IT’S A BOY! Well no, it’s actually a genderless bureaucratic institution aimed at promoting national security…
This month saw the birth of a new government entity: Национальная Гвардия России (Natsionalnaya Gvardiya Rossia). Yes, Putin went forward with creating a National Guard Service on April 5th. According to the Kremlin’s website, the Guard is essentially the new incarnation of the Russia interior forces. The same website lists their responsibilities as follows:
- participation in the protection of public order in cooperation with internal affairs agencies
- participation in countering terrorism and extremism
- guarding important government facilities and special cargo
- assistance to the border authorities of the Federal Security Service in protecting the state border
- and state control over arms turnover.
The Russian National Guard will also assume responsibility over policing migration and anti-drug and crime efforts. This force, which is more or less comparable to a gendarmerie, answers directly to the President and has been empowered to act in times of emergency. Viktor Zolotov was appointed as the head of this administration. He seems to be a typical siloviki, one of the so-called tough guys that Putin likes to surround himself with.
What can we expect from this new institution? Does it represent Putin’s desire to have more control over the Russian state, or is it simply a rational, timely, and necessary advancement to the cause of Russian security?
Unfortunately Russia is no stranger to terrorism. There have been many attacks since the fall of the Soviet Union, each with devastating consequences and important political ramifications. The Beslan School Crisis of 2004 is the most infamous incident, and the state responded to it by tightening central controls.
The last major attack on Russian took place in October of last year when ISIL apparently brought down a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. While this attack took place outside of Russia, the homeland remains vulnerable to attack. Lasting historical tension with Chechnya and, more recently, support of Syria means that Russia remains a target, and ISIL has made threats. Russia has always had issues with security due to its massive borders and lack of natural barriers. This reality, which has haunted Russia time and time again in war, is an obsession of the Russian political psyche. Imagine then how Russia feels in an age where acts of terror are perpetrated by well-organized, highly mobile, and difficult to track individuals rather than large armies; size goes from being an effective defense to being a key security liability. Revitalizing state security initiatives therefore makes sense from the standpoint of historical necessity and modern political reality.
There is a general perception that crime, terrorism, and drugs are linked (for more you could read up on the Tri-Border Area). There is probably some truth to this, since all three ultimately rely on the funneling of dark money, and therefore it makes sense to create a single institution aimed at combating all three. At the very least it greatly cuts bureaucratic inefficiency by obviating the need for information sharing mechanisms. One agency can determine and react to threats with more speed and consistency.
Of course, the Kremlin’s motives are always being questioned, and individuals both within and without Russia are raising more than a few eyebrows at the new National Guard Service. Some believe that it would just be a mechanism for enforcing greater state control. The BBC article regarding the National Guard’s creation pursues the angle that the National Guard was designed to dampen potential protests at the upcoming Parliamentary elections. We mentioned earlier that Russians are concerned about security, and we have to remember that security in many cases can be equated with stability. Putin has said and done much to this effect.Putin has done much after the unrest of the colour revolutions a decade ago, which saw post-Soviet states liberalise, to try to avoid the potential of their being such a revolution in Russia. Putin’s fears may have been reaffirmed in 2011 and 2012, which saw large protests during Federal elections. These years also happened to coincide with the Arab Spring. If Putin is expecting continued resistance, then the National Guard may be a valuable asset in quelling riots.
Certain media outlets seem to push this line, and recent discussions in the State Duma are only raising fears. Apparently the original decree creating the National Guard bans them from firing into crowds. A recent Moscow Times article points out how this might change: several State Duma deputies believe that there may be conditions where the National Guards may be justified in firing into crowds. And, taking the idea further, if they are given such powers some suggest that should also be freed from being persecuted for any actions they might take. If Putin is trying to enhance presidential power then he has at least succeeded in making the Duma complicit.
The proposals that the National Guards be given more power and less accountability is troubling to me, especially since my hometown of Baltimore just passed the one year anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray and the riots that broke out. I suppose that both America and Russia have issues of security and policing to confront. Unfortunately the issue may be trickier for Russia to handle. Without a vibrant civil society to stand up for citizen rights, Russian legislators may go down the slippery slope of making sacrifices in the name of security and freedom. The Russian Constitution and current legislation like “On Combating Terrorism” already give the Russian executive branch tremendous power in handling terrorism and extremism, and the current debates only echo the logic that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” The State has tremendous discretion in labeling certain groups as terrorists or extremists, and we have already seen from Putin’s intervention in Syria that little distinction is made between rebels and terrorists.
Personally I think it is a double-edged sword. As with most things in Russia, we must take the good with the bad. The National Guards will be more efficient in the fight on terror and crime, but they may also be more efficient in suppressing protests and dissent. I doubt that National Guards will ever be ordered to fire into crowds; I am sure Putin is familiar with the events of Bloody Sunday and the effects this had on Tsar Nicholas II. I don’t think that Putin is trying to create a police state, but the Guards will only further enervate civil society and strengthen the Kremlin’s grip.
Koshkin, Zubacheva, and Pylova, writing for Russia Direct, seem to present the most sober assessment of the Federal Guard. What is most striking about the Federal Guard is not that they unite security functions, but rather that they unite these functions under the direct control of Putin. The guard further insulates Putin from a coup by the people, or by his fellow political elites. At worst, they may just be an insurance policy.
The Kremlin’s website is always a great place to get an idea of what Putin is up to. Here is some of the coverage regarding the creation of the National Guard.
Here is the BBC’s coverage of the National Guard:
Here is the Moscow Time’s excellent story regarding the expansion of National Guard Duties:
Here is a fantastic analysis of the potential ramifications of the National Guard by Russia Direct.