Russia’s secret services: power gone out of control

By Sara Elizabeth Williams

A dark picture of Russian democracy emerged at the Frontline Club last night as Susan Richards spoke with journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan about power, accountability and Russia’s secret services. 

Soldatov and Borogan, co-founders of secret service watchdog site, are the authors of The New Nobility, an investigation into the FSB. Powerful, mysterious and accountable to no one, the term fits Russia’s secret services a little too well. 

Even as the FSB’s mandate grows, there is little discussion around its ascension to power. The New Nobility hasn’t been published in Russia because publishers showed no interest. Borogan wasn’t optimistic about the book’s  – or her own – potential as a catalyst for change:

As journalists, you have no possibility to change anything, to have any impact, because authorities pay no attention to your investigations.

Soldatov elaborated on this by describing how the scientific community became fearful after the KGB started imprisoning people for questioning the government, and how the FSB has carried on and even compounded this tradition of silencing dissension.

The first step towards modernisation is discussion. You cannot modernise your country if you have no public discussion. We have to ask questions, to question decisions.

Soldatov described the FSB’s vicegrip on Russia as a process that began not with Putin, but in the mid-1990’s when the unit was charged with running Russia’s prisons. The FSB’s evolution to near-total power happened in stages and was facilitated by the end of the mafia tradition and the emergence of a new middle class that put mansions and BMWs before ideology:

The middle classes have been given private freedoms and forgotten about public freedoms.

A portrait emerges of a state within a state that reset the rules as it went, protecting itself and its own interests. The relatively recent redefinition of treason was central to this, Borogan explained, as it allowed the FSB to take over e-surveillance in Russia’s near abroad.

Today the FSB operates outside parliamentary control. The government has no mechanisms to control the FSB, and the prosecutorial office has no right to ask the service for documents. It’s a grim picture of the absolute mutation of power:

Between the central office of the FSB and the Kremlin there are so many levels, there’s no transparency, accountability or contact point. There’s no independent media, no parliamentary control, no prosecutorial control.

All of this power has incubated in an ideological environment anchored on one idea: that Russia is surrounded by enemies. More grim still, the complex structure of the organisation leads Soldatov and Borogan to believe that the FSB isn’t even in charge of itself.

The way forward, if there is one, is unclear. Soldatov suggested that the only way for the government to regain control of the FSB would be to redistribute its various responsibilities. Richards was optimistic but Soldatov wasn’t hopeful: he thinks Russia’s younger generations see this and think it’s the way things should be, or the only way things can be.

Yet for the two 35-year-old journalists who have lived through Soviet rule, perestroika, the early post-Soviet era and Russia today, this doesn’t have to be the only way.