Putin Heavy Heads Up New Anti-Activist Squad

Putin and Zolotov
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Interior Ministry troops commander Viktor Zolotov, who has been appointed the National Guard head, attend a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow April 5. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/ Kremlin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has triggered concern from the opposition after announcing the formation of a new National Guard, headed by his ex-chief of security, answering to Putin himself.

The Kremlin issued an official decree on Tuesday evening, signed by Putin, in which he ordered that Interior Ministry rapid response and riot police forces will be dissolved and a National Guard will be formed in their place. Instead of the Ministry of the Interior, the new body will answer to Russia's commander in chief: Putin.

Since the signing of the decree, the Kremlin has given a glimpse into the wide array of areas the new National Guard of Russia will cover through a list of laws, which parliament is urged to change in order to make room for the new law enforcement body in Russia's crowded security apparatus.

Besides local police forces, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior, Russia also has its Federal Security Service (FSB), border police and some autonomous regions inside Russia, such as Chechnya, have their own Interior Ministry with well armed troops.

The National Guard will be given responsibilities to assist all of those entities and, notably, will be charged with guarding Russian government figures and important sites. Its powers are very extensive, with the unit able to detain people for up to three hours without an arrest warrant, search houses and block off public spaces and sites.

According to the drafted law surrounding the National Guard, submitted to parliament, servicemen will be able to use firearms, without warning, in a situation where they believe someone's life is in danger.

Putin appointed Vladimir Zolotov—former chief of his personal security—as the head of the National Guard and included him on the board of the Russian Security Council.

According to the Kremlin, the National Guard is intended to be an effective tool to combat extremism and prevent militant attacks in Russia. Speculation as to what the new National Guard will be used for has spread across Russian social media as the term "Natsgvardiya," a portmanteau of the two words, became a top trend on Twitter by Wednesday morning.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov further fawned these fears by confirming that the National Guard would be used to "maintain public order" and that servicemen will break up "illegal" protests if needed.

Anti-corruption blogger and opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny commented on the new extensive powers of the National Guard by joking on Twitter: "Wonderful, give them investigative powers too and general supervision and surveillance… and the Planetarium"

Open Russia, the London-based organisation of Putin's once famous rival, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, speculated that the National Guard's true purpose was to contain anti-government protests such as the Maidan movement in Ukraine. According to their comment on the announcement, the others functions attributed to the National Guard are already performed by existing agencies, however there is not one that could stop "a Maidan case."

A member of parliament, Dmitry Gudkov, widely regarded as the sole opposition lawmaker in Russia, said the new body was "not a national guard at all."

"This is a personal guard," Gudkov wrote on his Facebook, alleging Putin was shoring up protection for himself in the scenario of the people rising against him.