A much-trumpeted Law on the Police comes into force in Russia today. Mark Galeotti considers whether it represents a meaningful step away from arbitrary and authoritarian traditions.
It’s hardly surprising that Russians lack much faith in their police. Recent years have seen officers run murderously amuck in a supermarket and over a scratched car, blow the whistle on corrupt colleagues only to be persecuted for their pains and beat a driver and torch his car when he cut them up in the street. One officer even shot himself scratching his nose with his loaded gun. More broadly, despite official claims of a 13% fall in crime in 2010, a detailed study from the General Prosecutor’s Office Academy suggests a steady 2.4% rise. As a result, most surveys put the level of public trust in the police at around 10-20%.
Russia has been considered a police state for a long time: its present critics characterise it as such; the Soviet state remained an authoritarianism even after Stalin’s terror; but likewise in the mid-nineteenth century the Marquis de Custine, on his travels through tsarist Russia noted the apparent tyranny of the security forces. If that is the case, though, why has Russia always seemed so underpoliced, so prone to lawlessness?
The new law will see the police force renamed from the "militsia" to "politsiya". Whether the change will also bring about an improvement in the quality of Russian police forces remains to be seen
In part, it is that regular law enforcement has always taken second place to political policing. The political police, from the tsarist Gendarmes to today’s Federal Security Service (FSB) have always had wider powers, proportionately bigger budgets, higher profiles, even smarter uniforms. The regular police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have been seen as their auxiliaries, there to break up protests, harass non-conformists and generally offer eyes, ears and a strong right arm when needed. Actually enforcing the law and defending the rights, lives and property of citizens has tended to take second place.
The Law on Police
In this context, the new Law on the Police seems to represent a genuine shift away from this enduring authoritarian habit. According to President Medvedev, this is an “historic law” and it has been paralleled with a range of eye-catching measures from the launch of a showily-redesigned and user-friendly website for the Ministry of Internal Affairs through a series of high-profile dismissals of allegedly corrupt or incompetent senior officers. Perhaps most striking is the change of name: having been called militsiya by the Bolsheviks, the police are now once again the politsiya.
The regular police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) have been seen as their auxiliaries, there to break up protests, harass non-conformists and generally offer eyes, ears and a strong right arm when needed. Actually enforcing the law and defending the rights, lives and property of citizens has tended to take second place
To some, this is thoroughly tokenistic, rechristening the Titanic hoping this will make it float again. Certainly while the Bolsheviks adopted the name ‘militia’ to make a symbolic break from the old order, they actually ended up with a police force strikingly similar to the tsarist one. They even looked the same: take away the red stars on the badges, and themilitsiya looked a lot like the tsarist gorodovye (urban police), complete with pseudo-military ranks and uniforms. They also behaved much the same, not least in their casual corruption, inefficiency and tendency to rely on unofficial brutality: kulachnoe pravo, the ‘law of the fist.’
However, this is more than just a rebranding exercise. The bloated and inefficient 1.4 million-strong police force is being trimmed by 20% by the end of the year, with all serving officers going through a ‘recertification’ process meant to weed out the most incapable and dishonest. Meanwhile, an extra 217 billion rubles (£4.7 billion) is to be spent providing better equipment and training as well as a 30% pay rise. The hope is to combat the widely-held view that a little bribe-taking is not just a perk of the job but an economic necessity (at present, most police officers earn less than most municipal bus drivers).
The law also introduces new requirements and prohibitions bringing the Russian police closer into line with their Western counterparts, from requiring them to identify themselves when challenged and inform detainees of their legal rights, through to constraints on the use of tear gas and water cannon against peaceful protests. Sometimes the very detail of the law’s language offers a chilling insight into previous best practice. Article 22.2.1, for example, now bans police from truncheoning citizens in the head, heart or genitals.
Law versus Order
Of course, it is also worth remembering that one of Russia’s most liberal constitutions ever was promulgated under Stalin, its most vicious autocrat. Laws are all very well, but are they going to be applied?
