Circling the Lion's Den

Targets of the fight with extremism

Irina Borogan

Continuing the project dedicated to analysing the government anti-extremism campaign. Last time we talked about the technological aspects of electronic surveillance, which is now being introduced country wide as part of the programme of measures to fight crime. Now we look at those who are the target of this anti extremism campaign.

From what we can make out from previous experience, and from the announcements and reports of those affiliated with the security structure, the target groups in the anti-extremism campaign are:

  • “Islamists” (members of so-called unofficial muslim communities)
  • “sect” members
  • parties and social groups lying outside the Kremlin political system
  • informal communities: from football fans/hooligans and flashmob organizers to those with an interest in pagan cults.
  • Independent trade unions
  • Apolitical opposition activists, from those who came out to defend the Khimki forests to opponents of particular building projects

Who sets the goals?

The joint resolution of the Prosecutor General, FSB, and the Interior Ministry, dated December 16, 2008, number NN 270/27r, 1/9789, 38 “On developing work to warn of and interfere with the activities of social and religious groups engaged in spreading ethnic hate-speech and religious extremism” should probably be considered the security agencies’ guiding text on this issue. It notes that “extremist phenomena are one of the main factors in the threats to national security that the Russian Federation faces” (previously these had been considered terrorism and organized crime), before discussing exactly what is meant by the term “extremist”.

The first mention made is of “extremism under the cover of Islam.” Here the Muslim groups referred to include societies and classes, not aligned with the Muslim Spiritual Council. The reference to Islamists is a hangover to the old references within the FSB and Ministry of the Interior dating back to the time of the war on terror and wahhabism. Let us not forget that the head of the department on countering extremism, Yury Kokov was commander of T Centre of the Ministry of the Interior responsible for dealing with the consequences of the militants attack in Nalchik in October 2005. It was there he learnt how young Muslims from the Institute of Islamic Research, in conflict with the local Muslim Spiritual Council, were turned into militant-fighters capable of mounting an attack on the local security structures. Later the document mentions organizations of people who worship pagan cults, extremist groups whose traditions involve the forbidden uses of swastikas and other groupings.

The targets of anti-extremist campaigns regarding religious organisations will be likely set by the expert council on state religious expertise under the ministry of Justice created in 2009. The head of the information and analysis center “Sova,” Alexander Verkhovsky thinks that the council could carry out an assessment of religious organizations that distribute either material identified as extremist in nature or which have members who have been convicted of extremist activity. These studies will be used as a basis on which to outlaw these same religious groups as extremist.

The identity of the recently selected chair of the Council, Alexander Dvorkin, the President of the Russian Association of Centers for the study of religions and sects, does little to create an image of tolerance. Dvorkin was hailed in the unrelenting war on “sects” among whose numbers he included practically all religious organizations that were not affiliated with the Muslim Spiritual Council or the Russian Orthodox Church. Those who opposed the direction in which he was taking the Expert Council (Religious Research Council) under the Justice ministry dubbed it the Ignatius Loyola Expert Council for the Inquisition under the Ministry of Justice.

Nonetheless, thanks to Dvorkin’s openness we can with some certainty identify those individuals and groups who are likely to come into difficulties with the law.

The most powerful totalitarian sect, in Dvorkin’s opinion, is scientology. The “church” of scientology has for several years been refused the right to register its sections in Russia’s regions. In 2007 the Scientology Centre in St Petersburg was closed down by the courts. It seems Scientologists’ problems, at least, are set to rise.

Jehovah’s witnesses are also deemed by Dvorkin to be a sect that represents a threat to society, and he has issued repeated requests that they cease operating. True, Jehovah’s witnesses were unlikely to get an easy ride from the government in any case. For example, in 2004, the Moscow City Court upheld a verdict on the dissolution of the legal entity that was the Moscow Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In June 2008 a criminal case was brought in the city of Asbest on the distribution of Jehovah’s Witness’ literature.

In July 2009, the FSB held 18 believers who had gathered for a prayer session in a building in Ekaterinburg, confiscated the printed materials, sent them for analysis as extremist documents. In the years 2007 to 2009 prosecutors in various regions made over 40 warnings “on extremist activity as impermissible.” Methods used in against Jehovah’s witnesses are reminiscent of the security agencies’ actions against opposition movements. Where opening a criminal case is not an option, the FSB and Ministry of the Interior simply try to present the targeted faithful with all manner of obstacles.

According to the Witnesses’ own information, of 57 regional congresses planned in 2008 in various Russian cities, 14 were called off despite the fact that the lease of the space had been agreed (in the case in Ekaterinburg the ECHR even found in favor of the Witnesses.) In detention, witnesses are fingerprinted and photographed by the police, as protest action participants usually are. In addition to Jehovah’s witnesses and scientologists, the Religious Research Council is convinced that several protestant churches also pose a threat, particularly the mormons, but also see danger among the ranks of the Hari Krishnas, munits, falungong and others. The Ministry of the Interior currently seems to have yet to form an opinion, since it is difficult to identify any concrete crime.

