The centralization of the nation’s security forces within a new Ministry of State Security is either a pragmatic management move – or a precursor to the return of the all-powerful KGB of the Soviet era.

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads the Security Council at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Monday, Sept. 12. Photo: RIA Novosti

Ahead of the upcoming presidential elections in 2018, the Kremlin will once again be restructuring its security forces. On Sept. 19 the daily newspaper Kommersant reported plans for a large-scale reform of the government’s security services: in place of the current Federal Security Service (FSB), there are plans to create a new Ministry of State Security, or MGB.

The reforms include the return of the Investigative Committee of the Public Prosecution Office after a five-year hiatus, as well as a plan to divide the duties of the Ministry for Emergency Situations between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There are genuine fears in the media and among experts that this means a return of the all-powerful KGB into the lives of ordinary Russian citizens.

Centralization of the nation’s intelligence apparatus

According to Kommersant’s sources, there is a concern that the activities of the old Soviet KGB will be taken over by the MGB. After the fall of the Soviet Union the various departments of the KGB turned into separate security forces, such as the Federal Protective Service (FSO), the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and the FSB. Yet now these departments are going to be centralized once again.

“The KGB was broken up in the 1990s during a wave of democratic feeling, when it was said that this ‘monster’, the KGB, shouldn’t exist anymore – we had to break it up, so that it could not be so powerful and so frightening. Right now, however, this unified administration is once again considered to be effective,” Alexander Perendzhiev, a state security expert and associate professor in the Faculty of Political Sciences and Sociology at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, told Russia Direct.

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This new administration will be called the Ministry of State Security (MGB). The newspaper added that only one department in the Federal Protective Service will remain unconnected with the MGB: the Presidential Security Service, which will monitor special communications and the transportation services of senior officials.

Not only will the new Ministry bring together Russia’s law enforcement agencies, but it will also fulfill new functions. In particular, the MGB will provide security services for all law enforcement and security administrations, meaning that it will, in fact, watch over itself.

It is also assumed that employees of the MGB will not just ensure investigations into criminal cases filed by the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Internal Affairs, but they will also carry out procedural surveillance on these cases. The MGB will have priority over the Investigative Committee and the Russian police force, and it will also take responsibility for politically significant cases.

A power reshuffle

Those who came from the security services were the ones who set up the current state administration with Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself an ex-member of the KGB and FSB.

The military and security forces have been in the spotlight this year, with recent shakeups moving them into positions of power. During the summer, Evgeny Zinichev, head of the local FSB in Kaliningrad, became the governor of that region, while Dmitry Mironov, a former employee of the Federal Protective Service, was appointed as the head of the Yaroslavl Region.

Moreover, there have been signs of rivalry or even confrontation between different law enforcement agencies. For example, the head of the Federal Customs Service, Andrei Belyaninov, resigned in July. In September, Dmitry Zhakharchenko, the deputy head of the anti-corruption agency within Russia’s Interior Ministry, was arrested after 8.5 billion rubles ($131.4 million) were found in his house.

The media also reported on the possible dismissal of Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee. And in spring, the Federal Migration Service and the Federal Drug Control Service were liquidated, their responsibilities being handed over to the police force.

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Furthermore, in early April Putin announced the creation of a new National Guard, the personal security agency of the Russian president, headed by Viktor Zolotarev, Putin’s personal bodyguard. Ostensibly, this security body is supposed to focus on fighting terrorism and organized crime, including illegal drug trafficking. However, it could also indicate that Putin is concerned with his political future ahead of the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for March 2018.

Following the recent parliamentary elections, the news about the MGB grabbed headlines this week. In fact, the country is preparing itself for a few changes: serious reform is likely within the Investigative Committee. In 2011 the administration of this institution broke off into the General Public Prosecution Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia, which once again created an array of contradictions between the leadership of these administrations. Yet now the two offices are going to be reunited once again.

One further important development that is likely to happen is the dissolution of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. As it was during the Soviet era, the Civil Defense forces will fall under administration of the Ministry of Defense and the fire services will return to the Interior Ministry.

As Kommersant reports, the preparations for reform began at the same time as the National Guard was being set up, meaning that these reforms were originally planned as one united reorganization. It is worth mentioning that although many security and military services have been consolidated into one united entity, the National Guard remains its own separate organization.

All these changes have been put in place ahead of the 2018 presidential elections, though it remains to be seen how such a large-scale reform will be implemented, and experts have estimated that the costs may run into the tens of billions of rubles. The President’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, and representatives for the security services have declined to comment on the rumors spreading about the reform.

What does this mean for Russia?

The abbreviation MGB is not a new one. This is exactly what the institution that followed the NKVD was called, and which later turned into the KGB [The NKVD is the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which was infamous for its political purges under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the 1930s – Editor’s note].

Historians of the Soviet era are well familiar with the Ministry of State Security back when Viktor Abamukov was its head, when it was set up directly after the Second World War in order to purge the ranks of the Soviet elite at the time. The MGB fought with all sorts of traitors and saboteurs – both real and imagined – and identified the corrupt individuals who had profited off the war.

However, despite its rather frightening name and its goal of bringing together all the security agencies under one institution, the new MGB may actually be a pragmatic idea, according to some experts.

“First, there is a real need to decrease the rivalry between the security services,” Perendzhiev told Russia Direct. “Second, it is necessary to decrease costs to maintain these security agencies: after all, they are different and each of them is trying to get more funding. Third, it is important to optimize the management personnel. And, most importantly, it is crucial that this new institution [MGB] will enable the management of the national security system in a better way. All these agencies are under the control of the President, who is the commander-in-chief. And all this is really a formidable task: The President is physically not able to coordinate all these structures. So, it is an attempt to alleviate his job.”

At the same time, Perendzhiev doesn’t think that the creation of the MGB is a sign that the government is tightening the screws. A centralized structure, he says, will just make it difficult for different agencies to compete with each other, since a decentralized system creates fertile ground for rivalries and behind-the-scenes maneuvering for power.

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At the same time, Valery Khomyakov, the director of the Council for National Strategy, argues that the  security services will only benefit if they start informing against each other in search of traitors or spies. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that the reforms of the security system are part of the preparations for the 2018 presidential campaign.

“Somebody in the Kremlin is concerned that the conflicts within the law security agencies might lead to negative implications,” he told Russia Direct. “All this is undertaken not for the sake of convenience and heightened security, but to strengthen the power of the state.”

“This looks as if we have returned back to the past,” he says. “At worst, I am afraid, the authorities might reincarnate the so-called Fifth Directorate, which [during the period of the Soviet KGB] dealt with political investigations, looked for dissenters and put them in jails or mental health facilities.”