On April 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would develop a national guard to fight terrorism and crime, but a recently released video (above) from Open Russia purports to show the guard training to suppress something that looks like a civilian protest, Reuters reports:
The video shows scores of troops with riot shields corralling a group of unarmed mock protesters with stun and smoke grenades, and presumably non-lethal ammunition. This falls in line with other reports from The Moscow Times that says: “An employee of the National Guard troops has the right to use physical force, special instruments, or firearms without warning.”
Open Russia, a group led by Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right), an exiled Russian businessman and advocate for democracy in Russia, claims the video was filmed at Lyubertsy, 13 miles outside of Moscow.
This powerful, well-trained force will operate outside the ministry under the command of Viktor Zolotov, a long-time Putin associate, whom the president appointed head of his personal bodyguard immediately after moving into the Kremlin in 2000, Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky reports:
Like many Putin friends in government service, he is far wealthier than his official income could ever allow, and he is far more personally loyal to the president than Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev. Zolotov will report directly to Putin.
As the political scientist Tatyana Stanovaya wrote for the Russian Carnegie Center, regardless of whether the interior minister is a close associate of Putin’s, or even one of his judo sparring partners, “at a hypothetically possible moment of high tension, his hand will tremble when orders must be followed. Zolotov enjoys maximum protection from such hesitation. Putin — and Zolotov as an extension of Putin — will have no more intermediaries.”
There are at least three reasons why Putin and his circle will be nervous at the extent of the Mossack Fonseca – or Panama Papers – revelations, says analyst Sean Roberts. They each relate to an element of reputational damage. Even in a top-down, hierarchical political system such as Russia’s, this matters, he writes for Newsweek:
- Russia is approaching an important parliamentary election in September for the State Duma, which is the lower house. As for every electoral authoritarian regime, elections represent a moment of vulnerability. The last State Duma election, in December 2011, sparked the biggest street protests in the country since the Soviet era, as Russians vented their anger at systematic electoral fraud. The problem for Putin is not that the Panama Papers will serve as a catalyst for civil unrest—in the context of the aforementioned media control, they won’t—but that corruption will take on extra salience before and after September’s election.
- Meanwhile, Putin already has a complicated relationship with the most vocal and active element of the opposition—theliberal-leaning minority calling for “Russia without Putin.” The 2011-12 protests revealed the extent of this entrenched radical group, which has a de facto leader in the young lawyer Alexei Navalny and has given up any hope that constructive engagement with the regime will improve the country’s fortunes. Until now, the regime has been able to manage the spread of this mindset among ordinary Russians, but this is undoubtedly the most problematic layer of society from Putin’s point of view.
- But most important, the negative publicity generated by the Panama Papers has the potential to expose and even isolate Putin among the ruling elite. This is definitely a worst-case scenario, but the issue for Putin and his inner circle is that these most recent allegations may not be a one-story wonder. This is said to be thebiggest leak in history—and in the context of pressure to rein in global tax havens, it is unlikely to be the last.
However, Leonid Gozman, democratic activist and a fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy, argues that any assumptions that Putin is afraid of protests and people’s indignation are not grounded in reality. He says that Putin is likely attempting to build a new security enforcement system, which will be under his own purview, because currently Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu controls Russia’s armed forces, while the Interior Ministry is under the supervision of Vladimir Kolokoltsev.
“He [Putin] wants to have his own armed forces, which he controls himself,” Gozman told Russia Direct. “And he appointed his closest friend, probably, because he trusts him most. It is a matter of personal connection. I don’t think that it [the creation of the National Guard] aims at curbing the indignation of people, who will take to the streets. There are already enough tools [to prevent protests].”