A Chill in the Moscow Air

The scandal broke with all the trappings of a cold-war espionage story--British spies as the villains, the eagle-eyed Russian secret service as the heroes. Late last fall the FSB, the successor agency to the infamous KGB, secretly filmed a British diplomat seeking out and taking home a large rock from a Moscow park. Last week, after a go-ahead from the Kremlin, the grainy footage was aired on Russian state television. Interviews with agents from the FSB revealed that the fake rock hid an electronic device used for communicating with secret agents. rubble 007, declared one British tabloid--and indeed, the kerfuffle might have ended there, with some high-toned recriminations and perhaps a diplomat or two deported.

What makes this episode a more disturbing sign of the times, however, was the FSB's attempts to link the espionage to respected Russian NGOs like the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Committee Against Torture. Both groups had received funds directly from Marc Doe, the British diplomat filmed by the FSB, whose day job was to run a Foreign Office NGO fund. (The British government issued a statement saying that its work with NGOs was aimed solely at "supporting civil society in Russia.") Just days before, Russian President Vladimir Putin had signed a law forcing all NGOs in Russia to re-register and submit to close government scrutiny (though a clause banning them from receiving foreign funding had been dropped after pressure from the European Union and United States).

The timing of the program was likely no coincidence--and marks the first time since the end of the Soviet Union that the FSB has been used so blatantly to bolster the Kremlin's political agenda. While so-called black propaganda was a matter of course for the KGB when it sought to discredit dissidents, the FSB has hitherto steered clear of such blatant tactics. In recent months, however, its actions have been reviving memories of the cold-war years. Old films glorifying the KGB are now popular fare on Russian state TV, and Moscow bus stops are decorated with posters urging people to report any suspicious activity to a special hot line--or to fsb@fsb.ru. In December, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev warned that "foreign espionage is on the increase" in Russia, and promised that "opposing foreign espionage remains one of our main priorities."

In keeping with the times, the spymasters' focus is increasingly economic. Patrushev also claimed that unnamed "commercial structures" were working to take over factories and businesses of "strategic importance for Russia's defense and security," and strip them of their assets. In December, the FSB intervened to save the Omsk Transport Machine Building factory, which builds and repairs T-80 tanks, from a corporate raid. The FSB is also suspicious of foreigners working in the strategically vital oil sector--and recently pro--posed that oil companies should replace foreign executives with Russian citizens because the law on state secrets forbids foreigners to see high-resolution maps. That ruling has already forced the TNK-BP joint venture to replace some of its subsidiary directors, while Salym Petroleum Development, owned by Royal Dutch/ Shell and Sibir Energy, has had to outsource geological surveys involving state secrets to Russian-owned companies.

At the same time, there's evidence that the FSB has begun to do dirty work for some of the former Soviet Union's most repressive regimes. Just before Kazakhstan's presidential elections in December, FSB officers visited the Moscow-based Internet service provider for Navigator, a Kazakh opposition Web site, and closed the site. And in the aftermath of Uzbekistan's massacre of antigovernment protesters in Andijan in May, the FSB sent a team of investigators to Tashkent to aid in the round-up of suspects. There have been accusations of heavy-handed tactics at home, too. Relatives of Ruslan Nakhushev, a former KGB officer and head of the Islamic Research Institute in Nalchik, in Kabardino-Balkaria, say that he vanished on Nov. 4 after leaving the FSB office in Nalchik, where he was summoned for questioning after an abortive Islamic uprising in the city. He hasn't been seen since. "To those of us who were here back in the old days, it all looks depressingly familiar," says one veteran Western diplomat, who did not wish to be named because he is still a serving ambassador. "Most of the people are the same, their methods are the same--old habits die hard."

The main driver of the resurgence has been Putin himself--he served as a KGB lieutenant colonel and spent 15 years in the service, including a stint in Dresden, East Germany, from 1985 to 1990. Since coming to power, he's talked up the FSB, increased its funding and surrounded himself with former KGB men like himself, known as siloviki. "There is no such thing as a former KGB man," Putin told assembled FSB officers at a gala in December.

The FSB's latest focus, say analysts, thus mirrors Putin's. Over the past two years, democratic revolutions have overturned Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, all with the help of civil-society NGOs, many of them foreign-funded. Putin wants to ensure that Russia-based NGOs won't become the focus of a similar opposition movement. For former dissidents like Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the tactic of discrediting critics by suggesting that they are agents of a foreign power is all too familiar. "I have a feeling of deja vu," says Alexeyeva, who was targeted by the KGB in the '70s and '80s. "The goal is to prepare the public for the crushing defeat of human-rights groups."

The problem, warn human-rights defenders, is that bit by bit, the elements of civil society which could oppose further strengthening of the secret service's power are being dismantled. Putin has brought much of the media under the Kremlin's control, the Duma is dominated by loyalists, and businessmen thinking of backing political opposition have been warned off by the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, now serving eight years in a Siberian labor camp. "We NGOs are the last stronghold of independent thought in our country," says Alexeyeva. "After suppressing every other institution of democracy, the state is now doing the same to us." That's far more damaging for the future of Russia than anything foreign spies could do.