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The Dark Doings of Russia’s Center E

Although supposedly aimed at extremists, the real mission of this police unit seems to be to harass the opposition. From openDemocracy.

by Grigory Tumanov 3 September 2012

I once found myself interviewing the former Czech interior minister, Jan Ruml, about police reform, and one of my questions had him completely stumped. I asked him whether the Czech police had any equivalent to Russia’s Center for Combating Extremism, or Center E, as it is usually known, whose officers spend their time monitoring activists, harassing them at rallies, and spying on opposition politicians. In reply, Ruml first described the formal anti-extremist structures of the Czech police force and then asked in bewilderment why the Russian police should be involved in such matters.

 

FROM ORGANIZED CRIME TO EXTREMISM

 

Center E rose from the ashes of the Interior Ministry’s Organized Crime Directorates, which existed until 2008. The official line is that Center E was created in response to “the challenges of our time”: organized crime had supposedly been brought under control, but political extremists and underground Islamic elements in the North Caucasus had not. The new department’s charter defined the center’s primary role as “fighting extremist activity and terrorism,” but the bureaucrats left the country in no doubt that it would play a leading political role too. In 2008, a year of crises, Yuri Kokov, former head of the Department for Combating Extremism, declared that there was no question of doing without Center E units in the current climate of political instability. “It’s quite possible that the operational environment will become more complex as the global economic crisis deepens and the socio-economic situation deteriorates,” he said.

 

Police at the ready at an opposition rally in March in Russia's Pushkin Square. Photo by bogomolov.pl/wikimedia commons.

 

At the beginning of the new century, Russia’s former interior minister, Boris Gryzlov, gave police operatives carte-blanche to deal with the consequences of the “wild ’90s,” and as a result by the middle of the decade, most of the members of Russia’s so-called organized criminal groups were in prison, had disappeared without trace, or had chosen to take up far safer work sitting in government offices. For the officers, the eradication of organized crime had been a mission they carried out with quasi-religious zeal, and they had consequently held little regard for the legality or otherwise of their actions. Dividing society into “baddies” and the rest, the officers did not shrink from using force during interrogations and planted drugs on criminal bosses whose role in other crimes they were unable to prove. Naturally, this had a lasting effect on the officers: after a while there was little to distinguish them from the criminals they were chasing.

 

NEW TARGETS

 

Overnight, these officers were mobilized on a new front. Center E units sprang up in the Interior Ministry directorates in all of Russia’s big cities. Under the leadership of Kokov, these new police units set about focusing on a new target, but with little change in their rules of engagement. There is no clear definition of extremism in Russia, and so it was mainly political activists who were left to fall within the units’ remit. 

 

As Ruml explained to me, in the Czech Republic, the term “extremists” is usually applied to those on either the extreme left or the extreme right. Religious fanatics prepared to use violence are usually dealt with by the terrorism units of other security services. In Russia, the responsibility is shared between Center E and the Security Service’s Directorate for the Protection of the Constitutional System.  As a rule, the Security Service takes on the cases of big fish like the nationalists Nikita Tikhonov and Evgeny Khasis, who murdered  the human rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and the journalist Anastasia Baburova. The police are left with the “ordinary” street activists.

 

Members of the opposition are keen to demonize Center E officers, calling them “political spooks” or by the name of the old tsarist secret police, the okhranka. Yet if most of their “special operations” are anything to go by, they are more akin to an unsophisticated branch of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement. Like every other department of the Interior Ministry, they have to provide their superiors with reports and data. Because their targets are unclear, and the officers lack the imagination to change their methods, they arrest more or less anyone who is politically active. 

 

A colleague of mine was an official observer from the Communist Party during the recent presidential elections, and caught United Russia illegally pressuring voters at polling stations. A few weeks later he was called in to the district police department “to give evidence about a criminal incident.” He agreed, out of interest as much as anything else, but when he reached the station he was taken into an office. The door was closed behind him, and officers, who introduced themselves as belonging to the local Center E unit, began intimidating him, asking what business he had interfering. They suggested he stop “messing around,” or else he would not be allowed to leave the station. 

 

PROTEST RALLIES

 

The Other Russia, a wide umbrella coalition of anti-Putin forces, can justifiably claim to have been targeted by Center E more than any other organization. Its members are regularly searched, and on the 31st of each month with that number of days, the police carry out the same laborious ritual of detaining one of its leaders, the writer Eduard Limonov, at the entrance of his own home, to stop him from attending the regular “Strategy-31” demonstrations on Moscow’s Triumfalnaya Square – the aim of these demonstrations being to proclaim the right to peaceful assembly guaranteed by Article 31 of the Russian Constitution.

