- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 17, 2000

MOSCOW Acting President Vladimir Putin's appointments of former KGB agents and members of the present internal security agency have prompted fears that the new leader plans to re-create an authoritarian Russia modeled on the old Soviet system.
Adding to the concern, Mr. Putin recently signed a number of laws to expand the power of security agencies such as the FSB, the successor to the once-dreaded KGB.
One decree signed over the weekend appears to revive the Soviet-era practice of assigning "political commissars" to front-line military units.
Early last month, in a move little noticed outside Russia, Mr. Putin gave quiet approval to a law giving Russia's police and security agencies real-time access to all e-mail and electronic commerce carried by Russian Internet providers.
That move earned a sharp rebuke from human rights activist Yelena Bonner, widow of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
"This means Russia has become a police state," Mrs. Bonner said.
Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Moscow-based Center of Strategic Research and a friend of the pro-reform Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky, fears the worst.
He said that if liberals are mistaken about Mr. Putin's true intentions and go too far in giving him the benefit of the doubt, it could prove "fatal."
Most of the former state security officers appointed by Mr. Putin come from the acting president's hometown of St. Petersburg, where he served in the mid-1990s as deputy governor.
They include Viktor Ivanov, former director of the FSB's internal investigations unit, who now oversees personnel matters in the Kremlin.
The city origin of the appointees has sparked a debate here.
Is Mr. Putin merely stacking the government with trusted hometown pals, in much the same way that Boris Yeltsin brought in colleagues from Yekaterinburg, or is there something more sinister afoot?
Some analysts argue that the new Russian leader is creating a "Putinburg on the Moscow River" rather than putting in place a cadre of hard-line advisers more interested in strengthening the state than in protecting and widening Russia's fragile system of civil liberties.
Journalist Yevgeniya Albats, a liberal commentator and the author of a respected study of the KGB, cautioned that Mr. Putin should be judged on his future actions and not on his own past as a career KGB officer or on his current pick of former spies to fill key Kremlin posts.
"We should not judge KGB officials by their affiliation because that was how they judged us in the past. We do not want to repeat their legacy," Miss Albats said.
Nevertheless, many Russian journalists see ominous restrictions on press coverage emerging since Mr. Putin was appointed prime minister in August and then became acting president when Mr. Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31.
Provincial newspapers investigating local officials have been shut down for suspected fire-safety violations.
Investigators have attempted to force one feisty Moscow political reporter into a psychiatric asylum.
Reporters covering the war in Chechnya face travel restrictions and constant harassment.
Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty who reported on the rebel side of the Chechen war, was detained by Russian troops and subsequently traded to Chechen rebels for Russian prisoners. Mr. Babitsky still has not been seen for a month since Russia officially acknowledged it had taken him captive.
Now, many Russian journalists are wondering what will happen after presidential elections next month, when Mr. Putin is almost certain to win a four-year term. His promises to restore order resonate with voters, most of whom worry more about empty pockets and rampant crime than civil liberties.
"The optimists think [the pressure on the media] is connected to the Chechnya war and the election campaign. The pessimists think it's the beginning of something bigger," media analyst Oleg Panfilov told the Associated Press.
Mr. Putin and the security agencies have seen their powers expanded in several fields.
The weekend decree that raised eyebrows assigns FSB units within the military such tasks as "the elimination of negative phenomena within the army environment."
The catchall phrase could include monitoring the political views of military officers or even "unsanctioned contacts with the press," according to Izvestia newspaper.
In all, 40 percent of Mr. Putin's Kremlin appointees either served in the KGB or work for the FSB.
They include Nikolai Bobrovsky, a deputy to the chief of the prime minister's secretariat, who studied with Mr. Putin in the KGB's Institute of the Red Banner; Sergei Golov, deputy head of the foreign relations section of the president's business management department, who served also with Mr. Putin in the FSB; Nikolai Patrushev, FSB director, who worked for the KGB Leningrad Region Department since 1974; and Sergei Ivanov, now secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council.
Mr. Putin has not eased fears recently by declining to condemn the role of the NKVD, the KGB forerunner, in Stalin's 1937 purges.
"One must not keep pretending that we do not need state security bodies," he said "One needs to understand what makes them work against their own people."

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