Paramilitary: Rebuilding The Russian Secret Police

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October 10, 2012: With Vladimir Putin once more president of Russia (after a four year hiatus as prime minister because the Russian constitution does not allow anyone to serve more than two consecutive terms as president), Russia continues its progress in turning into a police state again. New laws reinstate many of the arbitrary powers the Soviet Union police and intelligence officials had. While the post-Soviet Russia is still a democracy, the elected officials are reinstating the surveillance and control capabilities their Soviet counterparts long relied on. The main vehicle for implementing this new police state is the FSB (the successor to the Cold War era Russian KGB). This organization is being given more and more of its Soviet era powers and personnel back.

Before the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, the KGB was the most powerful organization in the country. It was a law unto itself, as long as it stuck to its main task: keeping the Communist Party in charge. When the Soviet Union collapsed the KGB lost most of its power but did not disappear. It was split into many separate organizations, with the main ones being the FSB (a counterintelligence organization with police powers) and the SVR (which conducted overseas espionage). But since the late 1990s, the FSB has been regaining a lot of its Cold War era authority and personnel. It again controls the border police and several specialist technical organizations. While this pleases the law and order crowd, it disturbs Russians who remember when the KGB was the principal organization keeping the communist dictatorship in control. The new powers give the FSB more authority to do whatever they want, just like in their good old days (when the communists ran things). The FSB is now believed to directly control over 100,000 personnel and have authority over many more in other government departments (like the national police force). The Communist Party has been replaced by an oligarchy of wealthy men who go rich via business acumen, corruption, and outright theft. In effect a more efficient version of the Communist Party bureaucrats who ruled and murdered Russians for 70 years. The new crew is less lethal than the communists, no less intolerant of criticism.

The KGB acquired most of its power just before World War II, after dictator Joseph Stalin had killed most of the army leadership, to prevent what he believed was the possibility of a military takeover. The KGB was to be a powerful state secret police, a sort of FBI, CIA, and more rolled into one organization. The KGB was everywhere, as it sought to keep its communist masters in power. For example, the KGB had a network of informants in the military.

When Stalin died (of natural causes) in 1953, and Nikita Khrushchev (and some close Communist Party associates) took over, one of the first things they did was execute the head of the KGB, an old Stalin crony, named Beria, who had been responsible for large scale massacres within the KGB during Stalin's reign. Less bloody-minded KGB officers were promoted to head the organization. Until the very end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the KGB remained at the top of the social, political, economic, and legal pecking order. In the late 1980s, reformers like Gorbachev rose to power via the assistance of senior KGB officials who saw a need for reform. The KGB was aware that their tsarist predecessors survived the 1917 Revolution. The KGB men were a relatively small group compared to the military and the Communist party and they were ready to survive the next "revolution." This the KGB did, and now they are being rewarded for their loyalty and effectiveness (in dealing with terrorism, corruption, and criminal gangs) by having many of their old powers restored.

While the FSB has regained control of the border police, this force is but a shadow of its former Soviet self. Back then the Soviet Union maintained 200,000 KGB border troops. This "army" had armored units, naval ships, and combat aircraft. These forces served the same function as the United States Coast Guard and Border Patrol. But in America these forces amount to fewer than half as many personnel. The KGB border forces had much more power than their American counterparts. The 25,000 sailors in the "Maritime Border Guards" (MBG) answered to no one but the head of the KGB. To put it more clearly, a lieutenant commanding an MBG patrol boat could order any Russian warship to halt and then arrest its captain. In fact, this was one of the principal functions of the MBG, to prevent mutiny or defection by ships and sailors of the Soviet Navy and merchant fleet. Smuggling was a minor problem, as Russian currency was useless outside the country and there were few items Russia produced that were good and small enough to be profitably smuggled. Moreover, much of Russia's coastline is in arctic waters and most of the remainder was adjacent to other communist nations. What kept the MBG busy was insuring that Russian citizens didn't flee the country. Such flight was a criminal offense and several prisons were full of Russians who attempted it and got caught by the MBG.

The personnel for the MBG are selected carefully. Although two-thirds were conscripts, these were chosen from among the most reliable Slavic candidates and were given special benefits and privileges to compensate for doing three years of service instead of two. These benefits extend into life after military service, as they have demonstrated that they are strong supporters of the government and thus worthy of choice job assignments and other privileges. Because of the three year term for KGB conscripts, only a quarter of the personnel were replaced each year, allowing for a higher degree of training and effectiveness. Less than a third of the 25,000 MBG sailors are on ships' crews. The majority serve in support jobs on land as well as supplying security detachments for guarding MBG bases and keeping an eye on suspicious foreign merchant ships or any Russian personnel suspected of disloyalty. The Russian Coast Guard still looks after a lot more than the coast. Russia no longer makes it so difficult to leave the country, but the border guards are kept busy keeping economic migrants (and a few Islamic terrorists) from trying to get in from less affluent neighbors.

The FSB still relies on conscripts for many low level security jobs. But, as in the Soviet period, getting drafted into the FSB is an attractive proposition for many young Russian men. Doing well in this job (guarding nuclear weapons or other important national assets) marks you as someone worthy of other jobs within the security services.

What bothers many Russians is the ultimate purpose of the FSB. The KGB was known as the main protector of the Communist Party. The FSB is seen as the supporter of wealthy criminals who used their KGB connections and powers after the Soviet Union collapsed to grab ownership of many state owned assets. The current Russian government is acting more and more like the autocratic rulers Russia has suffered under for centuries. The FSB seems to act like the palace guard, not public servants.

 

 


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