MOSCOW Russia passed a law on Tuesday making it easier for security services to inspect personal mail, a week after setting up a monitoring center to track dissent across the country.
The new law was condemned by rights groups and political analysts who labeled it anti-constitutional and totalitarian.
Inspection rooms and cameras will be set up in post offices, where authorities, including the successor to the KGB, the FSB, will open the mail of those suspected to be planning to or already breaking the law.
"These latest steps form a new chapter in Russia's progression toward a totalitarian state," said Yuri Zarakhovich at the Jamestown Foundation, a U.S.-based think-tank.
"More punitive and repressive steps are being implemented... the authorities are using the crisis as an excuse to tighten up the police screws," said Zarakhovich.
Months of protests, spurred by the country's deep economic recession, have unnerved the government, which fears mass social unrest.
Even the Ministry of Communication and Mass Media said the new law "limits the rights of a person and a citizen" by checking their post, electronic and telephone exchanges, but that it only applies to suspects.
Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Helsinki Group, Russia's oldest NGO, said the inspection rooms are a front and will allow the security services to rifle through private correspondence with impunity.
"No one is actually going to examine the text of the law, they will simply allow the authorities to look at whatever they want," she was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.
"It is completely anti-constitutional and we will of course fight against it in court."
Though Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has cultivated an image as a liberal and touted openness and transparency, analysts say he has made very few substantive changes.
Liberal daily Noviye Izvestia said the new law will make way for other forms of control by the state: "A complete violation of rights will follow, which will include the monitoring of all that citizens do," it said in its Tuesday edition.
Last week Russia set up a center to monitor and prevent social unrest and said monitors will be placed across regions to analyze reports of "social tension."
(Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman)