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Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON)

Russia's president signed a decree April 05, 2016 to create a national guard tasked with fighting terrorism and organized crime. The new federal agency will be led by Vladimir Putin's former chief bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov. Formed out of the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the National Guard, according to the president, will continue to work "in close cooperation" with the ministry.

Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya (OMON), the Special Purpose Mobile Unit or Special Designation Militia Detachments, also known as the "Black Berets," have led the local Russian Police in the tactical fight against serious crime and terrorism for years. The OMON units, which operate in all major cities and main urban centers, deal with hijacking and kidnapping (including building, aircraft, bus, and train takeovers); assist local police and security agencies in dealing with violent and terrorist organizations by conducting surveillance and handling dangerous arrests; assist local security agencies in maintaining public order; and participate in handling large-scale demonstrations, including riot control.

The OMON [Detachments of Special Designation] were created in 1987. The growth of nationalism, organised crime and interethnic frictions at the end of the 1980s convinced the Soviet leaders that the MVD's powers had to be boosted by new formations, Special Purpose Police Detachments (otryady militsiy osobogo naznacheniya OMON). The first such units were set up between 1987-1988 in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Minsk and Novosibirsk. By the summer of 1989 the formation of OMON's machinery was completed. The 36,000 members of this new elite formation were directly subordinated to the First Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Commander in Chief of the MVD Internal Troops.

By 1991 there were an estimated 9,000 OMON troops deployed throughout the USSR, while another estimate suggested that as of late summer 1992, there were 5,500 OMON personnel organized into 20 detachments around Russia. Created to deal with terrorist incidents, serious criminal activities and the "maintenance of public order," OMON units are organized like SWAT teams or light infantry, depending on their roles. These units also are deployed to conflicts beyond their immediate operating areas. OMON units gained notoriety for their repressive and lethal activities in the Baltic republics and are based in many other republic areas. In the face of growing drug-cultivation problems the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, the Ministry of Internal Affairs Militia OMON were employed starting in 1992 in drug-eradication efforts.

All candidates for service in the OMON must have completed their obligatory terms in the army or the Interior Ministry's forces, with preference given to former members of the Spetsnaz, the naval commando, or airborne divisions. OMON's selection process includes medical checks, physical and psychological examinations, and severe, sometimes brutal, testing of hand-to-hand fighting abilities. By the turn of the century the number of extremely violent organizations in urban centers and the inability or unwillingness of central authorities to deal with them effectively, suggests the possibility of an increase in OMON's size and range of duties.

The scope and spontaneity of protests in December 2008 against the regime's anti-crisis policies sparked speculation about the potential for unrest and political crisis. On 22 December 2008 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin send OMON units from Moscow, Daghestan and two Siberian cities to suppress a second weekend of demonstrations in the Far Eastern city of Vladivostok. These events showed that the Kremlin does not plan to negotiate on the issue and will crack down on attempts, in Putin's words, "to destabilize the country." The use of Special Forces from outside the area indicated not only that Moscow would no longer tolerate resistance on the issue, but also that it found that local militia forces were too sympathetic to demonstrators at past rallies.

Critics of the regime heralded the protest wave that swept across Russia in December against the government's decision to raise import tariffs on the import of automobiles (particularly the lucrative inflow of used cars from Japan and Europe) as evidence of the shaky social foundations of the Putin system. Federal authorities took the protests seriously, sending loyal forces to Vladivostok to disperse the demonstrators and implementing an aggressive PR campaign to discredit the protesters as stooges of mafia networks or foreign interests. The center's robust, if somewhat belated, response to the Vladivostok events suggested that the Medvedev/Putin team takes the risk of social unrest seriously, reflecting the administration's continuing distrust of society. Overriding objections by the Primorskiy region's leadership, special OMON forces from the Ministry of Internal Affairs from Moscow were sent to Vladivostok to put down the protests.

In February 2010 the magazine New Times published accusations that the special purpose police detachments (OMON) employed slave labor and had permission to use excessive force when disbanding unauthorized demonstrations. Theodore Gerber, professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Sarah Mendelson, Director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, studied the problem of police violence in Russia and published their report in the March 2008 edition of Law and Society Review. This study documented the weak statistical information available to accurately describe the problem of police brutality in Russia. However, in national surveys that they conducted with the Levada Center from 2002 to 2004, they found that almost one in twenty Russians claimed to have experienced first-hand violence at the hands of the police in the preceding two years. About the same number knew relatives who had been assaulted by police. Gerber and Mendelson contended that compared with other countries including the US, these proportions are high. Adding police corruption to the analysis, they state that police misconduct in Russia is "widespread, even commonplace."

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