Proving professionalism with display of might
Accused of beating innocent people, Russian forces show just how hard they can be
Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Friday May 11, 2007
As PR stunts go it was at the odder end of the spectrum. Under investigation for beating protesters and journalists at recent anti-Kremlin opposition marches, Russia’s Omon special forces today threw open the doors of its top-secret headquarters.
The aim of the two-hour demonstration laid on for the international media was to show off the Omon – caught on camera flailing rubber batons at elderly demonstrators during the marches – as disciplined professionals. But the jamboree left some wondering if hardened Chechnya war veterans in this ‘spetsnaz’ unit, similar to the SAS, are the best choice for crowd control at public protests. Visitors to the base at Shchyolkovo were treated to a mind-numbing display of mock shootouts, hostage rescues, hand-to-hand fighting and men karate-chopping flaming piles of bricks covered in petrol.
To throbbing dance music one serviceman with a bare torso smashed two bottles then lay on the shards as a comrade dropped knives onto his stomach.
A team of masked frogmen abseiled through a third storey window while firing automatic weapons at an imaginary foe. A squad of riot police in protective armour and black helmets then demonstrated their “active defence” tactics, advancing like Roman legionnaires with metal shields and swinging truncheons. In a more sedate performance, an Alsatian sniffer dog was instructed by its handler to pick up a fluffy cat and gently move it several paces, an apparent attempt to show the “touchy-feely” side of the Omon.
About 9,000 interior ministry Omon servicemen were deployed in Moscow for the March of the Dissenters last month, when 2,000 people took to the streets to protest against President Vladimir Putin’s creep towards authoritarianism. Some of the unit were filmed clobbering peaceful protesters.
But officers of the elite Zubr (bison) unit claimed the incidents were isolated and the “Omontsi” had been provoked by extremists. “Do you think we train like this in order to beat up grandmothers?” asked deputy commander Andrei Tusyuk. “It’s possible that we’ve gone over the top occasionally but we are always attempting to fulfil our orders within the law.”
Critics say the Omon has been a willing and brutal enforcer of the Kremlin, which took fright after the orange revolution in neighbouring Ukraine in 2004 and is determined to prevent a similar popular uprising in Russia. But deputy minister of internal affairs Mikhail Sukhodolsky insisted the unit acts within the law, and praised their efforts. Omon recruits must pass a gruelling four month programme that culminates with a fist fight against five serving members of the unit. One in five pass.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007