Dirty 'Cleanup' Tactics

In conducting 'cleanup' operations of 'illegals' in Moscow, the authorities contravene the constitution and violate human rights.

On the eve of the World Youth Games in Moscow, the authorities have begun "cleanup" operations. That's what local law enforcement agencies call exercises for ridding the city of "illegals."

According to city authorities, "illegals" are persons who do not have official permission from the police to live in the Russian metropolis. Every visitor, regardless of citizenship, must register within a three-day period and identify his place of residence.

The local authorities ignore the fact that such a measure contravenes the country's constitution and violates human rights. According to one version, the author of this administrative procedure is the mayor himself, Yury Luzhkov. But the overwhelming majority of Muscovites, concerned about the continually worsening crime situation in the capital, support their chief.

On the eve of the games, the city's police department is conducting "cleanup" exercises at Moscow bazaars once a week, with the cooperation of other law enforcement agencies. The following "cleanup," attended by this author, was conducted at the Luzhniki bazaar at the end of last week.

The operation was clouded in secrecy; none of the officers accompanying the convoy of riot police troops knew what the ultimate destination was. In order to guarantee the effectiveness of the "clean-up" and ensure an element of surprise, only a narrow circle of generals within the police department had precise information on the operation.

The convoy of more than 30 buses and cars drove at high speed along the streets of the capital. Only as we approached Luzhniki from a distance of a couple of kilometers did we understand that the bazaar at the Luzhniki sports complex was the destination for the cleanup.

The Moscow riot police (known by the acronym OMON, or Special Task Police Force) acted with lightning speed. In just a few minutes, the special forces had surrounded the trading area of the stadium. Within 10 minutes, crowds swarmed toward all exits. The people, swearing in the 30-degree heat, pressed toward the policemen, who couldn't possibly check each person's documents.

Meanwhile, the traders started closing their metal stands. Within 15 minutes, almost no one at Luzhniki was trading. Within 30 minutes, the special forces started herding out "violators," those who couldn't show they had a right to be in Moscow. The buses quickly filled up with detainees, mostly citizens of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as some Asian countries.

From the sidelines, the entire event looked like a military operation. It was similar to scenes often shown in films set in fascist-occupied territory, where raids were regularly conducted to flush out subversives, partisans or Jews. The only difference here was that people weren't lined up against the wall, as they were under the Nazis.

The crime-ridden atmosphere at Luzhniki and other Moscow bazaars is certainly not ideal. But creating an atmosphere of hysteria among the buyers and sellers with the help of the OMON shows the impotence of the authorities in combating crime. According to one special forces commander, the police have toned down their tactics in the recent past. Nevertheless, such raids can still be deeply demeaning for those caught in the web.

For instance, how do you show a policeman that you arrived in Moscow a few hours ago by private transport or other conveyance and haven't managed to register yet? After all, when you enter Moscow, no one hands out documents when you cross the outer ring road. Alexander Sharavin, deputy chief of the police department's directorate for fighting organized crime, has said visitors shouldn't worry about this because the officials who register passports "will work it out."

But the police "work it out" with the detainees very simply: They take them to the nearest police station and keep them there until they've checked their record. This can take several hours, particularly when the OMON brings in up to 1,000 "violators" in one raid. Many residents of Kostroma, Ryazan and Kaluga also fall into the OMON nets when they come to Moscow for a day to buy less expensive goods. Sometimes their sojourn ends in a police station, behind bars, while the police determine who they are.

Since the early 1990s, Russia has had a serious problem with illegal immigrants from the countries of Asia and the East. Hundreds of thousands have come to the former Soviet Union in search of housing and work. As a result of the "cleanup" at Luzhniki, two buses were crammed with people from Afghanistan and Vietnam. Yet, according to one employee at the city's registration office, raids in search of illegal immigrants are often ineffective.

According to the law, the registration office must forcibly remove illegal immigrants from Russia. But it doesn't have the funds for airline tickets, so many illegal immigrants elect to pay a fine of some 40 to 50 rubles and continue to live here. It is more advantageous for them to pay the fine than to leave the profitable capital.

The Moscow authorities have much experience conducting such cleanup operations, first enacted before the 1980 Olympic games. The city was cleansed of the homeless, poor, social undesirables and prostitutes. Obviously, those in power today want to repeat the experience of past years. But now they are ready to contravene the constitution and violate human rights to do so.

It's possible that, among the thousands of people who are filtered through a cleanup operation, there are actual criminals. And there are people who violate trading norms at the bazaars.

But that isn't an excuse to demean our own residents, for whom going shopping is similar now to attending a demonstration or manning the barricades. Such raids show the impotence of the Moscow police department, which is unable to fight crime using effective investigative methods.

Mumin Shakirov is a staff writer for Radio Liberty, Moscow. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.