Vienna, March 1 – Ludmila Alekseyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said yesterday that she was surprised various media outlets on Friday had reported that the Russian interior ministry directive allowing militia units to use lethal force against anti-government demonstrators was something new.
In fact, she said in an interview carried on Radio Liberty, this order was issued by Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov in December 2002, and the dean of Russia’s human rights community said that she was grateful that the militia had not acted on this order during the intervening period, at least outside of the North Caucasus (www.ingushetia.org/news/18452.html).
Alekseyeva’s earlier statement, which was posted on YouTube Friday and then taken down, had appeared to suggest that MVD Order No. 800 had been issued in response to the mounting tide of public anger at the Russian government as a result of the worsening economic crisis in that country.
This clarification on the date of this order is important for at least three reasons. First of all, the order’s 2002 date means that Moscow was preparing to use force against its own people long before the current crisis, an indication of the extent to which the Russian government was departing from Yeltsin-era efforts to move in a more democratic direction.
Second, the earlier date helps to explain why Moscow has been opposed efforts to bring charges against militia officers who have used force against demonstrators in the North Caucasus. After all, were such people brought to trial, they could invoke this directive and argue that they were only following orders.
And third – and perhaps most important for what may happen next – the earlier date means that the onus for this infamous order falls on Vladimir Putin, who undoubtedly approved it as part of his much ballyhooed effort to create “a power vertical” and “a common legal space” rather than on his successor Dmitry Medvedev.
It is thus possible, even likely, that Alekseyeva and other Russian human rights activists hope that by suggesting this order is a product of the Putin era, they can thus put additional pressure on Medvedev to disown this 2002 decree or at least not reaffirm it, given the current Russian president’s oft-expressed commitment to the rule of law.