New FSB law: not such a bad thing after all

The new law on the Federal Security Service (FSB) which has been approved by the lower chamber and is pretty much guaranteed to reach the statute books, is on the face of it a retrograde step, easily characterised by its critics as another measure to bring back the Soviet-era police state. After all, it relegalises the KGB’s old practice of ‘precautionary conversations’, of calling in dissidents, liberals and other presumed trouble-makers to warn them to mend their ways, a piece of heavy-handed intimidation against which only the most hardened critic of the state is impervious. However, I’d suggest that there is scope to see some shred of silver lining in this cloud.

After all, it would be naive to believe that the FSB, as the organisational and spiritual successor of the KGB, didn’t already find sundry ways of warning and leaning on those it wished to deter from anti-government action. Furthermore, it could do so in all kinds of essentially legal ways, from bringing people in for a chat on the pretext that they might be a witness to engineering ‘chance’ encounters laden with solicitous enquiries about one’s health, bland references to promotion hopes, allusions to one’s children’s hopes to get to university and similar indirect threats. This is not in reality a case of giving the FSB new powers.

So why is such a law needed?

First of all, it reflects a desire by Medvedev (and, even more so, Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Investigations Committee of the General Prosecutor’s Office) to regularise the workings of the Russian state through the legal code. The shift from the do-what-we-want-regardless-of-the-laws approach of the Putin era to the we-do-bad-things-but-at-least-we-do-them-within-the-law of Medvedev’s has some interesting parallels with the evolution of Soviet law after the Revolution. However, what this also reflects is a resurgent form of civil society that, even with the rollback towards authoritarianism under Putin, sees in the courts (both national and international) fora in which to challenge and judge the Kremlin. Medvedev is willing then to legalise past practice and he seems keen to emphasise his own personal commitment to this, although perhaps in part also to woo or at least not alienate the siloviki of the security community, who are naturally Putin’s supporters. However, by recognising and codifying existing informal practice, he is also taking Russia one small step towards being a law-based state. This is essential, as laws provide limits to executive power, embody the notion that even the secret police and its subjects and can in due course be changed and liberalised. In this respect, better draconian laws than no laws and draconian practice.

Of course, this is a long way from genuine liberalisation and the subordination of the security agencies to democratic control. But it is, in its own way, a perversely useful first step.

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