Sunday, March 21, 2010

a little predictive climate setting?

NYTimes | At a certain point last summer, when snipers on rooftops began picking off police officers, Col. Mukhtar Mukhtarov’s wife blocked the door with her body and refused to let him leave home in his uniform.

For 25 years, it had been one of the great joys of Colonel Mukhtarov’s life to walk the streets in his red-striped police cap. But by last summer all that had been turned so thoroughly on its head that he quietly went back to his bedroom to change into civilian clothes.

His son Gassan, a 20-year-old beat officer, has known the job only this way, thick with fear. He changes in his car outside the station house. Aware that militants often follow police officers for days before killing them — his neck sometimes prickling with the sense of being watched — Gassan Mukhtarov swaps license plates with friends to make himself harder to track. He is still not safe. He knows that.

“They’ve known who I was from the first day,” he said.

It is all a measure of how thoroughly order has broken down in the Russian region of Dagestan, in the North Caucasus. Fifty-eight police officers were killed in attacks here last year, according to the republic’s Interior Ministry, many of them while running errands or standing at their posts. Last month alone, according to press reports, 13 officers were killed in bombings and gangland-style shootings.

The gunmen — some combination of Islamist militants, alienated young people, ordinary criminals and foot soldiers in private armies — just melt back into the city, to be described in the next day’s news reports as “persons unknown.”

As the number of attacks doubled, to 201 last year from 100 in 2008, the authorities tried to offer relief. The blue stripes were removed from most police cars and officers were told they no longer had to wear uniforms on the way to work. In a weird touch, every traffic officer in Makhachkala (pronounced ma-HACH-ka-la), the capital city, is now backed up by a riot policeman in camouflage, Kalashnikov assault rifle at the ready.

Even so, recruits are under pressure from friends and relatives to quit, said Gassan Mukhtarov, who is a lieutenant. He said he could not really blame them.

“If you had a son, would you let him work as a policeman?” he asked. “I wouldn’t let my own son do it.”

The police occupy a miserable place in Russian society, where many citizens see officers as so corrupt and brutal they prefer to settle their disputes alone. But no environment is more hostile than the North Caucasus, where occasional clashes with militants have intensified into something closer to guerrilla warfare.