Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Moscow’s Plan to Arm Druzhinniki Threatens Rather than Promotes Law and Order

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 20 – The Russian interior ministry is proposing legislation that would provide non-lethal arms to members of popular militias – the “druzhinniki” – and thus allow them to back up the regular police, actions that could lead to clashes among these groups and to new attacks on the legal system there.
According to a report in today’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta,” the interior ministry has introduced legislation to arm at least some of the 360,000 members of the approximately 35,000 druzhinniki groups with non-lethal weapons and thereby allow them to back up the regular government police force (www.rg.ru/2009/01/20/drujiny.html).
The draft law would allow the druzhinniki to “check documents, participate in the examination of personal possessions and automobiles, to arrest law breakers, and to stop crime” but only in the presence of a member of the regular police force. To that end, the legislation, if approved, would distribute stun guns, rubber bullets and the like to the druzhinniki.
The legislation, the government paper reports, would allow the government to pay members of such popular militia for their time and give them immunity from lawsuits. In short, “the essence of the new document is the legalization of popular militias,” which already exist in many regions of the Russian Federation.
Many in the interior ministry believe, the paper continues, that “the best means of preventing street crime” is when “ordinary citizens look after law and order on their own street.” Moreover, the ministry is convinced that such units are needed, given budget-driven reductions in the number of regular militiamen on the beat.
But there are three reasons why this measure could create some serious problems. First, as violent and corrupt as the regular militiamen in Russia often are, some of the druzhinniki may be even worse. In Cossack regions, for example, some of the druzhinniki operating nominally “under the formal aegis of the militia” nonetheless have beaten people with whips.
Moreover, onnce they are armed -- both literally and perhaps even more important legally -- more druzhinniki are likely to choose to use unwarranted and unconstitutional force against groups like Gastarbeiters from Central Asia or the Caucasus or local minorities whom not only some of them but many members of the militia despise.
Indeed, there is a great risk that the regular militia may use the druzhinniki against their opponents, seeing the deployment of such units as providing the government with plausible deniability in terms of attacking minorities. And consequently, such attacks are likely to increase, leading to a further decay in law and order in the Russian Federation.
Second, the draft legislation’s call for providing the druzhinniki with non-lethal weapons may sound entirely reasonable. But as several observers have already pointed out, such weapons whether they use rubber bullets or electric shock often lock remarkably like the real thing particularly to those who know little or nothing about guns.
On the one hand, this means that the distribution of such weapons to the druzhinniki will tend to intimidate many in the population as a whole, laying the groundwork for an even more authoritarian state. On the other, at least some druzhinniki may quickly “graduate” from rubber bullets to real ones, confident that no one will be sure as to who used them.
And third, even though the draft legislation bans the formation of druzhinniki on the basis of members of political parties, many druzhinniki groups are closely tied either to United Russia or to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) or to other political groups, something the new law is unlikely to repeal.
Consequently, there is a very real chance that arming these groups could lead to clashes between and among them rather than to the fight against “the common enemy – criminality.” And that in turn means that the government could easily lose control of the force it is creating, opening the door to even more violence ahead.
Indeed, as Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin notes, there is the very real danger that the druzhinniki, if they are armed with weapons and the majesty of a new law, may become not the first line of defense against crime but the last line of defense of the government against the expression of the will of the people (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49758DEFACFD6.html).

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