RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
We've been hearing a lot about Russian spies lately. Now we're going to hear how Moscow keeps tabs on its own citizens. Russian lawmakers are working on a bill that would expand the powers of the modern day KGB, the federal security service. That spy agency would be able to officially warn people suspected of planning a crime. Supporters say it's a way of preventing crime. Political opposition leaders fear it's a new kind of intimidation. NPR's David Greene reports.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
DAVID GREENE: Alexander Artemev wasn't surprised when police broke his arm.
Mr. ALEXANDER ARTEMEV (Journalist): It was a very dirty story, in fact, all the day.
GREENE: This is sound from the day, May 31st, in Moscow. Artemev, who's 25 and writes for an online news site, was dragged away with other members of an opposition movement called Solidarity. This was Artemev's fifth arrest, so he wasn't too bothered. What did trouble him was that police had gone to visit his mother a few months before. She refused to answer questions about his whereabouts or his friends.
Mr. ARTEMEV: No, she just said to go away. I won't tell you anything, even what I prepared for the dinner today.
GREENE: Artemev and other politically active Russians are worried the government may be seeking out new ways to intimidate the opposition that includes a bill before lawmakers that would give the Federal Security Service, or the FSB, the right to do more than ask questions. They'll be able to issue an official warning to any citizen, quote, "whose acts create the conditions for the committing of a crime." Supporters say the law is not aimed at political opponents, but at people on the verge of committing serious crimes.
One example they offer is a person thinking of planting a bomb. He or she would get a warning that police are watching.
Vladimir Vasiliev chairs the security committee in Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma.
Mr. VLADIMIR VASILIEV (Chairman, Security Committee in the Duma): (Through translator) We're not collecting information to expose a person or to imprison him. 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.
GREENE: The law passed several votes in parliament, with support only from United Russia, the majority party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. One person who voted against it is Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB agent. In Soviet times, he said, he supported laws like this.
Mr. GENNADY GUDKOV (Former KGB Agent): (Russian spoken)
GREENE: Taking preventative action against would-be criminals was a power the KGB often used to protect state secrets, Gudkov says. Let's say the KGB was suspicious because a person was storing military documents in his desk. Since he kept those documents in his drawer, Gudkov said, he received an official notice. And that had an effect. The KGB broke him of this habit.
Mr. GUDKOV: (Russian spoken)
GREENE: But this new law, Gudkov said, is written in such vague language, the government could easily use it, as he put it, as an instrument to pressure the opposition. And political analyst Masha Lipman from the Carnegie Moscow Center said this may be the intent. Prime Minster Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, she said, 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.
Ms. MASHA LIPMAN (Political Analyst, Carnegie Moscow Center): 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 and having to use force for real, and kill people. The Kremlin would much rather nip it in the bud.
GREENE: Alexander Artemev, the 25-year-old activist with the arm broken by police, said many of his friends are already too nervous to attend rallies. While he believes Russia is on an eventual path to political freedom, he says this new law will be one more hurdle to overcome along the way.
David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.