Circling the Lion's Den

Oversight and Accountability

The Security Committee at the State Duma is responsible for parliamentary control over the intelligence services’ activities. However, the security committee’s role has changed since the December 2003 State Duma elections when Vladimir Vasilyev, former deputy interior minister, was appointed the chairman of the committee.

Vladimir Vasilyev became known in October 2002, when as deputy minister of internal affairs alongside deputy director of the FSB Vladimir Pronichev, he led the operation to release the hostages being held in the Dubrovka theater (better known in the media as the Nord-Ost hostage crisis). Vasilyev officially stated at 8 am on the day of the assault that officers were forced to start the operation because several hostages had attempted to escape and thus left him no other choice. Some opposition members of the State Duma tried to initiate a parliamentary investigation, but they did not have enough votes.

Under Vasilyev, the Security Committee lost most of its control functions, even its anti-corruption commission was disbanded. Oversight of the secret services’ budget is very difficult because only the main figures are in the open, with detailed costs incurred by national security hidden in secret appendices to Federal Budget. The number of published figures within the secret services budget has been decreasing since 2000.

Parliamentary investigations only began in Russia after the terrorist attack in Beslan (1-3 September of 2004). However, the commission for Beslan arose solely due to the fear of a predicted uprising among the population of North Ossetia, which could lead to a second war in the North-Caucasus region. At a special press conference for foreign journalists, on September 7, 2004 Vladimir Putin was answering a question about the need for open investigation, and stated that an internal investigation into the tragedy in Beslan would suffice. Then, answering a question about a parliamentary investigation, he added that there was the risk that this investigation could end up being a political show. So, at first Putin shadowed the idea of the creation of a commission like US Commission on 9/11.

No one then had warned the President about the mass meetings demanding the resignation of Dzasokhov, the President of North Ossetia, in Vladikavkaz. Since Putin did not agree with Dzasokhov’s removal, there was an urgent need to correct this position.

On September 10 it became known that Putin supported the idea of creating a Federation Council commission to investigate the Beslan attack and that he would grant the commission access to all necessary information held by law-enforcement agencies and the Attorney General's Office. But the desire to limit investigation to a small circle of senators controlled by the Kremlin could not defuse the situation. On September 16 the speaker of the State Duma Boris Gryzlov stated that the State Duma would create its own Commission of Inquiry into the circumstances of the terrorist attack in Beslan.

On September 20 the parliamentary commission was formed. It consisted of 11 senators and 10 deputies. Commission was headed by Alexander Torshin, vice-speaker of the Federation Council – a party bureaucrat who moved seamlessly into the new system from the apparatus of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Commission presented its report in December 2006. It mostly confirmed the official version of Beslan siege and simply approved all the recent changes to the national antiterrorist system, suggesting nothing different or original.

The main conclusion is very simple – operational staff acted correctly in Beslan, all the mistakes and problems, the Commission highlighted had been corrected during the reforms of 2004-2006. Thus, the structural reforms of the secret services discussed above were achieved without taking into account the investigation.

In May 2008, Vladimir Vasiliev admitted in an interview to Agentura.Ru that there is no parliamentary oversight over the secret services in Russia.

The practice of answering questions from the media was established at the beginning of the 1990s, when the FSB and SVR formed press-services. According to the law "On the media", special services are obliged to answer questions within 10 days. However, in reality this principle is rarely observed. But by the mid 2000s the special services’ press services in effect stopped answering journalists’ inquiries, having turned the practice of contact with the press into a one-way street – that is, just sending out press releases and advancing its ideas through the state-owned media, primarily television.

Agentura.Ru, September 2010