Hans Wilhelm Steinfeld, a journalist for Norwegian TV, has lived in Russia for two decades. He's had his share of run-ins with the authorities over the years, but what happened last week was a novelty even for him. He had just finished reporting a story on refugees from the war in Chechnya when agents of the Russian security service confiscated his videotapes and wiped them clean with a high-powered magnet. "This is the first time I've ever seen them actually destroy journalistic material," says Steinfeld, who notes that the incident drew formal protests from the Norwegian government--and that other foreign reporters have been having similar experiences.
A few years ago, such ham-handed treatment of Western journalists would have been dismissed as an eccentric blast from the Soviet past. These days, though, it's part of a trend in Russia--an accelerating return to authoritarianism that got a big boost during last month's crisis in a Moscow theater. The assault by Russian Special Forces to free more than 800 hostages from Chechen terrorists ended up killing 128 innocent civilians. You'd think that the organization that ran the "rescue"--the Federal Security Service, or FSB, successor to the KGB--would therefore be coming in for some harsh criticism, especially considering that its refusal to tell doctors what gas had been used in the operation probably caused many avoidable deaths. But no. Instead, the aftermath of the crisis has seen a tightening of controls on the press, an intensification of the war in Chechnya--and a corresponding slackening of checks on the power of Russia's bewildering array of secret services. All this, some critics say, is a sign of Russia's dark side--the old apparatus of security and repression, emerging once again.
Ironically, the revival of Soviet-era political mores draws support from none other than George W. Bush, who landed in St. Petersburg last week full of understanding for the "very tough decisions" that Russian President Vladimir Putin had to make. "People tried to blame Vladimir," he said even before arriving. "They ought to blame the terrorists." Consider that payback for a shrewd game by the Russian president, who's been careful to support Bush in his war against Al Qaeda--as well as an echo of the U.S. president's language in justifying his own policies. It was small surprise, then, that Bush gave Putin a pass on such tricky subjects as Chechnya. At their meeting, he pressed for negotiation, not a moderation of Moscow's increasingly brutal tactics in the war. But this raises a large question about the new friendship between Moscow and Washington--namely, what price is Washington willing to pay for friendship, in terms of Russian practices that compromise democracy?
From a Russian perspective, that price could be high indeed. Take the media. Last week a group of 23 leading Russian journalists signed a petition asking Putin to veto a new law, already approved by both houses of Parliament, that would restrict reporting of situations involving terrorism. Critics say the law defines those situations so vaguely that almost any reporting linked with the war in Chechnya might qualify----not to mention inquiries into such controversies as the medical treatment of those who perished last month in the hostage crisis. So far there's been no response--even though the FSB, in particular, has been raiding the offices of newspapers that have asked awkward questions. Not that the FSB needs to resort to such crude methods. FSB veterans, after all, occupy key positions in the press ministry and the state TV company.
Even more ominously, efforts by liberal deputies in the Russian Legislature to initiate an official inquiry into the hostage-taking and its aftermath have been quashed by parties loyal to the Kremlin. The message from the government is clear: officials who make mistakes on the scale of the hostage rescue don't have anything to fear, so long as they're doing the bidding of Putin and the FSB. Obviously, that's a huge boost for the vast network of former and current spooks who have attained new positions of political and financial power under Putin.
After years on the sidelines, Russia's security services are now firmly back on top. They serve in the half dozen or so successor agencies to the old Soviet secret police that are now responsible for domestic security and foreign intelligence--none of which is subject to Western-style parliamentary oversight. (Even if they were, it probably wouldn't make much difference, since the Parliament itself is riddled with former members of the security apparatus.) The spooks are also well represented in other political institutions, ranging from regional governorships to key positions in the presidential administration--where, for example, KGB confidants of Putin like Igor Sechin control access to the president.
Perhaps most importantly, the revival of the secret service under Putin has also given his old intelligence cronies a chance to moonlight as entrepreneurs. Some former spies run protection rackets for businesses, head the security departments at big companies or offer "information services" (including blackmail material) to paying customers. Senior FSB officials are directly involved in struggles for the control of corporations (such as the oil company Slavneft) or supervise lucrative but potentially sensitive business sectors like the arms-export trade. Andrei Soldatov, a journalist who runs a Web site devoted to the secret services, says: "I've seen myself how the security officers in private companies just pick up their phones and casually dial their former colleagues in the FSB, asking 'Can you look in the database and find me information about so-and-so?' " Human-rights activist Sergei Grigoryants says that modern-day Russian secret services aren't the incorruptible protectors of the people that official propaganda would have Russians believe. "The security services have a wider meaning now. Their function is to hold power in this country; their police work is just a small part of what they do. They are interested in power and big money, not the war on terrorism or the protection of citizens."
Clearly, the FSB and its sister services aren't shy about protecting their new prerogatives. The old Soviet phobias about foreigners are surfacing again, with more cities and regions placed off-limits to them. Recently, relatives of three Russians imprisoned by the security services on alleged espionage offenses came to the United States to drum up support--conjuring up memories of the Soviet era, when the families of dissidents who managed to get abroad spent their time lobbying Western governments, human-rights groups and news organizations. (One of the three, former naval officer Grigory Pasko, has spent about three years in jail for revealing how the Russian Navy dumped toxic nuclear --waste into the Pacific Ocean.) Karinna Moskalenko, a lawyer who represents the families of the alleged spies, says the lack of a strong, independent judiciary makes it relatively easy for the FSB to operate this way. "I'm not very optimistic that the courts will free these people. The assumption in our country is still that if someone is arrested, he's guilty," she declares. "If the judicial system functioned properly, the secret services couldn't do these things. I'm very sorry for these three people, but I feel even more sorry for my country."
If President Bush isn't prepared to criticize the trend, who will? Europe, perhaps. Ever since Washington's position on Chechnya started softening, the Europeans have been challenging Russian handling of the war and its side effects. Those criticisms have clearly been getting under Putin's skin, as he made clear with some vulgar remarks to journalists quizzing him on Chechnya at a press conference in Brussels earlier this month. In the run-up to that summit, Amnesty International urged the EU to take Russia to task for its human-rights record. Too bad it didn't send a similar note to George W. Bush.