Russia’s shadowy ‘Centre E’ was officially set up to combat extremism and terrorism, but is now mostly known for incompetence and harassing opposition activists. In any other country, the agency would have been wound up long ago, says Grigory Tumanov.
I once found myself interviewing the former Czech Minister of the Interior, 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 ‘Centre for Combating Extremism’, or ‘Centre E’ as it is usually known, whose officers spend their time monitoring activists, harassing them at rallies, and spying on opposition politicians. In reply, Mr. 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 organised crime to 'extremism'
Centre E rose from the ashes of the Ministry of the Interior’s Organised Crime Directorates, which existed until 2008. The official line is that Centre E was created in response to ‘the challenges of our time’: organised 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 Centre’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 ‘Centre 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.
At the beginning of the new century, Russia’s former Minister of the Interior, 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 ‘organised criminal groups’ were either 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 organised 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.
A new structure
Overnight, these officers were mobilised on a new front. ‘Centre 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 focussing 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.
'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.'
As Mr Ruml explained to me, in the Czech Republic, the term ‘extremists’ is usually applied mainly to those on either the extreme left or the extreme right. Religious fanatics who are prepared to use violence are usually dealt with by the terrorism units of other security services. In Russia, the responsibility is shared between Centre 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 demonise Centre E officers, calling them ‘the political spooks’, or by the name of the old Tsarist secret police, the ‘okhranka’. Yet if the majority 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 pressurising 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 Centre 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.
‘The Other Russia’, a wide umbrella coalition of anti-Putin forces, can justifiably claim to have been targeted by Centre E more than any other organisation. 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.
'Centre E employees also go to rallies - first and foremost to record any new demonstrators, but sometimes also to harass participants.'
Centre 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. Centre 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.
Centre 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 6th May ‘March of Millions’ rally, for example, a large number of 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 for taking part in an unsanctioned political protest. This happened to at least several hundred people.
Soon afterwards, lawyers from the organization ‘For Human Rights’ reported that Centre E officers had illegally removed records of such charges relating to the 6th May rally from local district courts. Human rights activists claim that 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 of them had received the same letter from their local Centre E, summoning them for ‘a talk’. As activist Lev Ponomaryov explains, this is illegal. ‘These people’s cases were all dealt with on 6th 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 Centre E operatives losing most of the professional skills they might once have possessed, making the task of catching real ‘extremists’ more and more difficult. In 2010 and 2011, there was a series of arson attacks on government buildings, as well as on the Department of Internal Affairs, 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 afterwards Centre 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.
'Years of concentrating on this kind of work have resulted in Centre E operatives losing most of the professional skills they might once have possessed, making the task of catching real ‘extremists’ more and more difficult.'
The investigation fell apart, however, when Centre 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, Centre E officers pursue much less enthusiastically, since many are themselves nationalist sympathisers). 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 Centre 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, Centre 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 organisation with a party structure, ready at any moment to cause mass rioting. The defendants themselves say that they were just neighbours 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.
Whatever way you look at it, it is hard to see a rational basis for the work of Centre 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’ programme, which invited community leaders to make proposals for political reform. A key proposal of the human rights activists was the abolition of Centre E, all of whose functions are already covered by other law enforcement departments. In September 2011, however, Mr 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.