Policy Memos

Oversight of Russia's Intelligence and Security Agencies: The Need for and Prospects of Democratic Control

Policy Memo:


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For a brief while after the collapse of the August 1991 coup in Moscow, speculation abounded that the Soviet state security apparatus, known since 1954 as the KGB, would be dissolved. This speculation proved unfounded. Although the KGB in late 1991 was divided into a number of separate agencies―one for internal security, one for foreign intelligence, and one for border control, along with a few specialized units (e.g., a bodyguard service and a communications/information agency)―the equipment, facilities, and personnel of the security apparatus were left intact. When the former components of the Soviet KGB came under the Russian government’s control at the end of 1991, the key organizations were renamed and then gradually strengthened. Russia’s security and intelligence complex now consists of the KGB’s main successor agencies, currently known as the Federal Security Service (FSB), previously known as the Federal Counterintelligence Service and before that as the Ministry of Security; the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR); and the Federal Border Service (FPS). These organizations are supplemented by armed personnel from at least eight other agencies, including a large number of internal forces and special-operations units (OMON) from the Internal Affairs Ministry (MVD).

This vast apparatus, numbering hundreds of thousands of employees in total, is only partly accountable to elected authorities. Most observers inside and outside Russia agree that democratic control of the intelligence/security complex is tenuous at best and, in some cases, nonexistent. Russia’s intelligence and security forces enjoy extraordinary powers―both formal and informal―to act on their own. Although greater democratic oversight will not necessarily ensure that Russia’s intelligence and security agencies are used for purposes conducive to democracy, the lack of democratic control all but guarantees that grave abuses will occur. [...]

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About the author

Director, Cold War Studies Program, and Senior Fellow, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies
Harvard University