Thursday, January 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russians Arm Themselves Leading Some to Fear for Country’s Stability

Paul Goble

New York , January 15 – Frightened by the instability the current economic crisis is creating and by the possibility that the powers that be may lose control of the situation, Russians are choosing to arm themselves in unprecedented numbers, with more than one Russian in ten – some 13 million people -- across the country now having a lethal weapon in their possession.
Those figures, which are included in the “Small Arms Survey-2007” that was prepared by the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies a year ago, are far higher than Russian officials acknowledge but almost certainly are lower than at the present time, according to an online news agency report today (
Because not only the Russian authorities but also the owners of weapons who often do not register them tend to under-report the number of weapons they possess, the agency used a novel approach: it examined the number of Yandex searches on the Internet over the last four months for “weapons purchases.
In September, there were 4034 Yandex searches for guns, a figure that jumped to 19,312 by November before falling back to 10,494 in December. Figures for knives and other weapons, the agency said were “analogous,” a clear indication that ever more Russians are interested in and likely acquiring weapons of various kinds.
The news agency also queried the owners of shops selling hunting rifles and other weapons about the state of the market, and the latter confirmed that ever more people were buying weapons even though these were quite expensive – up to 12,250 rubles (400 US dollars) for the Makarych pistol.
But many Russians are willing to spend even more for weapons they don’t have to register, including even weapons from the Russian Civil War that are 90 years old but still “completely serviceable.” And they are doing so despite the possibility that they could be sent to prison for up to three years for illegal acquisition and possession of such weapons.
And reported that there is also a growing market for stun guns and weapons of foreign manufacture, many of which are entering Russian markets illegally and thus making it more likely that those who are prepared to violate Russian laws concerning the purchase and registration of such weaponry might be quite prepared to violate other Russian laws as well.
Some of the organizers of popular militia units – the so-called “druzhinniki” – have urged their members to arm themselves, and consequently this report about the rising number of weapons in private hands in Russia could presage violence among ethnic groups or between workers or automobile owners and the state.
At the very least, those possibilities may help to explain both the actions of the authorities in recent days – Moscow interior ministry officials have formed special militia groups to combat nationalist units ( – and commentaries concerning the possibility of unrest in Russia.
In a lead article discussing the likelihood that the kind of disorders that have occurred in Latvia might spread to Russia, “Gazeta” suggested that “the Latvian variant” does not threaten Russia. Instead, Russia may be confronted by something far worse: increasing despotism from above or a revolution from below (
Unlike in Latvia where there is a genuine parliament with real parties, the Moscow paper pointed out, in Russia, there is no real parliament and no real opposition within the system, a political arrangement that makes any demonstration in front of the parliament take on an entirely different meaning.
In Russia, “Gazeta” continued, “it is naïve to demand the replacement of governors because the population doesn’t choose them. In Russia is absurd to demand the disbanding of parliament because the parliament does not have any independence and, what is most important does not form the government.”
Indeed, the Moscow paper continues, the Russian system is so constructed that demands for the dismissal of the prime minister look “almost like a government coup – to the extent that the chief of the state [the president] in fact was assigned by the head of government [the prime minister].”
And unlike in Latvia where seeking the dismissal of the government or the proroguing of parliament is entirely within the system, in Russia, such demands if they are made almost immediately point toward “a revolutionary situation,” one in which any change threatens to bring down the existing system as a whole.
“Democracy,” the paper notes, “is besides everything else a quite effective means of warding off revolution. Russian-style ‘sovereign democracy,’ in contrast, like any authoritarian regime, transforms any serious protest not simply into a ‘threat to the regime’ [as is the case in Latvia] but into a threat to the stability of the country.”
And the chance that this threat now looms in Russia was underscored by Yevgeny Gontmakher, who told “Gazeta” that “Russia will not survive 2009 in the form in which it now exists … either there will be a civil war or a [complete] collapse,” the outspoken economist said yesterday (
That more Russians now have weapons in their hands, as the report underscores, makes this outcome more rather than less likely, something that Russian officials and the Russian people are certainly thinking about even if those at the very top in Moscow and many in the West continue to assert that the Medvedev-Putin tandem is a guarantee of stability.

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