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Post-KGB spies keep the old flag flying

It is smaller and more discreet than in its Cold War heyday, but Russia's replacement for the KGB, broken up in 1991, is still very much in business, and has an estimated tens of thousands of employees to prove it.

Nor does it make much secret of that fact. Only a few months ago, Nikolai Kovalyov, head of the Federal Security Service, boasted that the service was monitoring 400 foreign spies and 39 locally recruited Russian spies.

The agency, known as the FSB, has an estimated 75,000 employees which, though small when compared with the network of the KGB of 400,000 agents in the mid-Eighties, is still - a considerable force, and one which includes elite armed forces.

Still based at the Lubyanka in central Moscow, the security services play a diminished role in the daily life of most Russians, and have switched their focus to embrace the conditions in post-Soviet Russia - for instance, the mafia, new technology, weapons-smuggling and industrial espionage. Yet, particularly in more backward regions, they remain powerful and occasionally intrusive.

In the past few years, there have been increasing warnings that - despite hefty budget and staff cuts - the Russian security services are regaining their strength. The head of Germany's counter-intelligence service, Hasjoerg Geiger, last year accused Russia of espionage of Cold War proportions, claiming that KGB-type spies were working under the guise of businessmen. And British parliamentary committees have, on several occasions, complained about an increase in Russian spying. Last month MPs warned of the risk that Russians would infiltrate the security services by preying on impoverished agents.

The FSB has, however, also suffered some major setbacks, particularly in Chechnya. The security services ran the war and eventually suffered the humiliation of seeing Moscow's troops withdraw.

Its influence on the Kremlin - once huge - has fallen off with the ousting of several hardline generals. Last month, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian President, fired the FSB's deputy director, Colonel General Vasily Trofimov, accusing him of financial irregularities. He was reportedly involved in an investigation into a scandal in which two of the President's campaign officials were caught leaving the White House with $500,000 (pounds 312,000), just before last year's presidential election.

Shortly before that sacking came news that two FSB officers had been detained for suspected drug trafficking. Even last year's spying row with Britain was far from an outright triumph for the service; it had wanted nine British expulsions, but - under pressure from the Russian Foreign Ministry - settled for four.