Russia may have been caught spying on the U.S., but it turns out that Moscow is also seeking new ways to monitor its own citizens.
The Kremlin is lobbying for new legislation to expand the powers of the country's Federal Security Service -- the modern-day successor to the KGB.
If the law passes, the agency would be able to officially warn people whom they suspect might be planning to commit a crime. Supporters say it's a new form of crime prevention.
"We're not collecting information to expose a person or to imprison him," says Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the security committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma. "But at an early stage, when there is no legally defined crime, we want to use preventative measures so a person can make a choice to stop."
The measure has stoked fear and anger among opposition political leaders. They say the law is a clear attempt to stifle political dissent by intimidating people and making them feel they could be charged with extremism if they organize.
"For those who are in doubt, for those who are just coming to an idea that they can protest and take part in the protest movement, this will be another tool for intimidation," says Alexander Artemev, 25, who was arrested by police for the fifth time on May 31, when he took part in an anti-government demonstration in Moscow.
"If a thug has two guns, and now he has three," Artemev adds, "it's not OK."
Debate Over Law's Target
The bill has passed several votes in the Duma, receiving support exclusively from members of the majority United Russia party, which is led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Hoping to pick up wider backing, supporters have watered down the legislation. Initially under the legislation, if the Federal Security Service, or FSB, suspected a citizen of preparing to commit a crime, the agency could summon the person for an interview. Failing to appear could mean jail time.
That language was removed. But in its current form, the law would empower the agency to issue an official warning to any citizen "whose acts create the conditions for the committing of a crime."
Supporters of the legislation insist that real criminals -- not political opponents -- are the target.
They cite the example of a person plotting to plant a bomb at an event. The FSB could warn the person, hoping that puts an end to the plan before a crime is ever committed. Russia has seen its share of violence -- in the past year alone, there has been a deadly twin bombing on the Moscow subway, a train bombing between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and a spate of militant attacks in the turbulent North Caucasus region.
No Need For Such Law Today
The law would essentially restore KGB-era powers to Russia's modern domestic intelligence agency.
But at least one former KGB agent, Gennady Gudkov, has come out against the law. Gudkov, now a Duma member, says the law is written so vaguely that the government could easily use it "as an instrument to pressure the opposition."
In Soviet times, Gudkov says, such laws were an important tool to protect state secrets. He offers the example of a person who raised the suspicion of the KGB by keeping sensitive military documents in his desk.
"Since he kept those documents in his drawer, he received an official notice," Gudkov says. "And that had an effect. The KGB broke him of this habit."
But Gudkov says there is little, if any, need for such a law today. He accuses Russia's top leaders -- Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev -- of pushing for the new FSB law because they are "losing confidence in their own strength."
Political analyst Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center says the timing of the law may be no accident. She says Putin and Medvedev have grown increasingly alarmed by anti-government rallies popping up over the past year. If people are organizing a protest, Lipman says, they might decide to stop if they receive a warning from the FSB that they're engaging in potentially illegal activity.
"Apparently, the Kremlin is truly reluctant to reach a point where they would have to act like an Iran, facing a million angry people in the street, having to use force for real, and kill people," she says. "The Kremlin would much rather nip it in the bud."