The FSB however is keen to keep religious organizations on its radar and interferes with their activity. Traditionally, Soviet practice was that the FSB would control religious organizations’ role in society, and there are examples when the FSB has been integral in getting religious teaching recognized as extremist.

In 2008, on the initiative of the FSB the Supreme Court recognized the work of Turkish believer Said Nursi as extremist. Of course the study of Sufi beliefs was of little concern to the secret services, in fact the FSB was worried by the growing influence of advocates of Fetulla Giullen in Tatarstan and Bashkiria, and the best course of action the Lubyanka could come up with was to use the “anti-extremism” laws against him. Here there is unlikely to be any conceptual conflict between Dvorkin and the FSB. Since the current battle with “non-traditional” religious groups has nothing in common with the Soviet antipathy toward any expression of faith.

They attract the state’s attention only in as much as they represent powerful networks, essentially outside any control other than that of their leaders. For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have 280,000 believers in Russia.

After religious groupings, came “participants in informal youth groups.” What threat do these largely apolitical informal groups pose to the authorities? Just as with the members of “sects” they represent broad horizontal networks, the ability to use technology to communicate quickly and call mass events, whether gatherings of football hooligans or flashmobs.

In the first article I mentioned the idea that apolitical flashmobbers could also become the target for this anti-extremism campaign. The arrest in Novosibirsk of local artist Artem Loskutov, the organizer of absurdist demonstrations, during which young people delighted the town’s residents with slogans such as “Yyyyyyyyyt” confirmed these fears.

When, on May 15, on the eve of another action, Loskutov declined to appear at the local E Center for a conversation, he was detained by operational officers who found him to be in possession of marijuana.

Drugs experts later confirmed that Loskutov was not a user, and fingerprint analysis proved that the prints on the packet of marijuana were not identifiable and that it was “clean” of Loskutov’s fingerprints. Despite this, the artist spent a month in prison and was only released on parole recently. The case has not been closed.

The fact that opposition parties and movements are followed in Russia is no surprise, and the joint resolution also mentions political activists of various sorts: supporters of the “Red Youth Vanguard”, the “National Bolshevik Party” (which has already been banned), the “Movement against illegal immigration” (its leader – Potkin-Belov was recently sentenced to 2.5 years for inciting racial hatred), the RNE (also banned) and the National Socialist Society.

The joint Prosecutor General, FSB and Interior Ministry's resolution also details what exactly needs to be done in the fight with these target groups, and the list is broad: from surveillance to the launching of criminal cases. Monitoring Internet usage and documenting instances of the dissemination of extremist ideas over websites, identifying those responsible, and launching court cases against them is also envisaged.

One of the most important areas of their activity is “work to neutralize and splinter groups whose members are prone to extremism.”

To this end it is necessary to “analyze the activity of groups of a radical disposition, track any changes in their membership or leaders, predict possible sources of conflict within the group that could lead to it splintering” as well as to ensure the communication of information about the locations where they gather and routes frequently travelled by activist members of extremist organizations.

Information on how people on this “black list” are subject to surveillance can be found here, as can descriptions of the equipment and technical resources used in this surveillance over these groups and their leaders.

The Crisis Expands the List

It was clear by Spring 2009, that the security structures were intent on broadening the list approved in December’s Resolution. The main reason was the growing crisis.

On April 15, 2009 at a meeting in the Public Chamber, Alexei Sedov, head of the FSB’s Service for the Protection of Constitutional Order and Fighting Terrorism said “It is vital to take the international financial crisis into account as a catalyst for terrorist activity and the growth of extremist phenomenon including violence from various kinds of “malcontent”, the opposition groups that lie outside the system and among young people and students.”

Given that statement, it is clear why independent trade unions have already roused the interest of the security services as possible strike organizers, and strikes can be called a kind of extremist activity. Thus, in April 2009 the had of the VAZ trade union “Edinstvo” Peter Zolotarev was called before prosecutors in Tolyatti to “provide an explanation of behavior intended to disrupt social order.”

Zolotarev had already given an explanation, and even met with representatives of the E center in Tolyatti. In addition, any expression of public protest, from an action organized by swindled investors to residents’ meetings to protect the last park in their district, all these can also be viewed through the prism of extremism, and that is exactly what is already happening.

On the 5th June 2009, in St Petersburg, police held six participants of a protest by swindled investors. As Gazeta.ru reported, those detained were threatened with “extremism laws” even though these were the same people who went on hunger strike in the Moscow Metropol hotel, prompting the St Petersburg authorities to promise to resolve their housing problems, but who have to date not received any accommodation.

Agentura.Ru October 28, 2010

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