This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.
The past few decades have seen a troubling increase in the use of private military and security companies (PMSCs) as a substitute for government forces. Sometimes this “privatization” happens with the express consent of the state and is concentrated in “low-intensity armed conflict and post-conflict situations”, for example the United States’ decision to use Blackwater for security operations in Iraq. In other cases consent is tacit or even irrelevant.
When the state is incapable of protecting its own citizens, it loses its monopoly on violence. The resulting power vacuum is filled by organizations willing to provide the service. Traditionally, organized crime is one such entity, but private security agencies now rise to the occasion just as often. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, the Russian mafia and PMSCs stepped in to supplement substandard domestic law enforcement. A report from a UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries singles out Russian PMSCs precisely for their intertwined relationships with both criminal and law-enforcement structures.
Where government and private security intersects
Although the heyday of the mafia has passed, Russian private businesses still use PMSCs, known as private security firms, or “ChOPs”. There are approximately 750 thousand [ru] Russians employed in the ChOP industry, many of them licensed to use firearms. In 2010, [ru] the Russian government expanded its regulation of these private forces. As a result, ChOPs now lease firearms from the Ministry of the Interior (MVD), [ru] rather than owning them outright.
Improper storage of such leased firearms was the official reason given for a May 12, 2012 raid on Pantan, a ChOP owned by the Gudkov family. Gennady Gudkov and his son Dmitry are members of the social democratic A Just Russia Party in the Russian Parliament. As prominent figures in the opposition movement, they also use their deputy status to negotiate with the police.
On May 13 Dmitry Gudkov blogged that Pantan – which is formally headed by his mother and brother – was inspected by officials who confiscated over 100 guns. Later, on May 25, Pantan’s ChOP license was revoked for one month, leading Gudkov to blog that the company is now “shut.” The general consensus of Russian opposition bloggers is that the closure was politically motivated.
Pro-Kremlin bloggers disagree, noting that Gudkov’s firm was in charge of security at Moscow’s Demodedovo airport during the December 24 terrorist attack. Others speculate that the Gudkov’s are merely the latest casualty in a general attack on ChOPs.
After all, Pantan is but one member of a conglomerate of security firms called Oskord. Since Gennady Gudkov founded Oskord in 1992, it has been involved in a range of activities that include guarding UN convoys to debt collection. It is staffed by over seven thousand security and armed forces veterans.
As such, Oskord competes for lucrative contracts with the Non-Departmental Corps, an MVD branch that provides private security services. The MVD, it appears, is exerting pressure on ChOPs across Russia – perhaps to increase its own market share.
For example, in Samarskaya Oblast in 2010 twenty-eight ChOP inspections were carried out, and 371 guns were confiscated. A commenter on GuardInfo.ru – an industry resource – summarized the situation accordingly: “Thus it was before the Gudkov case, thus it will be after.”
Meanwhile, Russian gun-rights advocate Maria Butina thinks that Gennady Gudkov got what he deserved. According to her, he was instrumental in restricting civilian handgun ownership in Russia. She spells out the irony: “… if civilians could own handguns […] Gudkov’s ChOP would not be so easily shut down by a weapon recall.”