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Russian Lawmakers Back Putin's Move To Create National Guard

  • RFE/RL

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants bodyguard Viktor Zolotov (left) to head the new National Guard.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants bodyguard Viktor Zolotov (left) to head the new National Guard.

Russian lawmakers gave tentative approval to forming a National Guard, with some saying the Kremlin needs the new force as a tool against possible unrest.

Members of the lower house, the State Duma, on May 18 overwhelmingly endorsed the bill in the first of three required readings, with only the Communist Party speaking out against it.

President Vladimir Putin announced plans to form a Russian National Guard (Rosgard) last month, saying he would put his former chief bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, in charge of it.

Putin said the force would focus on the fight against extremism and organized crime, but some observers saw its creation as a reflection of Kremlin fears of possible antigovernment protests amid an economic downturn.

Communist Vyacheslav Tetekin said during debate on the measure that his party sees a link between the move and the long-running economic recession.

"The creation of the National Guard is connected to the worsening social and economic situation in the country," he said.

The Duma voted 345-14 for the bill, with most of the Communist Party faction not voting for the motion. The full approval of the document is seen as a mere formality in the Kremlin-controlled parliament.

The Russian economy plunged into a deep and prolonged recession last year under the double blow of collapsing oil prices and Western sanctions against Moscow over its aggressions in Ukraine.

Public support for Putin so far has remained high, but experts say it may shrink as the economic crisis touches broader segments of the population.

With the economy barely showing signs of recovery, the Kremlin is keen to maintain tight control over the political scene before the parliamentary elections in September and the next presidential vote in 2018.

"Forming the National Guard is possibly linked to the forthcoming election," Tetekin said.

Reports of ballot fraud in favor of the main Kremlin party during the 2011 parliamentary elections triggered a wave of mass street protests in Moscow against Putin's rule. After his reelection the following year, Putin responded with a number of repressive bills stifling the opposition.

The new bill would give the National Guard an arsenal of ways to quell mass disturbances, such as stun grenades and antiriot vehicles. It specifies that National Guardsmen wouldn't be permitted to use force against pregnant women and children unless they offer armed resistance, in line with Russian legal norms.

The guard will have the power to detain citizens, check documents, and seal off areas, including for the purpose of preventing mass riots.

Guardsmen will be able to arrest suspects for no more than three hours, and they will be required to explain to an arrested individual his or her rights, including the right to a telephone call and to refuse to testify.

The law prohibits the mass media from reporting the locations of National Guard troops and their family members.

In a state of emergency, National Guardsmen will be able to ban vehicle and pedestrian traffic, enter houses, use citizens' cars to chase criminals, or go to the scene of an emergency, and use force and weapons.

Russian media outlets estimated that the National Guard could include up to 400,000 troops, drawing forces from both Interior Ministry troops and riot police. Opponents of the bill argued that it would drain the nation's police force and weaken its ability to combat crime.

Outspoken ultranationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky said during the parliamentary debate that forming a National Guard was essential to tame "any mutineers, revolutionaries, and extremists."

"If [Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev had approved such a bill, there wouldn't have been 1991," he said in a reference to the Soviet collapse.

Zhirinovsky urged the Kremlin to recruit "young patriots" to the new force and give them generous funds and "beautiful uniforms," so that "we don't even hear such words as revolution, strife, and revolt."

With reporting by AP, TASS, and Interfax
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