Boris Altshuler: Children in danger; Russia in deep trouble. Marking the 40th day since the tragedy in Kemerovo

posted 20 May 2018, 09:10 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 20 May 2018, 09:29 ]
4 May 2018

By Boris Altshuler, chair of the board of the nonprofit Rights of the Child, member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

The country, as it is, is bountiful. It is just order that is lacking. 
Count A.K Tolstoy, 1868

I see why your system is stalling. Because no one monitors anyone. But here someone is constantly monitoring someone else. Constantly. I have 40 detectives standing over me from different bureaus who can throw me in jail if I do something wrong. You don’t have that. 
From an interview with a New York policeman of Russian heritage Peter Grinevesky, Moskovskie Novosti, 22 June 1994. 

Forty days ago in Kemerovo’s Winter Cherry shopping centre dozens of children and adults burned and suffocated. I express my deepest condolences and compassion for the loved ones of the victims. And I think our shared task is to do everything to minimise the possibility of this horror happening again, that is to correct the root causes of such tragedies.

An accidental fire can happen at any time but a catastrophe occurs only when there have been gross violations of the rules on fire safety. Pervasive violations, such as those that lead to people dying in Kemerov, are not observed infrequently, including at the official state level. However, I know of only one commentary clearly indicating how these violations are possible. It’s a publication in Novaya Gazeta titled, ‘In the Kemerovo fire the guilty are the security officials’, where ‘security officials’ of course means not armed forces or the National Guard but the agencies of law enforcement and supervisory oversight of law enforcement. The very agencies that should expose those violators of the rules and severely punish them. The shopping centre ‘Winter Cherry’ should have been closed down a long time ago but stayed open for some reason.

Such paradoxical inaction on the part of the overseers and law enforcement officials I would call criminal negligence, which alas, is not confined to one department but an overarching occurrence. Why is no one controlling the quality of products in our shops, and as a result we don’t we know what we are feeding to our children? Because Rospotrebnadzor is not a body but a non-entity. Why are millions of citizens not living but just surviving, which is especially acute for families with children? Because the prices of essential products and for the square meters of essential living space are sky-high. Why is it like this? Because, as President of Russia Vladimir Putin explained at the State Council for the Development of Competition on 5th April, the Russian economy is hampered by price fixing. Yet a report by the Federal Antimonopoly Service board from 31st October 2017 states, ‘a specific feature of anti-competitive agreements in Russia is the participation of state bodies... with all the features inherent to organised criminal groups and criminal communities,’ and it is also noted that the Ministry of internal Affairs of Russia actually sabotages application of Article 178 of the Russian Criminal Code on “restriction of competition” to these organised criminal groups and communities.

Such criminal negligence on the part of law enforcement can also be linked directly to corruption - they get a cut and therefore turn a blind eye to flagrant violations of the law. Indeed, children in the suburbs of Moscow breathe the miasma of illegal dumping grounds for the same reason that children died in Kemerovo - ‘the guilty are the “security officials”’. The problem of corruption in law enforcement agencies - in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Investigative Committee, and so on - is a burning issue, which is repeatedly stated at the highest level. Take for example the recent publications, ‘Police throughout Russia pay tributes to their superiors’ and ‘Bribes, total protection and protection rackets, the sins of the Russian security services.’ And the President of Russia Vladimir Putin recently spoke harshly about the egregious corruption in the courts of the Russian Federation. And all this hits the children, the citizens of Russia, the whole country hard, depriving Russia of a future.

But beyond the criminal negligence and corruption, there is an additional terrible threat – law enforcement abusing their power, working not for the law but for themselves. Who knows how many prosecutions among the hundreds conducted for “extremism” offences are real, and how many were fabricated by the FSB itself? Such as, for example, the case of the “new nobility,” the organization that was formed by provocateurs from the intelligence services with the goal of imprisoning youths who got involved. As in the 1930s, when the NKVD itself carried out explosions in factories in order to later expose and shoot the “subversive elements.” It makes you want to says: Don’t come near me! After all today it is usually children who are the victims, or the children of yesterday – the young people who were born and grew up in the New Russia and don’t know anything about Soviet imprisonments “for things said” and conduct themselves in an open and relaxed manner, especially on social media. Lev Ponomarev wrote about this in detail in his blog of yesterday on the Ekho Moskvy website: “Save yourself, if you can: The FSB is on the attack!”

And the suicide of the talented girl from the Moscow suburbs – after riot police brutally broke in to her apartment on the basis of a report by her neighbour – is along the same lines as the deaths of the children at the Winter Cherry.

What can we do? “The future is happening now” (Arseny Tarkovsky), and the many messages about planned reforms of the law enforcement and investigative systems give hope for cardinal improvement in their work, of overcoming their demonstrated criminal negligence, corruption, and abuse of their positions. Just as necessary is a cardinal improvement of the entire system of supervision and oversight of the Russian Federation.

There’s no “squaring the circle” here. Why, in other countries, do owners of stores and various types of complexes strictly ensure the quality of the products they sell, the observance of safety rules, and so on? Because independent inspectors go to these stores incognito, in the guise of customers. And if they find violations, there’s a court summons – and an end to the whole business. And cartel price collusion is one of the most serious crimes in other countries, as the president of Russia recently said, while our Federal Anti-Monopoly Service can punish them only with the greatest difficulty and under the Code of Administrative Offences.

And so, several concrete (though obviously incomplete) suggestions for necessary reforms:

1. An off-premises oversight brigade needs to be formed under the Federal Service for Consumer Protection, which would visit the regions without warning and anonymously. In the event of violations to safety laws, etc., not only do the direct violators need to be punished, but the officials staffing the oversight department of that region of the Russian Federation also need to be thrown out. That is, they should all quake and fear – in the same way that all businessmen and officials in the West are scared to death of being found in violation.

2. The Supreme Court of the Russian Federation needs to create a hotline for judges across the country, who will be obliged to use it to inform of any attempts to influence them. And if they do not inform within half an hour after the attempt, then – as in Germany – the judge will be disbarred for life. Yes, judges should quake and fear as well.

3. And the members of all law enforcement agencies – the FSB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Investigative Committee, etc. – should live in fear of breaking the law, as well. Consider the quotation from an American police officer in the epigraph. I also used this quotation 18 years ago in a January 2000 article, “What should you do when you can’t just do nothing? Constructive commentary on Vladimir Putin’s article ‘Russia at the turn of the century.’” You can find further concrete recommendations on how to achieve order in the law enforcement system in my recent article “Human rights and the coming elections: If I became president.”

Translated by Julie Hersh and Tatjana Duff