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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

KGB: Big, Bad and Back?

After the collapse of communism, the KGB was broken up into five separate agencies, but it was not fully disbanded nor was the successor organizations' mode of operation seriously reformed. Now President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, is reassembling the dreaded Soviet secret police.

The president announced that two former KGB agencies, the Federal Border Service and Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information, will be reintegrated with the main KGB successor agency, the FSB.

It was FAPSI's job not only to encode and secure government communications, but also to intercept e-mails, faxes and other private communications, as well as to record telephone and radio conversations in Russia and abroad. Now the enlarged FSB will be able to listen to anything any Russian (including government officials) says or sends -- without the need to involve other government agencies or explain its actions.

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Everything will be concentrated in one big secret police agency: the authority to investigate suspected "foreign spies" and other wrongdoers the state does not like; and the ability to intrude deeply into the private lives of citizens using the most modern electronic means.

It is typical that while announcing the recreation of a KGB-style super secret police, Putin did not propose the creation of any, even superficial, public system for controlling its activities. Of course, an authoritarian state does not envisage any such controls.

The old-time all-powerful KGB not only controlled the lives and souls of its subjects, it also controlled the external borders of the Soviet Union. It seemed logical to bundle all the jobs into one super agency, including the border guards.

Now the FSB will also have its own massive armed force, the border guards -- with more than 100,000 soldiers, armor, an air force and a navy. Why would a truly democratic country need such a hybrid super agency?

Putin's official explanation for the secret service reforms is that "government structures are not acting efficiently enough or duly coordinating their efforts in this very important sphere."

Putin's assessment is correct -- the lack of coordination is appalling. In fighting in Tajikistan in the 1990s and recently in the Caucasus, Russian border guards and the army both suffered unwarranted losses of men and equipment due to poor coordination.

The more recent encounters occurred last August and September in the Chechen mountains and in nearby Ingushetia when Chechen rebel groups allegedly infiltrated across the border from Georgia. In August, border guards were killed because they did not get sufficient heavy gun and air support from the army and air force in time. In September, the border guards in turn reportedly allowed a large rebel force to slip through their lines and did not inform the army in time or in full. A unit of the 58th army was ambushed in Ingushetia and suffered losses. It was later announced that the "bandits" were surrounded and would be eliminated. But in fact the rebels slipped away.

It would seem logical for Putin to correct this obvious lack of coordination by eliminating the inefficient Russian system of parallel armies that has border guards, Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry troops often fighting on the same battlefield under independent commands. Instead a new powerful FSB army is being created.

In many East European countries, former officers of once all-powerful communist secret police forces are banned from holding public office. In Russia, a former KGB officer is reforming the country to his likes and inserting KGB cronies in important positions.

A new drug tsar was appointed this week, Viktor Cherkesov, who will be head of a newly formed State Committee for the Control of Narcotics. Narcotics truly need controlling in Russia, but Cherkesov has a background of prosecuting Soviet-era dissidents and in more recent times charged the environmentalist Alexander Nikitin with "espionage." Who can guarantee that in the future the new tsar will not use trumped-up narcotics charges to imprison dissidents?

The media has been subdued, but press freedom has not yet been fully eradicated. Putin has built a centralized system of authoritarian rule, but major unrestricted repression has been unleashed only in Chechnya. Today only Putin's good will keeps Russia, which is balanced on the brink, from becoming a dictatorship. How long will this clemency last?

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.