Return of the nosy babushka

To counter rising crime and terrorism, Moscow is set to recruit citizens as police eyes and ears.

It was one of those dread possibilities that hung over everyday life in the Soviet Union: a summons to appear before the local block council.

These watchdogs of public morals and order could impose penalties from public humiliation to calling in the police - for such offenses as shirking participation in "voluntary" street-cleaning brigades or listening to foreign radio broadcasts. Under Stalin, people were encouraged to submit anonymous denunciations of neighbors suspected of harboring antistate opinions, which often led to the victim's arrest and the gulag or execution.

The councils were disbanded when the USSR collapsed. But now Moscow city authorities have decided to revive them in what they say is a kinder, gentler version, similar to America's Neighborhood Watch programs.

Echoing the views of many older Muscovites, pensioner Vladimir Moiseyev says he supports the idea. "Something should be done. There is disorder everywhere."

Mr. Moiseyev sees little danger of Stalinist-style anonymous stukachi - informers - defaming innocent people in today's Russia: "If someone claims I'm a hooligan or a drunkard, who's going to believe them?"

But Mahmed Nanizade, who hails from the former Soviet Caucasus republic of Azerbaijan, is more skeptical. "This law looks good on paper," he says, "but it might turn out quite another way in real life." With his brown skin, Mr. Nanizade already endures frequent document checks by police on the lookout for Chechen terrorists. "People who help the police can be corrupt, they can tell lies about someone. It all depends on the people who get involved," he says.

A bill rushed through its first reading last week in the Moscow Duma, the municipal legislature, will install a Soviet-style system of grass-roots supervision and control Moscow's 600 districts. Backers insist that enlisting neighborhood police informers and security helpers is vital to conquering the growing threats here of crime and terrorism.

But critics warn that authority that will be handed to the semiofficial vigilante bodies is far more sweeping than anything found in the West, and potential abuses may eclipse benefits.

"The purpose is to consolidate citizens, and improve the flow of information from ordinary people to the authorities," says Col. Anatoly Shlykov, a veteran police commander and one of the new law's authors.

In Col. Shlykov's district of Moscow, Taganka, a platoon-sized suicide squad of Chechen rebels slipped past police last October and seized a theater with 900 hostages, leading to the deadliest security disaster in recent Russian history. "We face new and ruthless enemies, and that's why police need to have eyes and ears everywhere," Colonel Shlykov says. "People want to be protected, and they are ready to take a hand in defending their neighborhoods."

When the revived block councils aren't watching for terrorists, they will handle more mundane problems, such as collecting rent from delinquent tenants, punishing cheating shopkeepers, keeping tabs on vagrants and suspicious outsiders, settling quarrels between neighbors, and enforcing sanitation standards, he says.

Under the law, likely to be passed in September, each block council - representing about 10,000 inhabitants - will have a permanent neighborhood office, with a full-time, salaried chairperson elected by a volunteer council of local residents. The chair will report to municipal authorities, but is also expected to have close relations with local police, security forces, emergency services, and druzhiniki (recently reestablished anticrime street patrols made up of volunteers).

Citizens will be encouraged to report, anonymously if they wish, suspicious behavior by neighbors or violations of public order. Information could be passed to police or security forces, though Colonel Shlykov says most misdemeanors - such as littering, disorderly conduct, or disobeying residential regulations - will be dealt with directly. As in Soviet times, the council chair may order offenders to shape up or risk a referral to higher authorities.

The emphasis on Soviet-style public order has some experts concerned. "We are returning to a system where networks of informers watch everyone's movements and report to police," says Otto Latsis, a columnist with the independent Russky Kourier newspaper.

Some fear the system will end up empowering neighborhood troublemakers and wannabe tyrants. "Russians don't trust their police, for very good reasons," says Sergei Grigoryants, chair of Glasnost, an independent human rights monitoring organization. "These block councils are likely to become a mechanism of cooperation between corrupt cops and petty criminals to jointly extort and slander citizens. They were an avenue for power abuse in Soviet times, and are likely to be so again."

In Taganka, an experimental block council has already been set up - right next door to the Dubrovka Theater, where the October hostage incident unfolded, resulting in the deaths of the 40 Chechen attackers and 129 hostages.

"Our goal is to make sure nothing like that ever happens again," says Anna Barsutskaya, a war veteran and council enthusiast. But so far, the group has done little but hold a couple of sparsely attended meetings while awaiting funding for a full-time administrator.

In communist times, the block councils were universally viewed as grass-roots nests of secret-police informers, Communist Party lackeys, and neighborhood tattletales. But backers of the scheme say it's a new era. A series of apartment bombings in 1999, blamed on Chechen rebels, led to public clamor for more security in Russian cities. The Dubrovka Theater tragedy, and a more recent spate of deadly Chechen suicide bombings have focused people's minds on the new threat stalking their streets.

A recent poll conducted by the independent Center for Public Opinion Studies found a majority of Russians believe that as long as the current, nearly four-year-old war in Chechnya continues, more acts of terrorism are inevitable. In the same poll, 61 percent said police and security forces alone were not enough to protect citizens from attack.

"Public safety must be constructed by the society itself," says Oleg Bocharov, a member of the Moscow Duma's law-and- order commission.

"The past 15 years have seen the destruction of order and moral standards in our communities, and people have had enough. Our polls show that as many as a quarter of all Muscovites are ready and willing to participate in block councils if it means improving security for their loved ones."

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