During the trial of Edmond Pope, the American businessman and retired Navy intelligence officer convicted this week of espionage, an agent from the Federal Security Service approached one of Pope's Russian lawyers in the corridor outside the courtroom.
The lawyer, Andrei Andrusenko, had already reported being trailed by security agents, and believed his mobile telephone was tapped. Now the agent warned him to be careful. "You lawyers need to know," he said, according to Andrusenko, "the spy will sooner or later go, but you remain in this country, and it's not known who will be next on trial."
The threat offered a hint of what many Russian specialists say has been the growing influence and prominence of the security services under President Vladimir Putin, who spent most of his career in the KGB, the Soviet Union's secret police and foreign intelligence agency.
Putin has elevated veterans of the KGB and its successor agencies to his inner circle and installed them in key government posts. Russia has been awash in allegations of espionage and spy trials, some of which, like the Pope case, appear to have been based on weak evidence.
Putin has sought to restore the security services to the role in Russian political and economic life they enjoyed in Soviet times, alarming democrats, environmentalists and human rights activists. Critics say Putin has set a tone reminiscent of the old KGB--intolerant of political criticism, hostile to civil society and trying to put the independent news media under government control.
After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the KGB was broken up into several agencies, among them the Federal Security Service, the chief domestic security agency, and the Foreign Intelligence Service, the equivalent of the CIA. Putin, who served in Germany as a KGB spy in the 1980s, was director of the Federal Security Service before being appointed prime minister by then-President Boris Yeltsin more than a year ago.
Human rights activist Sergei Grigoryants said recently the former KGB agents are doing what they know best. "That is why it is quite natural that we got . . . the ever-growing censorship and monopolization of the press, intensifying surveillance, bugging of Internet and telephone calls, a spy mania, a landslide of criminal cases sloppily and brazenly fabricated by the special services," he said.
The Pope trial raised questions about the actions of the Federal Security Service, which investigated and helped prosecute the case. At one point, a key prosecution witness, Anatoly Babkin, who prepared four reports for Pope on a high-speed torpedo that formed the basis of the espionage charge, recanted his statement that the reports contained secret material.
Babkin said he originally signed his statements under duress. Two unidentified agents came to his home in the middle of the trial and, according to an audio recording that defense lawyers said was genuine, threatened to jail Babkin if he recanted. He did so anyway; agents have not made good on the threat.
In another case that has sparked protests, the security services charged Igor Sutyagin, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of the United States and Canada, with treason in October 1999. Sutyagin was an arms control researcher who often had telephone contacts with overseas analysts. Pavel Podvig, a friend of Sutyagin and author of a book on Russian strategic weapons, said the evidence in the case has been "invented out of nothing."
Sutyagin, who was arrested and has been held more than a year without trial, "never had access to state secrets," Podvig said. The Federal Security Service "is testing the technology when any person who can read newspapers and magazines can be accused of divulging state secrets."
The Federal Security Service has also targeted environmentalists such as Grigory Pasko, a reporter for a military newspaper, who exposed the navy's dumping of nuclear waste into the Pacific Ocean. He was arrested in November 1997 and charged with treason for passing information about the dumping to a Japanese television station. Pasko said the material was not secret.
He was acquitted of espionage in June 1999 after a five-month, closed-door trial, but the court found him guilty of a lesser charge of improper military conduct. Pasko was given an amnesty and released. Recently, the case was revived by a panel of military judges under the Russian Supreme Court, meaning that Pasko could be tried again.
In the Soviet system, verdicts were usually dictated by the Communist Party and did not hinge on courtroom arguments. Judges took their cue from the party and prosecutors, a phenomenon that was eerily repeated in the Pope case when defense lawyers' motions were largely ignored.
The newspaper Novye Izvestia said many recent spy cases had been poorly prepared by former KGB agents who "are not trained to get information that would become a convincing argument in court and withstand the probe of the defense."
Naum Nim, senior editor of Index on Censorship, a magazine here that campaigns against authoritarianism, said the security services do not want to engage in an open battle over the evidence.
"For them, any procedural matters are still rubbish," he said. "They seriously think, even now, that their opinion is the most convincing evidence. They do not want to learn procedural nuances. They want to bring the country back to the time when their judgment is the only thing that matters."
In Putin's Russia, the old Soviet mind-set that newspapers and television are supposed to serve the authorities rather than criticize them is increasingly voiced by high-level officials.
For example, Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Kremlin Security Council and a longtime KGB official, recently complained that businessmen have been using their news media holdings for their own ends. Ivanov said the solution was for the government to expand the state-owned news media because citizens are not getting "sufficiently truthful information about the actions of the state, its plans, its intentions." Putin has waged a campaign this year against media mogul Vladimir Gusinsky, who founded the leading independent television network in Russia.
Yevgeny Yasin, a former economics minister, commented recently that the Kremlin has "a peculiar understanding of freedom of speech, differing from the generally accepted one."
A year ago, when he was prime minister, Putin attended a ceremony marking the Dec. 20 annual holiday of the security services. The secret services "must not be separated from the state and turned into some monster," he said, adding half-jokingly that a group of Federal Security Service agents "sent to work under cover in the government has been doing well at the initial stage."
The joke has become the reality since Putin succeeded Yeltsin, but the group is not working under cover. They have become some of the most influential Kremlin figures around Putin.
The most prominent is Ivanov, 47, a St. Petersburg confidant of the president who has handled a broad range of difficult issues, from military reform to the Kursk submarine catastrophe to the preparation of a new "information security" doctrine. In the months ahead, Ivanov is likely to be appointed to yet another high-level post, possibly defense minister or prime minister.
Putin also turned to veterans of the security services when he decided to appoint unelected super-governors to oversee Russia's 89 regions, which are run largely by elected governors and mayors. Five of the seven new posts were given to former KGB agents. One of the most powerful was Viktor Cherkessov, 50, a friend of Putin from St. Petersburg who joined the KGB the same year as Putin. Cherkessov was widely known for his aggressive attempts to persecute dissidents in the final years of the Soviet Union.
Putin has also appointed KGB veterans as first deputy justice minister, deputy minister of taxation, director of a new arms export agency and first deputy minister of communication and information.
"Putin is bringing in his former colleagues, not because he has plotted a KGB revanche, but simply because he understands these people perfectly well," said Nim. "They have their own logic and manner of communication. Since he has been in the service a long time, he knows the rules and finds these people more reliable."