In an article in yesterday’s “Yezhednevny zhurnal,” Irina Borogan, an expert at the Agentura.ru portal, says that the presence of spetsnaz forces at the January 31st demonstration in defense of the 31st Paragraph of the Russian Constitution called attention to this new use of these troops (www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=9871).
But in fact, this policy of using spetsnaz forces against demonstrations is not new. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev described it as a logical step given that the spetsnaz had lost some of its functions involved in guarding prisoners and thus could be used “for the preservation of social order.”
Even before that time, Borogan notes, “certain units of the Internal Forces had for many years regularly been called to support public order in the capital.” Indeed, she says, Muscovites “had long been accustomed to seeing soldiers of the Dzerzhinsky Division” and related groups, guarding the metro or in the streets, especially during hotly contested football matches.
“However,” she continues, “only during the last several years” have spetsnaz forces been employed during mass actions in Moscow and other cities, including during the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg, the 1,000th anniversary of Kazan, and the Russian-European Union summit in Samara.
And when the conflict between the local population and Caucasus migrants broke into violence in Kondopoga in the summer of 2006, Moscow sent in spetsnaz units from Arkhangelsk to restore order. That experience appears to have triggered reconsideration by the powers that be over how the spetsnaz should be configured and used.
At the end of that year, a new detachment of spetsnaz, called ‘Peresvet’ was formed especially for the struggle with mass disorders in Moscow.” That unit, most of whose soldiers had served in “hot spots” like the North Caucasus, is administratively subordinate to the 55th division of the Russian Internal Forces
Russian officials said that they had taken this step because “there ought to be created yet another unit in the capital in order to guarantee security during mass actions and for rapid reaction by force in complicated situations,” bureaucratic language for anti-government demonstrations that might otherwise get out of hand.
This new unit, Borogan notes, has one distinguishing characteristic. Unlike the other 16 spetsnaz detachments, “Peresvet” has not been rotated through Chechnya or other parts of the North Caucasus because the interior ministry believes that it should “always be prepared for putting down street disorders in the capital and St. Petersburg.
Like other units of the internal forces, however, the new detachment has been deployed during football matches. But its primary responsibility has been shown by the training exercises in which it has been involved over the last two years, exercises that leave no doubt that the powers that be intend to use it to suppress any popular rising.
Its most recent exercise, which took place in Balashikha in October 2009, created “a scandal,” Borogan points out. According to documents the media gained access to, the unit was deployed to disperse with the help of water cannon and tear gas a group of “pensioners who were blocking a highway.”
The Interior Ministry felt compelled to deny these stories and to say that the targets of the spetsnaz unit “were not pensioners but extremists” and that the water cannon were “used only” to intimidate rather than to harm, statements that convinced few people in the overheated atmosphere of the time.
The number of personnel in the spetsnaz units of the Internal Forces is “constantly growing,” Borogan says. In 2003, there were approximately 10,000 uniformed personnel in these units, but in 2007, she continues, that number had grown to 17,000, even though the total number of people in uniform in the Russian Federation had declined over that period.
These units, she continues, are equipped with the latest electronic monitoring equipment, allowing them to track protesters in real time within the scope of the Interior Ministry’s “Secure City” program, which has been promoted primarily as a crime-fighting measure but which obviously has other uses as well.
“Like any military structure,” Borogan notes in what may be her most disturbing observation, “the spetsnaz of the [Russian] Internal Forces has its own traditions and special characteristics.” And these include a cultivated “brutality,” in which members of these units feel they are subordinate only to their own.
Meanwhile, three other developments this week suggest that the Russian powers that be increasingly fear the spread of mass protests and are preparing to defend themselves. First, according to a Norwegian group, Moscow is putting ever more pressure on environmentalists who are inclined to protest Russian policies (www.barentsobserver.com/increased-pressure-on-russian-enviro-groups.4744964-116320.html).
Second, the Russian powers that be seem to be working to perfect their control of the media to limit the size of protests, refusing to publish stories about upcoming anti-government actions (news.babr.ru/?IDE=83953) while giving wide publicity to those who plan to assemble to support the government (news.babr.ru/?IDE=83931).
And third, the Interior Ministry reportedly is drafting legislation equating traumatic pistols with firearms, thus allowing the powers that be to arrest anyone carrying the former but also ensuring that spetsnaz units will not have to worry about encountering any armed resistance (www.stoletie.ru/lenta/travmaticheskoje_oruzhije_priravnajut_k_ognestrelnomu_2010-02-11.htm).