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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mystery Protesters Provoking Trouble

Yelena Kashirina says she knows almost everyone from the Moscow chapter of Red Youth Vanguard. But when the leftist group stages demonstrations, dozens of young people she doesn't know mysteriously show up.

The anonymous protesters wear the right clothes and chant the right catchphrases, but then they become aggressive, causing the police to step in and break things up. "After that they disappear immediately," said Kashirina, 19.

Red Youth Vanguard and other left-leaning political groups believe their rallies are being targeted and infiltrated by agents provocateur planted by the police and Federal Security Service, or FSB. The goal, they say, is to surreptitiously undermine and marginalize anti-government demonstrations, especially in light of the widespread protests over social reforms that have prompted calls for the resignation of President Vladimir Putin and the government.

The FSB did not reply to requests for comment. Moscow police acknowledged sending undercover officers to rallies but denied that they were provocateurs.

The setup used by provocateurs is pretty straightforward, according to activists who said they have witnessed it. At some point during a rally, planted officers wearing civilian clothes cause a disturbance -- anything from starting a fight to goading protesters into breaking demonstration laws. This gives uniformed police an official reason to break up the gathering.

Red Youth Vanguard leader Sergei Udaltsov said he fell victim to the trap on Jan. 22, when up to 5,000 people, including members of his group, Communist pensioners and radical National Bolsheviks, rallied against social reforms at Belorussky Station.

The demonstration went smoothly until Udaltsov called on the crowd to march to the presidential administration building at Staraya Ploshchad to demand the sacking of the government. Udaltsov said he told the protesters to lay down their flags and signs to avoid being accused of taking part in an illegal protest.

Kashirina, who attended the rally, confirmed this and said that dozens of men in civilian clothes then began to close in on Udaltsov. "They were yelling and pushing their way through the crowd, and when they got up front, our leaders began pushing back," she said.

Once the pushing began, OMON police commandos stepped in and detained Udaltsov and nine other Red Youth Vanguard members, who were taken to a police station and fined for allegedly trying to organize an unsanctioned protest.

The apparent provocateurs also tried to pick fights with other protesters, and Kommersant reported that many of them had ear pieces poking out from under their winter hats. "Yelling 'What's your problem?' a person with an ear piece attacked one of the demonstrators, who tried to fight back," Kommersant said. "But the others stopped him, explaining, 'It's a provocateur!'"

Some of the men filmed their own provocations, Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported.

"This is a common tactic," Udaltsov said. "Aside from the officers in uniform, there are usually many in civilian clothing masquerading as protesters. Some of them are more difficult to recognize, especially those who dress up like members of youth groups. Some are a little more obvious, like the ones with ear pieces."

State Duma Deputy Vladimir Kashin, a Communist who attended the Jan. 22 rally, said party members are being advised not to react to "planned provocations" and to follow the law. "But we will be addressing this problem more closely in the future, and that doesn't mean just talking about it," he said. "We're going to deal with them at the protests and find out where they got the ear pieces and who is talking to them."

Alexander Tarasov, a sociologist who follows leftist youth groups, said the main task of the provocateurs is to ensure that a rally does not get too big. "If it does, they'll try to start a fight to break it up," Tarasov said. "Usually the signal to proceed is given by a senior officer. It can be done using ear pieces or radios, or it could be someone on the scene using visual signals. He might pull a book out of his pocket, open it up and put it back in his pocket. That alerts the agents in plain clothes to start an incident."

Tarasov noted, however, that such tactics are usually used only in Moscow and other large cities. "If it's in a small village, they'll just send in the OMON and chase everyone out," he said. "If you're in a big city, they need to maintain some pretense of legality."

Tarasov said the authorities only send provocateurs into authorized rallies, as they do not need an excuse to break up unsanctioned gatherings.

But members of the National Bolshevik Party said the FSB has used provocateurs at unsanctioned protests. On June 22, about 25 National Bolsheviks handcuffed themselves to the doors of the German trade representation in Moscow to demand that Berlin pay compensation to Russian veterans of World War II. Ten party members climbed on the roof and unrolled a sign reading, "June 22: We Won't Forget, We Won't Forgive," in reference to the day Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union.

During the storming of the trade building, a man who identified himself as a television journalist asked Roman Papkov, the head of the party's Moscow chapter, to step around the corner for an interview, 19-year-old party member Sergei Ilyukin said.

"The guy posing as a journalist punched him, and Roman responded likewise," Ilyukhin said. "The police came over, and the journalist showed his FSB identification. They arrested Roman."

Ilyukhin said Papkov was unavailable for comment because he is facing ongoing problems with the police.

Constitutional scholar Vil Kikot, a professor at the Moscow State Law Academy, said any use of provocateurs to break up demonstrations would be a "gross violation" of the Constitution. "Of course it is illegal and has no place in democratic society," Kikot said. "It is every citizen's right to express his disapproval with the government in a legal, public protest."

City police spokesman Kirill Mazurin said that in addition to uniformed police assigned to maintain order, police officers in civilian clothing are often placed in crowds to watch for any illegal activity among the protesters. "The goal is to keep an eye out for citizens who commit actions not connected with the sanctioned purpose of the demonstration," he said.

Mazurin said undercover police are not involved in provocations of protesters. "Our job is to make sure demonstrations do not get out of control," he said. "Such provocations would be extremely disadvantageous to the nature of our work."

Calls to the press offices of the FSB's Moscow and Moscow region branches went unanswered for almost two weeks. Questions faxed to their offices last week also went unanswered.

Undercover agents attend gatherings or parties across the political spectrum, Tarasov said.

Ilya Yashin, head of the youth movement of the liberal Yabloko party, which recently staged protests over social reforms and the possible scrapping of student military deferments, said undercover police show up for almost all of the group's demonstrations. He said, however, that he has not faced any problems with them. "They've never tried to start a fight to break up a rally," he said.

Tarasov said authorities have no desire to disrupt rallies staged by liberal groups. "They don't consider liberal groups like Yabloko and SPS as threats," Tarasov said. "They're more willing to issue permits for demonstrations to these groups. They assign fewer policemen to the events. At Red Youth Vanguard protests, they keep a busload of OMON officers nearby, but not so at Yabloko meetings.

"The FSB doesn't consider them extremist groups. Maybe it won't be like that forever, but that's the case for now."