- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 6, 2016

MOSCOW (AP) - The National Guard being formed in Russia will be given broad powers to suppress riots, according to a presidential decree released Wednesday.

Analysts said President Vladimir Putin’s decision to create the National Guard could reflect Kremlin fears of possible anti-government protests - or even a coup attempt - amid an economic downturn. The Russian economy last year was dragged into recession by plummeting oil prices and Western economic sanctions over the crisis in Ukraine.

Putin’s popularity has remained high, but living standards have dropped sharply and the prospect of unrest looms. Parliamentary elections set for September will test the Kremlin’s ability to maintain a tight grip on political life.

Putin announced the creation of the National Guard on Tuesday, when he said it would focus on the fight against terrorism and organized crime.

Putin appointed his former chief bodyguard, Viktor Zolotov, to oversee the force. Zolotov, who previously led the Federal Protective Service and served as a deputy interior minister, has been one of Putin’s closest lieutenants. He will have a ministerial rank and answer directly to the president as the National Guard chief.

Wednesday’s presidential bill said the law enforcement agency also would be used to quell mass disturbances and would be provided an arsenal of non-lethal weapons, including stun grenades, and newly designed anti-riot vehicles.

On a visit to the Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters earlier this year, Putin and senior law enforcement officials were shown some of these vehicles, including one hulking armored model that has been named Karatel, which translates loosely from Russian as “The Punisher.”

The bill specifies that national guardsmen won’t be permitted to use force against pregnant women and children unless they offer armed resistance, in keeping with Russian legal norms.

The National Guard will draw forces from Interior Ministry troops and riot police. Russian media outlets estimate that the force may grow to 400,000 members.

The U.S. global intelligence think tank Stratfor said the decision “signals that the Putin administration is worried about instability, in Russia as well as the Kremlin itself.”

“In calling for a national guard, and appointing Zolotov as its commander, Putin could be fortifying his administration against the threat of a coup,” it said. “This may suggest that the Russian president doubts whether other security forces, the FSB, Interior Ministry troops or even the military would remain loyal to him in the event of a coup.”

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