Russia returns to the anonymous tip
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Just when many hoped Russia's spies had come in from the cold, President Vladimir Putin is putting a chill back in the air.
Earlier this month, the KGB's successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB), alerted readers in an item in a government newspaper that it would once again consider anonymous tip-offs from citizens to combat subversion.
Until the news was reported last Tuesday, more prominently, in another national paper, Sevodnya, the decision by Russia's spy directorate had garnered about as much notice as if it had been published in invisible ink.
That was probably just as well for a Russian leadership teeming with ex-KGB operatives from Putin's old spy circles.
They know better than most that a renewed reliance on "anonimki" -- which Stalin, especially, used to such brutal effect in rooting out rivals -- might not go down well in a new, ostensibly more democratic, Russia.
For many Russians, the idea of a nameless denouncer stirs dark memories of Soviet days, when an untoward word from a neighbour, friend, or even relative to the state security organs could spell instant disgrace -- or worse -- for the accused.
"A lot of it was based on revenge," said Sergei Brilev, the London Bureau Chief for RTR, a Russian state television network. "You wanted to basically spoil the life of someone you didn't like."
Generations of Soviet schoolchildren were raised on the heroic tale of Pavlik Morozov, a schoolboy who denounced his own father to Stalin's police. The story, recounted in the land of Lenin, became a patriotic allegory to the nobility of placing the collective above the family.
The reversion to the use of anonymous informers comes more than a decade after former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sought to stamp out the practice on the grounds that it lacked any system of accountability in a democratic society.
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A decree passed by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on February 2, 1988 barred Russia's state security bodies from using any information from citizens who do not give a name, address, telephone number and place of work in their submissions.
In a sign of the changing times, the FSB runs a slick Web site on which it invites anyone with information useful to its mission to "please" drop a line to its electronic mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last year, the FSB received thousands of electronic mail submissions from ordinary citizens, according to Sevodnya newspaper.
Under the new decision, the intelligence service said it would consider both those submissions that include names and other contact information, alongside anonymous ones. Submissions can be made by phone, in writing or e-mail -- or in person, at a special round-the-clock reception area at the FSB offices.
Referring to the FSB's pledge to give "objective consideration" to each complaint or tip, Sevodnya commented: "How this 'objective examination' will look in practice is still not clear."
Brilev believes too much has changed in Russia for anonymous informing to become an effective form of counter-espionage again.
"After 10 or 12 years of reforms, there are certain things which cannot be widespread in Russia again. Society has changed … Of course it is easy to remember some of the … old practices … but I can't imagine millions of Russians starting to write anonymous letters."
That is a view echoed by Oksana Antonenko, a Russian specialist at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and a frequent visitor to Russia. Antonenko notes that a spate of recent cases in which Russian authorities have tried to gain the convictions of alleged double agents have all resulted in acquittals for the accused.
Antonenko contends it is simplistic -- and wrong -- to interpret the latest FSB move as a return to the worst abuses of Soviet times.
She says the Russia Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin is far from the rigid, totalitarian structure over which Soviet leaders presided, and that the KGB itself has undergone tremendous change.
"There's a perception around that in Russia they are turning back to authoritarianism. The problem with Putin is not that he is relying on the security services ... but that he is indecisive and lacking the vision and stamina to put this vision across."
She adds it would be naïve for him to rely on the security services today, given the dramatic changes in the way they are structured and the recent brain drain of talented people. "There was this system of terror and repression, but nowadays that has changed."
Nonetheless, some suggest that the mere fact the FSB has taken this step is like to raise eyebrows among a jittery populace.
"It may be that this decree might be fairly innocuous," said Peter Frank, a Russian studies expert at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.
"On the other hand, the whole idea of 'anonimki' is one that frightens many Russians and the emergence of this decree against the background of what is going on with the media in general ... is bound to cause anxiety."
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