must be especially cautious when imputing murder to the state security services as institutions when Russia is embroiled in such lawlessness. However, a pattern seems to emerge. The October 1994 assassination of investigative journalist Dmitri Khodolov is an example because of the known involvement of an active-duty state security officer. Khodolov was probing high-level corruption within the Ministry of Defense and was cultivating a Federal Counterintelligence Service officer as a source. He told a colleague that the officer, a confidential source he did not identify, directed him to pick up a satchel containing secret documents compromising top military officials. The satchel was booby-trapped, and Khodolov was killed.
The Chechnya war had hardly begun when the Sergei Grigoryants family faced its harshest persecution ever. Grigoryants and his wife had persevered through the low-level harassment and beating during his series of conferences on the KGB, and now were planning a campaign to hold officials accountable for war crimes in Chechnya. On or about 19 January 1995, Grigoryants received a telephonic warning that his son, Timofei, would be murdered. Three days later, Timofei Grigoryants was struck and killed by a hit-and-run automobile in the driveway of the family apartment building. Grigoryants subsequently filed suit to force the government to investigate the crime. The authorities' behavior suggested government involvement when two officials approached Grigoryants with an offer to arrange for the return of his writers' union building if he would drop the case. Grigoryants refused. French authorities were apparently persuaded of official involvement; President Jacques Chirac quickly granted political asylum to Grigoryants' wife and daughter, though Grigoryants himself remains active in Moscow.(20)
According to a US military intelligence report, the FSB set up a special covert unit to assassinate political opponents inside the Russian Federation in 1995, aimed particularly at Chechen separatist leaders. The 40- to 50-man unit is believed responsible for the April 1995 assassination of Chechen security chief Sultan Geliskhanov.(21) The FSB is also reported to have set up Fred Cuny, an American relief worker in Chechnya, to be killed by spreading disinformation that he was a spy. The FSB and other agencies obstructed Cuny's family and friends from searching for him after he disappeared in early 1995.(22) GRU military intelligence ran a separate operation in April 1996 to assassinate Chechen President Djokhar Dudayev.(23)
Fighting corruption and organized crime
Nor is the anti-crime campaign a simple law enforcement issue. FSB Director Nikolai Kovalev said in late 1996 that he would fight crime not with the immense powers allowed by law, but with a "sword of vengeance"--hardly a reassuring word from a law enforcement official.(25)
Over the past six years, the remnants of the KGB have shown themselves to be part of the organized crime problem,(26) as the Russian Organized Crime Task Force of the Center for Strategic and International Studies discusses in a recent report.(27)
Former Soviet dissident and post-Soviet lawmaker Sergei Kovalev lays the blame at the feet of Boris Yel'tsin. In his January 1996 letter resigning as Yel'tsin's human rights commissioner, Kovalev wrote, "You announced, amid much publicity, the start of a fight against organized crime in the country. To that end, you gave enormous powers, going beyond the bounds of right and the law, to the power structures. The result? Criminals still roam free, while law-abiding citizens, without having gained security, are forced to tolerate the tyranny of people in uniform into the bargain."(28)
Rule of Law
The situation has improved slightly since that time. Today, both houses of the Federal Assembly have committees to oversee the security and intelligence services, and the budget committees have a limited oversight capability as well. Though the membership of these committees is diverse, most of their members have close professional relations with the organs, many being retired or reserve MVD, military, or security officers.(29)
The Chechnya war showed how, in practice, no effective checks and balances exist. Initial hostilities initiated from Moscow were carried out by covert paramilitary units (under the command of state security chief Stepashin) whose creation was explicitly forbidden by law. Russian constitutional and legal analyses show that throughout the Chechnya conflict, federal forces flagrantly violated the constitution, the already-generous laws, and international treaties to which Russia was committed. Constitutional violations include the arbitrary or otherwise extrajudicial killing of Russian citizens (Articles 2 and 20), trampling of internationally recognized human rights (Articles 15 and 17), denial of legal protection of rights and freedoms (Article 46), and limitations on rights and freedoms by extra-legislative means (Articles 55, 56 and 102). The president, prime minister, and defense and security officials also violated every major law governing the police and security services, including the Law on Defense, the Law on Security, the Law on Operational Work, the Law on Federal Organs of State Security, and the Law on the Status of Servicemen.(30)
2 The findings of the five official investigations were never published in Russia. Four state probes were secret. The fifth, a Supreme Soviet commission headed by human rights advocate Lev Ponomarev, was shut down by Supreme Soviet Chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov in early 1992, at the request of Moscow Patriarch Aleksi II and foreign intelligence chief Yevgeni Primakov. A transcript of the Ponomarev hearings is deposited at the Library of Congress in Washington. An English translation of the transcripts is serialized in Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, vol. III, no. 4 (Fall 1995) to vol. V, no. 1 (Winter 1997).
