Thursday, January 22, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Paper Wants Its Journalists Armed for Self-Defense

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 22 – Because law enforcement agencies in Russia increasingly have not been able to guarantee the security of journalists there, Aleksandr Lebedev, the co-owner of “Novaya gazeta” has asked the FSB to allow his journalists to carry weapons to protect themselves as they go about their entirely legitimate business.
Lebedev’s request came only two days after someone shot down in cold blood on the streets of Moscow “Novaya gazeta” journalist Anatasiya Baburova together with attorney Stanislav Markelov and in the same week that Lebedev attracted attention for his purchase of the London “Evening Standard” (
And while at one level, this request seems an entirely reasonable response to the rising tide of violence in the Russian Federation, at another, it is an extremely disturbing sign of the decay of any semblance of public order there and the dangers involved of ever more groups having access to lethal weapons.
Today, in memory of the latest victims, a demonstration -- which has been sanctioned by the authorities -- is scheduled to take place in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. And at the same time, some of Russia’s leading human rights activists have released a statement denouncing the killings and what they mean (
The activists said that the murder of the two was “a provocation” either by “death squadrons” from the North Caucasus or by “those forces which want to justify the introduction of harsh new police measures.” But in either case, they added, “the chief responsibility of the special services is to prevent political murders,” rather than to persecute activists.
Among the signatories were Ludmila Alekseyeva, Alla Gerber, Lev Ponomaryev, Ernst Cherny, Yevgeny Ikhlov and Ella Polyakov, individuals who are being as courageous as Markelov who represented the family of the young Chechen woman murdered by Col. Budanov who has now been released, and Baburova who covered many cases of human rights violations.
Lebedev’s call for arming journalists calls attention to two far larger problems: the inability or unwillingness of the authorities to maintain order and the government’s own plan to allow druzhinniki to carry non-lethal weapons to assist the government militia, a step that some fear opens the door to these popular militias becoming “death squadrons.”
An article posted on the site today highlights this danger. It cites the observation of Igor Sholokhov, the head of the Kazan Human Rights Center, that “the creation of public militias of this kind casts doubt on the effectiveness of [Russia’s] law enforcement organs (
“Apparently,” he continues, “the interior ministry intends to place part of the responsibility for the rise in crime on the druzhinniki, that is simple citizens” for “despite the external attributes, these ‘popular law enforcers’ will not be representatives of the powers that be, and it will be impossible to hold them accountable for their actions.”
On the one hand, that may allow the authorities themselves to escape blame by suggesting that others are responsible. But on the other, Sholokhov continues, “the arming of the druzhinniki will give rise to a sense of being beyond punishment and thus capable of anything” and thus “it is not excluded that this will lead to the formation of so-called ‘death squadrons.’”
Such groups, he continues, will focus on liquidating “both criminals and opposite figures.” Tragically, “history knows many examples when the activities of such ‘brigades’ has led to simple banditism. Does the [Russian state now] need such additional problems,” the Kazan rights activist asks.
In commenting on Sholokhov’s remarks, the editors of note that while in many countries, the ownership by the population of guns and other weapons serves as a check on government power, in Russia, the way in which this ownership is being promoted will have just the opposite effect, allowing the state to expand its powers without bearing direct responsibility.
And that “idiotism” of Russian life, the editors say, suggests that as has been so often the case, something that makes a positive contribution to the development of political and social life in other countries has become in Russia the source of what appear to be some of the most negative trends that country has yet seen.

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