Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Kremlin Beefs Up Internal Forces to Defend Against Domestic Disorder

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 4 – Despite budgetary problems brought on by the economic crisis, the Russian government not only has stopped plans to cut the number of the internal troops of the interior ministry but also provided them with a wide array of new weapons and upgraded the status of their commanding officer.
That pattern, according to an article in the current issue of Moscow’s “Sovershenno Sekretno” magazine, suggests that the Kremlin now as has been the case in the past wants to be in a position to cope with public disorders or, if need be, to defend the powers that be from any challenge such disturbances might pose (
Not long ago, the magazine’s Vladimir Voronov reports, Army General Nikolai Rogozhkin, the commander of these internal forces, said at a press conference that “the leadership of the country decided to maintain the numbers [of the officers and men] of the internal forces at their current level” and thus stop previously announced plans to cut them.
His words attracted some attention, but Voronov who covered that press conference now says that Rogozhkin’s words “sounded differently.” They sounded to him as if “a decision had been taken to maintain the level of internal forces [now approximately 200,000 over all] at whatever level [the government may think] necessary.”
Rogozhkin was coy in response to efforts by journalists to get him to be more specific on this point, saying only that “everything will depend on the tasks which will be carried out by the internal forces,” a “formula so elastic,” the magazine’s reporter adds, that it could mean anything or nothing depending on what happens in the country and in the government.
Several subsequent developments, Voronov says, clearly point to an increase in the importance the government attaches to the internal troops. First, Moscow announced plans to create three “centers of special assignment” within them analogous to those in the FSB to serve as rapid reaction units.
Then, Rogozhkin’s status was upgraded. In mid-January, he acquired the additional title of deputy minister of internal affairs, a status his predecessors had enjoyed but one he was not given at the time of his appointment in 2004, a failure that suggested to many at the time that the internal troops were being downgraded.
And finally, it has come out that the government was boosting its spending on the arms the internal troops have – 80 percent of them are new, a far higher share than in the regular army – even as it reduced the weapons available to other interior ministry forces subordinate to regional and especially non-Russian republic governments.
Among the new weapons – and Voronov gives a long list of them -- are drones that officers say will allow the internal troops to monitor the situation within a radius of 50 kilometers of where they are based, both to ward off any possible threat and to be in a position to respond rapidly to any challenge to public order, themselves, or the regime.
By taking these steps, Voronov continues, the government was demonstrating that it is counting on these forces to hold together “the enormous multi-national country” which some fear is drifting toward disintegration and to defend the government itself from challenges by one or another social, political or ethnic group.
Such an approach now echoes both what Moscow tried to do at the end of the Soviet period when it relied on the internal forces to defend the USSR even as “local organizations of internal affairs as a rule either disintegrated or became a support for separatism” on the part of the union republics.
Under President Boris Yeltsin, the size of the internal forces was cut from 304,000 to 200,000, Voronov reports, but “since Vladimir Putin came to power, their number has not undergone a change, despite frequent declarations about the need to reduce the size of their staff or even that these reductions have taken place.”
But despite the support the internal troops have received from the government in recent months, there are problems. On the one hand, relations with the regular army are anything but easy, especially since interior ministry officers cannot aspire to the highest jobs, almost all of which are occupied by army generals.
And on the other, many of the officers in these units feel above the law, routinely violating the laws with a sense of impunity and antagonizing the people around where interior force units are stationed by demanding reduced prices, special treatment and the like, something that Voronov says can be confirmed by a visit to any of them.
Nonetheless, “the internal forces are the most powerful instrument of force of domestic politics.” And he concludes his extraordinarily detailed article somewhat ominously. “The powers that be,” he says, “never forget this [reality], but they devote particular attention to [such forces] and the conditions inside them in troubled, crisis times.”

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