It’s not been a great year for the press officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD). After the introduction of a new Law on Police, this was the year when, newly-rebranded (as politsiya instead of Soviet militsiya), their ranks thinned by a re-attestation process meant to weed out the rotten apples, their pay cheques some 30% fatter to help them resist the temptations of bribe-taking, the police were meant to come into their own. Instead, there has been a steady stream of scandals, accounts of violence, corruption and abuse by officers. Even high-profile sackings have not managed to quell a growing suspicion that, in the words of Moscow Police Employees’ Trade Union head Mikhail Pashkin, ‘nothing has changed, except for the sign.’
In February, St Petersburg police chief General Mikhail Sukhodolsky was dismissed, supposedly as a direct result of the death of a 15-year-old boy in custody. A much more likely scenario is that Sukhodolsky fell out with his seniors.
February saw the police chief of St Petersburg, General Mikhail Sukhodolsky, all but frog-marched out of his office by armed riot police. The ostensible reason for his dismissal was the death in custody of 15-year-old Nikita Leontiev on 22 January after a severe beating. Sukhodolsky had no direct role and indeed moved quickly to have the perpetrators charged, was nonetheless dismissed. However, this appears more than anything else to have been the result of internal MVD politics. He was a critic, rival and potential successor to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev’s, and the Leontiev case simply seems to have offered a convenient excuse to bring him down.
'Violence, abuse and the torture of detainees ... are depressingly common within Russian police stations.'
The real catalyst for public outcry was instead the case of Sergei Nazarov which unfolded in March in Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. He was arrested and sodomised by a bottle by local officers presumably hoping to force a confession out of him. Instead, they ruptured his rectum: he was admitted to hospital the next day, but died shortly thereafter. This was gratuitous, murderous, horrific abuse. Perhaps what is most horrifying is that this is not that unusual in broad terms, if not in detail: violence, abuse and the torture of detainees to make them confess are depressingly common within Russian police stations.
Half full or half empty?
What was unusual was how the small local protest that ensured became a national and then international story and in the process encouraged victims, local movements and media outlets to begin telling the stories of other police abuses. Dozens more emerged in Tatarstan alone. The MVD had to respond. Tatarstan Interior Minister Asgat Safarov was forced to resign. Nurgaliev introduced a range of encouraging new measures to combat police abuses, from installing video cameras in holding and interrogation cells to abolishing the arrest quotas which encourage officers to beat confessions out of suspects. Furthermore, the powerful Investigations Committee — a separate body directly responsible to the president — decided to establish a special department specifically to investigate crimes committed by the police.
The flurry of recent revelations may make it look as if the police have suddenly descended into abusive anarchy, but these have just been normal practices. Rather, Russians are becoming increasingly willing and able to speak up about these abuses and hold the police to the new standards of behaviour outlined in the Law on Police. Furthermore, they are learning that thanks to social media and the still free newsprint media, they can kick up enough of a fuss that they have to be covered even by the more state-aligned TV, too. This welcome kind of informed public scrutiny is a crucial means of keeping the police honest.
The increase in reports about police abuse and corruption might be a welcome sign: police practice hasessentially remained the same, but people and the press are now more willing to speak up about it. Photo: Demotix/RFE/RL
On the other hand, it is important to appreciate the limits of this reform. One is Nurgaliev himself. He faces increasing political pressure, including opposition calls for him to resign, and it is entirely possible that he will not make it into the new government to be formed shortly. Meanwhile, in his nine years heading the ministry he has demonstrated no serious personal commitment to reform. The Law on Poice, after all, was the brainchild of President Dmitry Medvedev. Besides, he appears to have relatively little traction over the rank-and-file. Instead, his usual tactic — other than just ignoring problems or issuing public denunciations with no practical force — is to sack out-of-favour senior officers such as Sukhodolsky and Safarov. This leads to satisfying headlines, but creates a perverse incentive for local commanders to try to cover up abuses. After all, getting them swept under the carpet is getting harder but it is still, depressingly, still easier than completely changing a malign culture that dates back not just to Soviet but even tsarist times.
