Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Uses Anti-Extremism Law to Tighten Control of Russian Society

Paul Goble

Vienna, May 20 – For the first time since the end of the Soviet Union, Moscow has directed the country’s force structures and in the first instance the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to monitor and control the attitudes of people not only of the regime’s opponents but others far from politics, according to a leading Moscow specialist on the security services.
In an article in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Irina Borogan, who is the deputy head of the portal, says that the authorities, citing the need to prevent “destabilization” and invoking “anti-extremism” laws, is launching a campaign that may ultimately affect “hundreds of thousands” of Russians (
“The main role in this campaign,” she continues, has been assigned “not to the FSB, which in principle ought to defend the constitutional system in Russia, but to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD),” an institution which few Russians believe is committed to the rule of law and against which some Russian rights activists this week have launched a campaign.
Borogan suggests that the “starting point” of this broad campaign against those who may disagree with the powers that be was the establishment in September 2008 on the foundation of the MVD’s Department for the Struggle with Organized Crime and Terrorism of a new Department for Preventing Extremism.
The new department’s head, Gen. Yury Kokov, said in April that the struggle was “ready for work, and he and others claimed that the elimination of the organized crime unit was entirely justified because “organized crime had declined so much” in Russia that it could be addressed by other parts of the MVD alone.
But that argument, Borogan says, does not stand up to examination. On the one hand, under the law, extremist crimes in almost all cases are not considered major crimes, unlike the actions of criminal bands. And on the other, official statistics show that organized crime in Russia remains vastly more common than extremist crime.
But despite that, the powers that be want to fight extremism, and to do so, they have created ‘a legal vertical: they have “established extremist departments in prosecutors’ offices and in the Investigation Committee. Of course, all these people need to be doing something in order to justify their existence.”
“No one,” Borogan points out, “is hiding the fact that the subdivisions for preventing extremism are intended for use in putting down any mass demonstrations,” including social and political protests,” a plan that was made bureaucratically clear in June 2008 when the MVD created a Center for the Defense of Public Order, whose purpose was to do just that.
And lest these institutions and the MVD more generally lack the personnel to carry out their mission in this regard, plans to cut the size of internal forces by some 200,000 officers were “put off until better times,” and more money was made available for surveillance and crowd control technology.
In Soviet times, Borogan observes, the MVD had many technical means of tracking what they population was thinking and doing, but since 1991, the technology available to that agency has increased dramatically. And “now the MVD is ready to apply all the contemporary achievements of electronic surveillance” to monitor the attitudes of the population.
One of the new technologies the MVD is using, Borogan says, are computerized data bases in which information is filed and cross-referenced. But at the same time, the force structure expert says, the MVD has not forgotten the old methods as well and is actively involved in developing a network of agents for keeping track of the utterances of the populace.
According to Borogan, the MVD’s chief “target groups” in this “anti-extremist campaign include but are not limited to “Islamists” who are defined as an Muslim group not controlled by the Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs), “extra-systemic political parties and groups,” informal communities, unions, “non-political” protesters, and “sectarian” religious groups.
Given the size of this effort, “ordinary people who are not involved in any of these things also can become victims of the struggle: the larger the size of the lists, accounts and data bases, the higher probability of errors.” And they may also suffer from new technologies like water cannon if clashes between the authorities and the people increase.
Borogan and “Yezhednevny zhurnal” note that this is the beginning of that paper’s publication of materials on “the particular features of [Moscow’s] anti-extremist campaign,” but another effort this week opposing the militia may also provide insights into where this kind of official activity is likely to lead.
On the same day that Borogan’s article appeared, some 250 people assembled to listen to some of Russia’s most distinguished human rights activists call for the reform of the MVD forces because, in the words of one participant, “in its current form, the militia has become a direct threat to society” (
Lyudmila Alekseyeva, dean of Russia’s human rights community and the irreplaceable head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, told the assemblage that the militia is not the only force structure that needs reform but that it is the one that is most directly in contact with the population and thus the one which must be reformed first.
“All of us know the crudeness and indifference of the employees of [Russia’s] law enforcement organs,” she said, and all of those involved also know that “the reform of the militia will not come from above” but must be demanded by ordinary Russian citizens below who are so affected by its activities if there is to be any hope of positive change.

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