Vienna, October 30 – An MVD exercise near Moscow yesterday designed to showcase the interior ministry’s capacity to deal with any protests against the government not only highlighted the paranoia of the regime about protests but also its unwillingness -- at least so far --to implement police actions that would be both illegal and offensive to most Russians.
And consequently, what was clearly intended to be a show of force in advance of the anti-regime Russian March demonstrations scheduled for November 4 highlighted weakness and indecisiveness on the part of the powers that be, something that may cost Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev his job but will do little to intimidate the government’s opponents.
“Vedomosti” today provided the most succinct summary of these events. “MVD officers,” it said, yesterday trained to disperse meetings of pensioners,” according to an Interfax report. But later both “the agency and the MVD rejected this information but did not begin to deny that OMON exercises for dispersing a meeting took place.”
Interfax, the paper noted, had first reported that “in correspondence with the exercise scenario, a group of pensioners in a certain population point had assembled to demand social support and had blocked a federal highway” to press their demands. “For its dispersal, the spetsnaz forces used water cannon” (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/2009/10/30/217766).
Moreover, according to the original Interfax report, the Moscow newspaper reported, “in the course of a few minutes, with the help of sound grenades, teargas and water cannon, the large crowd of ‘pensioners’ was dispersed and some of them were ‘arrested’” – an outcome the authorities clearly saw as a victory until media and public reaction came in.
Then, Interfax reported that the spetsnaz forces had dispersed “not pensioners, but ‘a large crowd of people,’ who had begun ‘mass disorders,’” and an MVD press spokesman insisted that the exercise involved “the storming of a building seized by terrorists and not the dispersing of a meeting,” since Russian law prohibits using force against unarmed citizens.
Interfax editors suggested there had been confusion, and sources in the Kremlin told “Vedomosti” that officials there “knew about this, considered that the information had been distorted and that those who were guilty – both militiamen [who talked about the scenario] and the [Interfax] employee – had been fired.”
In fact, as journalists at Kasparov.ru subsequently reported, “information about the removal of the journalist … (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4AEAA7479A84F). And other outlets called into question the denials of the MVD and Interfax about the original scenario (www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbtK_vQYhhYon).
Those reports, which were discussed by most of the mainstream Russian print media outlets today, transformed the discussion of this event from being about the specific facts of the case to being about the implications of what had happened both originally and after the official denials, a shift that the Russian powers that be could not have welcomed.
Most such coverage suggested, as Polit.ru did, that what the Russian government had issued as “a non-denial denial,” in which it had objected to details but not to the substance of the case, something those recall Watergate know has the effect of deepening public suspicions of official actions rather than calming them (www.polit.ru/event/2009/10/29/bunt.html).
Chaskor.ru surveyed opinion on this: Political commentator Dmitry Oreshkin told Polit.ru that “the MVD is learning how to disperse meetings of pensions because the powers that be have rated that as a social threat.” KPRF Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin told Gazeta.ru that this action showed that the powers that be were “ready” to use force against everyone.
And Timofey Shevyakov, an independent expert, has prepared an open letter about this case to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In it, Shevyakov says that what the MVD had done “cannot be evaluated otherwise than as an open ignoring of those theses which were sounded in [Medvedev’s] article” (www.chaskor.ru/p.php?id=11880).
“The MVD leadership,” he continued, “has allowed itself to take actions which now under conditions of social tensions in the regions and especially in the company towns are an open provocation,” actions worse than even those Soviet interior ministry officials took in the last years of Soviet power.
During Soviet times, Shevyakov wrote, “it was considered impolite to speak about special means of the peoples militia intended for struggle with the people. Now, the authorities are not ashamed to do so, supposing that the lack of social respect which such units enjoy can be compensated for by the promotion of general fear.”
But there is another aspect to what the MVD has done, Shevyakov said. What its offers have said and done suggests that they are acting “simply stupidly.” While few doubt that there are officials who would like to attack anyone including pensioners who oppose them, he wrote, most Russians view attacks of this kind as simply unacceptable.
Such conclusions were developed in a lead article in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta.” The editors of that paper argued that the powers that be were prepared to attack pensioners but they were not prepared to do so openly and with full media coverage, thus setting the stage for new clashes rather than precluding them (www.ng.ru/editorial/2009-10-30/2_red.html).