3 Vadim Bakatin, interview with author.
4 Bakatin, interviews with author; and in Izvestiya, 2 January 1992, morning edition, p. 6; trans. in FBIS-SOV-92-002, 3 January 1992, pp. 4-5.
5 Yuri Shchekochikhin, Russian Television Network, 1800 GMT, 20 December 1991; trans. in FBIS-SOV-91-246, 23 December 1991, p. 46.
6 Oleg Kalugin, Intercon Daily Report on Russia, 8 January 1997.
7 The author attended these conferences, which began in February 1993, and witnessed the harassment campaigns.
8 Retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin, human rights leader Sergei Grigoryants and others related this to the author in Moscow, May 1994.
9 Christian Science Monitor, 18 September 1995.
10 Washington Post, 15 November 1996.
11 Diederik Lohman, "The Nikitin Case: Rule of Law?," Perspective, vol. VII, no. 2, November-December 1996.
12 Sergei Grigoryants and Lev Ponomarev, interviews with author, February 1993; and Tatiana Kuznetsova, interview with author, May 1994.
13 Grigoryants, interviews with author. The author took Grigoryants to an American hospital for follow-on medical treatment, but the eye could not be saved.
14 Sherry Ricchiardi, "Killing the Messenger," American Journalism Review, November 1995, pp. 19-25.
15 The Glasnost Defense Foundation in Moscow has documented the harassment and persecution of journalists covering the Chechnya war. See Aleksei Simonov, "Voina protiv zhurnalistov," in Liliya Isakova and Elena Oznobkina, eds., Voina v Chechnye: Mezhdunarodnyi Tribunal: II Rabochaya vstrecha, Stokgolm, 15-16 Dekabrya 1995 (Moscow: Obshchestvennyi Fond Glasnost, 1996), bilingual edition in Russian and English, pp. 46-49.
16 Lawrence Uzzell, Keston Institute, to the Associated Press, 17 January 1997; and Uzzell to the Washington Post, 24 June 1997.
17 See Keith Armes, "Chekists In Cassocks: The Orthodox Church and the KGB," Demokratizatsiya: The Journal of Post-Soviet Democratization, vol. I, no. 4, Autumn 1994, pp. 72-83.
18 Amnesty International, "Torture and Ill-Treatment in Russia," cited by Reuters, 22 November 1996.
19 Mariana Katzarova of Amnesty International-London to Reuters, 3 April 1997.
20 Author's interviews with Sergei Grigoryants.
21 Washington Times, 12 May 1995.
22 Washington Post, 18 August 1995.
23 Stanislav Lunev, "Recent Changes in the Russian Security Services," Prism, 12 September 1997.
24 William H. Webster, Arnaud de Borchgrave, and Frank J. Cilluffo, et al., eds., Russian Organized Crime: Global Organized Crime Project (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1997). Hereafter cited as CSIS Russian Organized Crime.
25 Globe and Mail (Toronto), 1 December 1996.
26 See J. Michael Waller and Victor Yasmann, "Russia's Great Criminal Revolution," Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, vol. XI, no. 4, December 1995. Also posted on internet at http://www.afpc.org/issues/crime.htm.
27 CSIS Russian Organized Crime, op. cit.
28 Presidential Human Rights Commissioner Sergei Kovalev, in resignation letter to President Boris Yel'tsin, January 1996, cited in CSIS Russian Organized Crime, p. 64.
29 Author's interviews with members of the Committee on Defense and Security of the USSR Supreme Soviet, 1991; with the Russian Federation Supreme Soviet, 1991-1993; and the Russian Federal Assembly (State Duma and Federation Council), 1994-1997.
30 See Elena Oznobkina and Liliya Isakova, eds., Voina v Chechnye: Neobkhodimost provedeniya Mezhdunarodnogo Tribunala, VI Kruglyi stol, Moskva, 15 Yuliya 1995 (Moscow: Obshchestvennyi Fond Glasnost, 1995), bilingual edition in Russian and English; Liliya Isakova and Elena Oznobkina, eds., Voina v Chechnye: Mezhdunarodnyi Tribunal: II Rabochaya vstrecha, Stokgolm, 15-16 Dekabrya 1995 (Moscow: Obshchestvennyi Fond Glasnost, 1996), bilingual edition in Russian and English; and Waller, "Police, Secret Police, and Civil Authority," Jeffrey D. Sachs and Katharina Pistor, eds., The Rule of Law and Economic Reform in Russia (Westview: John M. Olin Critical Issues Series, 1997), pp. 112-113.
Copyright ISCIP 1997