Vienna, February 6 – President Dmitry Medvedev told the Russian interior ministry today to intensify its monitoring of what he called “the sharpening of social activity” and “the growth of extremist attitudes” in Russia’s regions because such extremism can under certain conditions play an even more “destructive role” than terrorism.
In remarks to the leadership of that ministry, Medvedev went on to say that because of the global crisis in which Russia finds itself, unemployment and other social problems inside the country are intensifying, and in this situation, there is the risk that “there will appear [individuals and groups] who want to speculate or exploit the situation” (www.nr2.ru/society/219252.html).
Lest that danger happen or the situation deteriorate on its own, it is critical, Medvedev said, that the ministry “carry out continuous monitoring,” especially with regard to youth movements where he suggested extremism is “gathering force” – especially among various “fascist-type groups [who] continue to attack persons who have a non-Slavic appearance.”
On the one hand, this directive is not only reasonable given the rising level of tensions in Russia’s regions and the greater activism of some radical groups but also welcome, especially if monitoring by the interior ministry provides the basis for giving greater protections to non-Russians who have been subject to ever more attacks in recent days.
But on the other, there are at least three reasons why Medvedev’s order to the interior ministry may have some extremely negative consequences. First, the president’s words not only reflect but all too obviously reinforce the failure of many Russian officials to make a clear distinction between legitimate public protest and extremist threats.
By continuing to conflate the two or at least appearing to do so, Medvedev whether he intended this or not encourages those Russian officials and the Russian people more generally to view all public protest as extremist and thus deserving of the same kind of crushing response that the government has always sought to visit on those it classifies as terrorists.
That in turn means that in many part of the country, the Russian leader’s words will send a chill through Russia’s still fragile civil society even as they encourage those interior ministry officials who, history suggests, in many cases believe that repressive action is the government’s best response to any demonstration.
Second, there is a precedent for concluding that this call for monitoring will soon lead to more active measures: In November, Medvedev called for greater efforts by the force and finance structures, including representatives of the interior ministry, the FSB and the Central Bank, and very soon these structures viewed that as a mandate to act.
And third, interior ministry officials are more than eager to go along with both what Medvedev ordered and what they believe his words mean. As one ministry official told the New Region news agency today, the evidence the ministry has gathered so far “confirms that the negative dynamic of extremist manifestations [in Russian society] is continuing.
Those words suggest at the very least that the interior ministry is already doing the kind of monitoring that Medvedev said he wants to see begun, and that in turn means that Medvedev almost certainly was asking for rather more interventionist tactics, albeit in a way that will allow him a certain plausible deniability if things go wrong.
Beyond any doubt, the Kremlin and the Russian White House are worried about what is going on in the regions, and it is thus extremely interesting that Medvedev’s remarks came on the heels of the publication of maps showing the assessment of the expert communities on just where the danger of popular explosions is greatest.
Those maps, which are available online at www.nr2.ru/fareast/218898.html, suggest that in the opinion of some of Moscow’s top experts, the most “explosive” regions are those in the Urals, Siberia, the Far East and the North Caucasus. Significantly, while the first and last of these primarily involve non-Russians, the others are almost exclusively “Russian” problems.
But if Moscow is forced to try to suppress all such protests, at least one Moscow observer said today, it may face real problems. According to Sobkorr.ru commentator Sergey Petrunin, there are indications that the Russian government in examining the situation may soon decide to shift from sticks to carrots (www.sobkorr.ru/news/49893A9ED5E1E.html).
The reason? According to Petrunin, as a result of the economic crisis and budgetary shortfalls, “there is no money to support to the extent necessary the repressive machinery – the militia, the judges and the jails…And protest activity is increasing.” Thus, the same forces leading to public protests could prompt officials to refrain from taking tough against them.
At the very least, Petrunin said, it may already help explain some government proposals such as one that would allow the accused in criminal trials to negotiate with prosecutors for lesser sentences in return for cooperation. Many, especially outside of Russia, would view that as a liberalizing move.
But in fact, such steps likely represent less a desire to move toward a law-based state than the lack of resources the regime has at its disposal even for its guardians and, although Petrunin does not mention it, the possibility that some officials there may fear that they might give an order that would not be obeyed, the worst nightmare they and the regime could face.