Community policing: the missing ingredient
A key problem is that Russia still has no meaningful concept of community policing, i.e one that encourages a partnership between society and law enforcement. Ironically, there was one of sorts in Soviet times, with ‘local inspectors’ living in the apartment blocks they policed. Their whose flats doubled as offices, like high-rise relatives of the traditional village policeman. This scheme notionally still exists but essentially fell into disuse and disrepute during the chaos of the ‘wild 90s’ after the collapse of the USSR. Underpaid, unappreciated and often outgunned, the police retreated into a paramilitary, even colonial model of policing. In conversations with Russian cops, I am struck by how although they acknowledge their duty to the public in abstract, they still tend to regard that public with suspicion and even contempt in practice.
'Although [Russian policemen] acknowledge their duty to the public in abstract, they still tend to regard that public with suspicion and even contempt in practice.'
Closing this gap between police and policed will bring major, concrete benefits. It will help address the wider chasm between state and society. The police are amongst the most immediate representatives of state power in people’s daily lives. So long as they remain regarded as corrupt, abusive, predatory and inefficient — and they are — then this has implications for public perceptions of the state. Making the police feel closer to society, inculcating in them a belief that their loyalty should be to the law rather than the government of the day, also helps reduce the risks of their being used as tools of repression.
It may even lead to a more meaningful policing of the culture of official corruption which so blights the country. After all, a central tenet of community policing is to make sure that it addresses public concerns, which are too often ignored. In 2011, locals in the Ural village of Sagra made the news when they banded together to drive out marauding criminals because the police refused at first to attend and eventually rolled up two hours late. This was an extreme example but, like Nazarov’s death, symbolised wider beliefs that while the MVD can draft in an extra 6,500 police to prevent and control anti-government protests in Moscow, it cannot — or, worse yet, will not — address ordinary concerns about street crime, vandalism, burglary and corruption. The headline crime rates are falling (although the figures are disputed), but ordinary Russians still tend to feel like they are not being protected by their own police.
'The police are amongst the most immediate representatives of state power in people’s daily lives. So long as they remain regarded as corrupt, abusive, predatory and inefficient — and they are — then this has implications for public perceptions of the state.'
A community orientation will also help the police do their jobs. So long as they are feared and mistrusted, ordinary Russians will often do what they can to avoid coming into contact with them. There is thus a serious problem of the under-reporting of crimes, as well as a reluctance to pass on the information that is so vital to policing. Ordinary police complain that people are reluctant to come forward, but I am struck by how rarely they are able to recognise the part they have to play in that reluctance. As a result, this has so far been a one-way conversation. There is great public appetite for a transparent, community-centred model of policing. Even the inchoate but often imaginative protest movement is working shrewdly on managing relations with local police. Beyond educating its adherents as to their rights and how to behave in custody, activists are also reaching out to woo the police, recently handing out chocolates to officers wearing new badges with personal identification. In the main, though, the police are neither respected nor trusted, a state of affairs that few wearing a badge enjoy and which gets in the way of their work.
'In the main, though, the police are neither respected nor trusted, a state of affairs that few wearing a badge enjoy and which gets in the way of their work.'
Nurgaliev and the other senior figures within the MVD, though, seem still to think that policing and reform can only be top-down processes. Nurgaliev’s reforms have all been about greater centralisation, while nods to ‘community policing’ have often been retrograde ones, such as arming Cossack auxiliaries (even to police cities without any Cossack community). External efforts at inculcating a community-based model, especially the Project Harmony NGO initiative in 1994-2002, failed largely because the MVD was just not interested in adopting such an approach. However, in the context of the reinvention of the new politsiya and with the ministry reeling under an unprecedented storm of criticism then — maybe under a new minister — it may prove more receptive. Now that the anarchic gangsterism of the 1990s has been controlled and the MVD has more resources to spend, community-based policing offers Russia the best opportunity of at last getting law enforcers who genuinely uphold a commitment not just to order, but also to law.