Tallinn, November 22 – A senior official of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has called for the establishment of Orthodox “druzhiny” groups to promote law and order, and a senior official of the Russian interior ministry says the government will consider backing this idea.
But such unofficial squads, which have their roots in the Soviet past, not only highlight the breakdown in public order in that country and the inability of the authorities to enforce the law but also are likely to exacerbate ethnic, religious and other divisions as one group arms itself to protect its members against another.
That is because the Orthodox Church is not the only entrant in this already crowded field. Local community groups in places like Moscow’s Khimki district, Muslim groups in various parts of the country, and members of various non-Russian migrant communities have already taken this step or are thinking about doing so.
And if the Orthodox Church gains the imprimatur of the state in this area, even more groups will likely seek to defend themselves by organizing and even arming such groups, a recipe in the short term for violent clashes rather than public order and ultimately for more government repression rather than the emergence of civil society.
During a radio interview on Wednesday evening, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chief of the Patriarchate’s powerful External Affairs Department, said that Orthodox citizens should create “druzhiny” squads to take back the streets from those who in one way or another are disturbing the peace (www.interfax-religion.ru/orthodoxy/?act=news&div=27397).
The next day, Valery Gribakin, a senior official of the Russian interior ministry, said that the Russian government would actively consider this because the ministry is “interested in the help of any public movements and organizations in the support of public order in Russian population points” (www.interfax-religion.ru/orthodoxy/?act=news&div=27408).
He said that the interior ministry is already cooperating with 36,000 such groups, who have a combined membership of 380,000, and “with their active help,” during the first nine months of 2008 alone, more than 31,000 crimes were identified, 14,000 criminals were arrested, and 360,000 violations of the law were prevented.
But even as he appeared to welcome Chaplin’s proposal, Gribakin noted that existing legislation in this area gives the regions the option to permit or ban such groups. As a result, there are a variety of arrangements from a complete ban to broad cooperation. Today, he said, approximately 70 percent have some rules on the books.
Some Orthodox groups are not waiting for ministerial approval. Kirill Frolov, head of the Moscow section of the Russian nationalist Union of Orthodox Citizens, told “Kommersant” that his group is forming these groups within the Society of St. Thomas and would be ready to start on December 1 (kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1075889&NodesID=7).
Other non-Orthodox groups are doing the same, and more are likely to enter the fray in the near term, with at least a few of them “arming themselves within the limits of the law,” in the words of one activist, and thus becoming a threat to public order in various Russian locations in and of themselves (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=172784).
While some nationalists are enthusiastic (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=729257) and media outlets are having fun talking about the church’s “army” (www.ng.ru/politics/2008-11-21/1_church.html), more thoughtful observers are concerned about the impact of such groups on the church itself and on Russian society more broadly.
Some are asking whether the Church should be getting involved in this public function, something that could undercut its message of peace and brotherhood and link the Orthodox Church even more closely to a state that has all too often demonstrated that it is not that interested in that message (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=monitor&id=13065).
Meanwhile, the human rights community has criticized the measure on other grounds. Lev Ponomaryev, the head of the For Human Rights Movement, argues that calls to create such groups calls attention to the inability of the duly constituted authorities to maintain order and thus invites more lawlessness (kommersant.ru/doc.aspx?DocsID=1075889&NodesID=7).
And Svetlana Gannushkina, a member of the Civic Support Committee, said that church leaders should focus on communicating their faith from the pulpit rather than organizing quasi-policy agencies. She suggested that there was one possible exception: Let’s begin, she said, ‘by setting up of Buddhist public order squads. They are more peaceful and very sympathetic.”