The first question is whether the new provisions are as liberal as they sound, or whether the state intends to seek to apply the new law in the spirit in which it is presented. There is still ample scope for abusive and intrusive policing, not least by the FSB and thanks to get out clauses and the ability to turn to a compliant judiciary to interpret the law’s wordings favourably. There also appears to be a continued commitment to maintaining powerful internal security capacities. The MVD’s 180,000 paramilitary Interior Troops, as often used to break up opposition rallies as fight the guerrilla wars of the North Caucasus, are not going to face the same kinds of cuts. Indeed, they are going through a major re-equipment program. Likewise, Medvedev has promised that there will be no cuts in the North Caucasus, so there will be a disproportionate reduction in the regular police elsewhere.
Sometimes the very detail of the law’s language offers a chilling insight into previous best practice. Article 22.2.1, for example, now bans police from truncheoning citizens in the head, heart or genitals
To an extent, the new law is also a power grab by the federal government. Whereas in the past many police forces were wholly or partly funded by local authorities, now it will all come out of the federal budget. The extra costs will be covered by simply reducing the annual subsidies the regions receive from Moscow. At a stroke, Medvedev is taking into his own hands one of the levers that local political, business and even criminal elites used to control their neighbourhood police. This could - if he chooses - usher in a new era of anti-corruption campaigns against hitherto largely untouchable local cabals. Above all, though, it consolidates the Kremlin’s power over the police. This has been a priority ever since 2008, when OMON riot police had to be flown 3,750 miles to the Russian Far East from Moscow to disperse protesters when the Vladivostok leadership decided not to involve itself and the local police listened to them rather than the Kremlin.
Policing the Law
After all, the second question is whether the new law will gain much practical traction. Lustration programmes are only as good as those carrying them out, and relying on a force steeped in patronage and corruption to dismiss its rotten apples is unlikely to be a resounding success. Anecdotal accounts already talk of the process becoming a money-spinner for predatory senior officers demanding kick-backs from their subordinates to clear them for reappointment, no doubt passing a share of their bribes up the chain of command to buy themselves protection in turn. With Russia’s courts still providing little reliable and consistent justice, ensuring that the new law is observed on the ground will also prove problematic and will depend rather on executive institutions, perhaps tipped off by the public.
However, in practice the policing of law-enforcement agencies tends to be shaped by personal, factional and institutional struggles. After theterrorist bombing at Domodedovo airport in January, for example, the MVD, FSB and airport police engaged in an unseemly blame game that largely obscured efforts to learn the lessons of the attack. Currently, the FSB is feuding with the Prosecutor General’s Office over allegations that a senior prosecutor in the Moscow Region was protecting a massive underground gambling ring. A cynic, though, would see this less as anything to do with enforcing the law and more a struggle between agencies over control of a lucrative criminal racket.
For most of the post-Soviet era, the Russian police have essentially been out of control, or at least able to ignore the rules when it suited them. If he is able to resubordinate them to the centre and the law, even in the name of strengthening the federal government, Medvedev may actually create the basis for future liberalisation
Corruption corrodes central control, and one of the ironies of modern Russia is that, for all Putin’s muscular state-building campaign, the Kremlin control proves very weak. On the ground, the police often ignore new regulations, instructions and guidelines from Moscow. This should hardly be a surprise when Medvedev even has trouble asserting his authority over the central MVD structures. In 2009, when he began looking at police reform, he ordered the abolition of the MVD’s departments for fighting organised crime, saying they were no longer needed. They were just rolled into other departments. He later decreed that the MVD should make efficiency savings by closing two of its fifteen departments. The transportation police were simply merged with the agency guarding restricted areas, to cut departments on paper without actually affecting the budget.
However, central control and a codification of police powers and responsibilities do represent a real step forward. There is a quiet political and philosophical struggle under way between the legalistic Medvedev and Putin’s siloviki (‘men of force’) drawn from the security apparatus, who see little need for formal controls on the powers of the state. For most of the post-Soviet era, the Russian police have essentially been out of control, or at least able to ignore the rules when it suited them. If he is able to resubordinate them to the centre and the law, even in the name of strengthening the federal government, Medvedev may actually create the basis for future liberalisation and prove himself to be an accidental but important reformist.