Moscow city authorities signaled a tough line against demonstrations last week with the unveiling of a special unit to handle unauthorized demonstrations and riots. But by revealing that the unit had been created 10 months ago, it deepened the impression, prevalent earlier in the year, that authorities were having difficulty deciding how to handle the upsurge of unofficial gatherings.
The new police unit includes Afghan war veterans and is equipped with see-through shields, rubber truncheons, bullet-proof vests, helmets, and hockey-style shinguards. Police officials told journalists the unit was formed last November. It came to public notice on Aug. 21, when it was deployed to break up a Moscow demonstration.
The unit's commander, Col. Dmitri Ivanov, promised a tough line against unsanctioned demonstrations. The official news agency Tass says that there were 246 in the first half of the year. ``Democracy is not permissiveness,'' Colonel Ivanov told Soviet journalists.
Earlier this year police officials were taking a more relaxed approach to demonstrations. In June, senior police officers observing large demonstrations in downtown Moscow told this correspondent that any demonstration that was not specifically forbidden was permitted. This changed later that month, when police began to take a tough line against nonformal groups that met every Saturday near Pushkin Square, in central Moscow.
Deployment of the special unit now may be a response not only to the number of demonstrations, but to the tactics of many demonstrators.
Though authorities reserve their harshest criticism for an organization that openly proclaims its opposition to socialism, police have shown more concern about nonformal activists, who declare support for Marxism or socialism. The nonformal groups, which include the rapidly-growing Popular Front, call for political pluralism within the socialist system. They oppose conservatives within the leadership and have called for rapid, radical political reform.
The nonformals have shown themselves to be skillful tacticians in their contacts with police during demonstrations. Rather than confront, they have tried to open dialogues with individual policemen. In one conversation witnessed by this writer, a policeman expressed unhappiness at being called in to break up a demonstration. At another gathering, a young policeman talked cordially with a demonstrator about the Popular Front's aims and membership.
In response to this, the authorities seem to have reduced the number of rank-and-file policemen and deployed more commissioned officers to handle later demonstrations. The use of a special riot unit may serve to insulate the police from demoralizing conversations.
One development that seems to have worried the police was the establishment of a ``Hyde Park'' in central Moscow. ``On the whole I'm not opposed to a Moscow Hyde Park,'' Capt. Vladimir Bely told the Soviet weekly Moscow News last week. ``But it will not be here on Pushkin Square or in the center of Moscow. We have a clear directive from the city prosecutor.''
The timing of the formation of the police unit is interesting. The military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda reported that the unit came into being last November. This would mean that it was established only a short period after the dismissal of Moscow party chief Boris Yeltsin. (On Oct. 21 of last year Mr. Yeltsin bitterly criticized the lack of progress on reform, denounced the Soviet No. 2, Yegor Ligachev, and announced his resignation. Shortly after this he was dismissed from his post).
It was during Yeltsin's tenure as party chief that Moscow authorities began tolerating demonstrations. He himself met with a group of demonstrators from the now-notorious anti-Semitic organization Pamyat (memory).
Since his dismissal, Yeltsin has become a hero of the nonformal groups. And this week his name appeared among the founding members of the council of ``Memorial,'' a group dedicated to erecting a monument to victims of Stalinism and gathering documentation on Stalin's repressions.
Memorial activists are close to the nonformals, and used ``Hyde Park'' as a forum for collecting signatures on a petition calling for a monument.