NEWS

Russia Looks to Volunteers to Help Provide Public Security

By Matthew Harwood

As the global economic downturn hits Russia, the government has revived a Soviet-era tradition of neighborhood-watch-like groups that help police provide security in crowded cities, reports The New York Times.

Known as the druzhiniki, these volunteers, mostly college students, have evolved since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For those who recall life in the Soviet Union, the druzhiniki are often a nostalgic reminder of the citizen patrols of students and grandmothers walking the streets in red armbands at the behest of the Communist Party to keep a lookout for hooligans and petty criminals.

Though their numbers have dwindled since the Soviet collapse, the government is working to revive the druzhiniki in part to help law enforcement agencies combat what officials fear will be a spike in crime and public disorder amid the growing unemployment and rising prices of the economic crisis. A group of lawmakers in Russia’s Parliament is pushing legislation that could enhance the authority of existing volunteer patrols.

Today, these volunteer groups appear little different from the civilian neighborhood watch organizations found in many countries. But in Russia they offer a rare example of volunteerism in a society that remains largely skeptical of civic groups after years of forced social activism in the Soviet Union ...

Druzhiniki number about 17,000 in Moscow while units exist in 40 other regions of Russia, according to the Times. Legislation introduced into the Russian parliament aims at giving the volunteers more power by instituting the druzhiniki at the federal level and allowing them to impose fines when their orders are not followed.

Not everyone, however, believes empowering druzhiniki is a good idea.

Critics of the druzhiniki remember a time when the security volunteers doubled as informers and fear a return to those days. Some believe they will become corrupt like Russia's law enforcement establishment.

The druzhiniki's defenders downplay such fears, especially the argument that volunteers will corrupt as easy, if not easier, than police officers. Rather, proponents of these public security volunteers say teaming druzhiniki with police could help keep officers honest.

“When they patrol along with police,” Valery I. Maximov, a retired police officer and druzhiniki commander in Moscow, told the Times. “I know that the officer will not take a bribe because the druzhinik is watching.”

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