 

Center E employees also go to rallies - first and foremost to record any new demonstrators, but sometimes also to harass participants. Sergei Aksenov, an Other Russia activist, was arrested at a Strategy-31 rally he was attending with his son and his son’s nanny. Center E Officer Alexei Okopny first detained Sergei and then moved on to his son and nanny as well. The nanny and boy were taken into a separate room, where they claim Okopny threatened them and demanded that they stop going to rallies.

 

Center E also made its presence felt during the demonstrations in May, at which most of the demonstrators were ordinary people, rather than seasoned, “professional” activists. At the 6 May March of Millions rally, for example, many bystanders who were accidentally caught up in tussles with the OMON special forces ended up in police vans. They were taken to nearby police stations, where they were charged with failure to obey police orders and with taking part in an unsanctioned political protest. This happened to at least several hundred people. 

 

Soon afterward, lawyers from the organization For Human Rights reported that Center E officers had illegally removed records of such charges relating to the 6 May rally from  local district courts. Human rights activists claim the aim of this operation was to add new names to the lists of alleged extremists. Sure enough, just a few days later, they began to receive calls from people who had only recently begun to go to rallies and who were unconnected to any political movement. All had received the same letter from their local Center E, summoning them for “a talk.” As activist Lev Ponomaryov explains, this is illegal. “These people’s cases were all dealt with on 6 May itself, so the police have no business talking to them further. They are just doing this to scare people.”

 

BLACK BLOCK, RED ANARCHY

 

Years of concentrating on this kind of work have resulted in Center E operatives losing most of the professional skills they might once have possessed, making the task of catching real extremists more difficult. In 2010 and 2011, there was a series of arson attacks on government buildings, for which radical anarchists from the “Black Block” group admitted responsibility. Their most spectacular stunt was a gas explosion near a traffic police station on the Moscow Ring Road, shooting a tower of flames into the sky, without, however, causing any damage. The perpetrators got away, but for a long time afterward Center E units targeted meetings of legal anti-fascist and anarchist groups, until they came across a group of young people who they thought might be linked to the incidents. They arrested them on the basis of circumstantial evidence alone. 

 

The investigation fell apart, however, when Center E operatives moved to arrest one of the suspected participants of this extremist group. Officers, disguised in plain clothes, drove to her home in an ambulance, attacked her as she approached the entrance, and tried to tie her up. The girl, who belonged to an anti-fascist group, was used to expecting attacks from far right radicals (whom, incidentally, Center E officers pursue much less enthusiastically, since many are themselves nationalist sympathizers). She pulled out a knife and wounded one of her attackers in the groin. “Basically we had to let everyone go in the end, because the Center E guys were so abysmal,” a senior officer in the Moscow police department complained to me this summer.  “All the evidence they had was obtained illegally. If it weren’t for them, the culprits would all be behind bars, instead of which they have vanished.”

 

In the provinces, of course, Center E operatives can wrap up criminal cases however they please, without having to worry about how ludicrous their evidence is. In the Nizhny Novgorod Region, for example, an investigation, and now a court case, into the “left radical” group Red Skinhead Anarchy has been dragging on for years. This, according to the police, was the name on membership cards found on a number of anti-fascist activists who were detained on suspicion of attacking nationalists. In their reports, the officers responsible claimed to have uncovered a terrifying organization with a party structure, ready at any moment to cause mass rioting. The defendants themselves say that they were just neighbors who went to anti-fascist rallies together. The part about the party membership cards sounds particularly moronic, especially since no Red Skinhead Anarchy exists. Perhaps the police officers meant Red Anarchist-Skinheads, but got the names confused when they were thinking things up.

 

THE FUTURE

 

However you look at it, it is hard to see a rational basis for the work of Center E. Its remit is completely obscure – its officers are neither police nor officially part of a pro-Kremlin movement. When Dmitry Medvedev was still president, human rights activists came up with a number of recommendations for the reform of the justice system, in response to the president’s Open Government program, which invited community leaders to make proposals for political reform. A key proposal of the human rights activists was the abolition of Center E, all of whose functions are already covered by other law enforcement departments. In September 2011, however, Medvedev voluntarily announced a “job swap” with Vladimir Putin, and has now returned to his previous role as prime minister. And although there is now a new ministerial post devoted to Open Government, it is unclear when and if the wishes of the human rights activists will be fulfilled.

Grigory Tumanov is a correspondent for Kommersant. This article originally appeared on openDemocracy.net.

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