Russia to use paramilitaries and Cossacks to enforce Covid-19 isolation in occupied Crimea
The Russian occupation authorities in Crimea have announced that paramilitaries and ‘Cossacks’ are to be deployed, together with the police and National Guard [Rosgvardia] to impose the self-isolation rules which are to become draconian as from 15 April, in connection with the coronavirus pandemic. So-called ‘Cossacks’ and armed paramilitaries were used in 2014 to provide the violence and brutality that Russia did not want attributed to its soldiers, and the occupation regime has recently moved to give them a similar role again.
Fines are to be imposed from 15 April in Crimea, essentially for not sitting at home. Fines for legal entities are especially steep – from 300 to 500 thousand roubles, but individuals will also be fined four thousand the first time, then five thousand. With the sort of people who are to be patrolling the streets, widespread abuse can be anticipated.
Krym.Realii has monitored social media reactions to the new restrictions and to Aksyonov’s plea that people be “understanding”, and found them overwhelmingly negative. One person commented that they’ve been hearing such ‘mantras’ about being understanding for six years. Another: “People haven’t got money for food, and you’re imposing fines”. A number of the commentators condemned the restrictions, saying that if the authorities had closed Crimea off – the bridge illegally built between Crimea and Russia, for example, there would be no coronavirus. Russia, which currently bears liability for what happens in Crimea took a very long time to even admit to a Covid-19 problem, let alone taking any responsible measures. The Crimean Human Rights Group has been reporting for some time that there are grounds for believing that all figures given for numbers of infections, of those in quarantine, etc. in Crimea are unreliable.
There has been no freedom of peaceful assembly since Russia’s invasion and annexation, however restrictions were previously against Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians, holding a flag, gathering to honour the victims of the 1944 Deportation of the entire Crimean Tatar people, etc. Restrictions in connection with Covid-19 are, in contrast, probably warranted, but will be enforced by both official and unofficial individuals who have previously been implicated in methods of repression.
Novaya Gazeta spoke with Ivan Kryzhanovsky, the head of the so-called ‘self-defence’ [the above-mentioned paramilitaries] in Sevastopol, who said that they already have over 60 men on checkpoints, and that a further 80 will shortly begin patrolling the streets with the police and Rosgvardia. Aleksandr Krasyuk, from the Sevastopol Cossack brotherhood, said that at the moment their people are only taking food to those in isolation, but can send around 600 men for such patrolling.
In November 2019, Russia Interior Ministry announced that it would be deploying ‘Cossacks’ to supposedly fight ‘terrorism’ in Crimea by patrolling the streets, as well as ‘educational work’ with young people. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, so-called ‘Cossacks’ have been frequently deployed in Russia as thugs, with their lack of official status or salary making it possible to deny any connection to the authorities. Together with armed ‘self-defence’ paramilitaries, they were used to give a modicum of credibility to Russia’s denial of involvement in, first the invasion of Crimea, and then the enforced disappearances, abductions, torture, etc. that immediately followed. The Crimean Human Rights Group has recorded many cases where Cossacks have been involved, first in helping the police to exert pressure on people, and then in falsifying prosecutions against Crimean activists. Yevgeny Titov, a Russian journalist familiar with such ‘Cossack’ patrolling in Russia, warned then that this was an ominous development. The reason is brutally simple: the police “are at least formally obliged to work in accordance with legislation, while the Cossacks have no such obligation. The authorities themselves do not conceal this.”
“In essence, this is a part of the state authorities, and huge amounts of money are spent on them. In this way, they have created a group of people who are willing to carry out any order, any dirty jobs, and nothing will happen to them. They have been allowed to act outside the realm of law. As a rule, it’s normally former FSB officers and marginal individuals who end up as ‘Cossacks’ – you don’t particularly have to have any skills, simply put on a uniform and do what they tell you.”
Sergei Akimov from the ‘Crimean Cossack brotherhood’ supported Russia’s invasion in 2014, however has often been very critical of the occupation regime’s actions and has faced persecution for this. A year ago, he spoke with Krym.Realii about the ‘self-defence’ paramilitaries that Russia now glorifies as “the people’s insurgency”. He says that they basically took anybody, including criminals and down-and-outs. “There needed to be a certain number of people to show that this was simply the ordinary people”. He added that there are very few of those original ‘insurgents’ left, with most left being people who went into it for money and who also got their relatives into it. He was also dismissive of the claims about the numbers involved in this ‘insurgency’ – that there were 15 thousand Cossacks and other paramilitaries, making up 15 ‘regiments’. The numbers were much smaller, he says, with the biggest of such ‘regiments’ having just 140 men.
The armed paramilitaries are known to have been behind the horrific torture and killing of solitary protester Reshat Ametov and the abduction and torture of many journalists and civic activists. There are strong grounds for believing that they were directly responsible for the disappearance and likely murder of civic activists Timur Shaimardanov, Seiran Zineidov and others.