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Monday, May 14, 2007

Whom do they think they are kidding?

Riot police in Russia get cuddly, loveable

After the violent dispersal of several opposition rallies, Russia’s riot police are in need of an image makeover. Ajax, a large police dog that enjoys licking cats, is ready to oblige.

The hefty Alsatian astonished more than 100 journalists gathered at a police base outside Moscow by following orders to lick and nuzzle a fluffy, apparently happy cat. “You see,” exclaimed proud commander, Major General Alexander Ivanin, “our service dogs wouldn't threaten a thing!”

The cuddly attack dog was part of a charm offensive laid on to repair the image of Russia’s OMON, or Special Purpose Police Unit, which violently broke up peaceful anti-Kremlin protests in April.

Human rights activists and Russia’s tiny liberal opposition see the club-wielding OMON as the ugly face of President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly repressive regime. But at their base in Shchyolkovo, just east of Moscow, burly OMON commanders were keen to bond with their media critics.

Techno music blared as camouflage-clad officers smashed bricks with their fists, punched through glass jars, fired Kalashnikovs, and demonstrated dozens of ways to disarm and disable an opponent — then shoot him.

“Try it and see for yourselves,” lantern-jawed General Ivanin suggested over the loudspeakers, while OMON special forces kicked, chopped and stamped each other.

No one from the assembled crowd of Russian and foreign journalists stepped forward.

When the turn came for old-fashioned riot police skills, Ivanin could not conceal his excitement. “The legendary Moscow OMON!” he boomed, as 30 or so men equipped with shields, body armour and helmets began a display of club-wielding that resembled a dance routine. “This is not an attack. This active defence,” Ivanin added. And how can journalists avoid the OMON's wrath? Vladimir didn’t hesitate: “The best thing? Don’t go to demonstrations.”

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