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Tuesday, Jul. 15, 2003. Page 1

Wanted: Snoops in Every Neighborhood

By Oksana Yablokova
Staff Writer

Moscow is looking to set up a program that it likens to neighborhood watch in the United States, in which concerned residents keep a close eye on the goings-on in their apartment buildings and tip off the police to anything they deem suspicious.

The local press, however, warned that the program would be a step back to the Stalin era, when informants were widely encouraged by the authorities. Human rights activists concurred, saying the system could be ripe for abuse.

The Moscow City Duma is to consider in a first reading Wednesday a bill to create the program. Under it, each of Moscow's 600 neighborhoods would have a council of residents who alert the police about signs of suspicious activity and suspicious newcomers.

The bill's author, Deputy Inna Svyatenko, said Monday that there appears to be no shortage of residents who are willing to volunteer their services to maintain order but they need to be granted an official status.

She insisted that the legislation does not aim to create a hidden crime-fighting force of informants but instead provide the police with much-needed assistance in preventing crime such as terrorist acts.

"We would like to raise public conscientiousness to such a level that people will not just step over a suspicious package left near their homes or ignore someone who clearly resembles a suicide bomber when he or she enters the apartment building," Svyatenko said.

She stressed that members of the public councils would not be under any obligation to report questionable activity.

"As it is now, a fight breaks out in your courtyard, nobody cares until someone is murdered, and then we indignantly ask each other which way the police were looking," Svyatenko said.

The 600 public councils would share offices with neighborhood police officers, or uchastkoviye. Any resident would be eligible to join, but only council chairmen would be paid.

Svyatenko is proposing that the pay be 3,000 rubles ($100) per month and come from the city's budget.

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has thrown his backing behind the bill, and the program could become reality as early as the fall if it is passed in a second reading in September, when the City Duma returns from its summer recess, Svyatenko said.

She said several public councils are operating already in an experimental pilot program in the south-central Taganka district.

Izvestia poured scorn on the program in a front-page article late last week.

"Building managers, concierges and street cleaners in Taganka have turned into typical agents of the secret services. Such people were once called informants in Russia, " the newspaper said.

Prominent human rights advocate Sergei Grigoryants of the Glasnost Foundation said the proposed program "is especially dangerous in our situation, when the level of public confidence in the police is low."

He said it would only encourage residents to sling dirt at their neighbors and the police and Federal Security Service to beef up their stables of informers -- typically drug addicts and others who have had scrapes with the law.

Moscow police, however, had nothing but praise for the idea Monday.

"We would welcome the appearance of such councils, after all, we cannot detect everything," police spokesman Kirill Mazurin said.

Mazurin said that the number of phoned-in tips has jumped 300 percent since the double suicide bombings at the rock concert in Tushino on July 5. The number of calls over suspicious packages has grown to 1 percent of all calls that the police register every day, from 0.1 percent before July 5, he said.

Police said the public councils could make their lives a lot easier by working alongside the some 10,000 druzhinniki -- volunteers who currently patrol neighborhood streets and remove the odd drunk from the metro.

Svyatenko said the councils could help improve neighborhoods as well by counseling teenage troublemakers, reaching out to battered wives or lobbying local officials for new playground equipment.

Neighborhood watches are not unheard of in Moscow. After the apartment bombings in 1999, residents of more than 100 apartment buildings formed groups to patrol their buildings and courtyards at night.

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A series of articles dedicated to the 10th anniversary of the August 1991 coup.