Vienna, September 18 – President Dmitry Medvedev has restructured the Russian interior ministry in ways that suggest Moscow plans to devote more attention to fighting extremism and less to combating organized crime, a shift rights activists say may represent a step in the right direction but one that could allow organized crime to grow.
In a September 6 decree, which is now available on the Kremlin’s website, Medvedev called for three major changes in the structure of the Ministry of Internal Affairs structures involved with combating crimes arising from the actions committed by extremists or motivated by extremist ideas (document.kremlin.ru/doc.asp?ID=047712).
First, the Russian president directed the ministry to transform the existing offices for the struggle against organized crime into two subdivisions, one to counter extremism and a second to protect witnesses and others who are at risk because of their involvement in an investigation or trial.
Second, he established a department to counter extremism in place of the department for the struggle against organized crime and terrorism. According to the presidential decree, the new department will be headed by a lieutenant general who will have one first deputy and another deputy as well.
And the Russian president transformed the existing the interior ministry’s center for counter-terrorism into a new institution to provide direct support for the ministry’s operations in countering crimes involving extremism.
Although human rights activists have pointed out that Russian law does not define “extremism,” most of them view Medvedev’s changes as “exceptionally positive” because for the first time, the ministry will treat “extremist” crimes as “a special type of crime,” requiring specialized knowledge (xeno.sova-center.ru/45A2A1E/BAF5DA3).
But if Medvedev’s decree does that, it has at least potentially two other consequences which may prove less positive. On the one hand, the decree clearly transfers police resources away from combating organized crime, a decision that some Russian “biznesmeny” may welcome but that will do little to address that enormous problem.
And on the other, by defining the interior ministry’s task as fighting extremism rather than terrorism, the decree could mean the militia may become more active in using counter-extremist law against opposition groups and that the FSB will assume almost unchallenged control of Moscow’s counter-terrorist effort and could grow further at the ministry’s expense.
The possibility that these new arrangements could lead the government to use anti-extremism laws more freely against its opponents was suggested by an exchange yesterday between Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (www.prime-tass.ru/news/show.asp?id=818405&ct=news).
Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant deputy speaker of the Duma told Putin that he would like to see the elimination of Paragraph 282 of the legal code which imposes punishment for those who promote ethnic tensions. According to the LDPR leader, this paragraph has worked only against ethnic Russians and not against minorities.
Putin responded that he did not agree, adding that “regardless of the size of an ethnic group, all must be in equal circumstances,” although as several legal commentators have pointed out “equal circumstances” in the Russian case does not mean equally protected by the Russian legal system.
In an article posted online today that draws from his study of the Russian courts, lawyer Aleksey Buryak said that “not one person in our country [regardless of his status] has any rights or freedoms which cannot be violated at will by bureaucrats of the organs of state power” (www.za-nauku.ru//index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=978&Itemid=36).
Indeed, he said, citing the words of Mikhail Barshchevsky, a well-known Russian defense attorney, “today a Russian citizen can really defense his lawful rights and freedoms when they are violated only in a single judicial organ – the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg.”
Such observations should be kept in mind lest a close focus on changes like the ones Medvedev has introduced in the interior ministry or on comments like the one Putin made to Zhirinovsky concerning inter-ethnic equality lead anyone to make sweeping conclusions about what either man means or his actions portend.