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Russia: Police Corruption Chokes Progress

  • Gregory Feifer

Recent surveys in Russia indicate a rise in bribery and other corruption. President Vladimir Putin this month singled out the country's police force for meddling in so-called "economic disputes." Experts say such criticism doesn't go far enough. They say police corruption is endemic and supports a broader crisis -- the consolidation of Russia's former state property into the hands of a wealthy few.

Moscow, 19 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It's not hard to find evidence of police corruption in Russia. This according to someone who knows about the subject: a former police detective who recently served time in prison after being ensnared in what he says was an internal department setup.

Released from jail last year, Anatolii -- not his real name -- is now a beat cop. He refuses to discuss the details of his own case, but says overall police corruption is hard to miss. "You can easily take a look at the cars that drive up to the Interior Ministry or even any police precinct. There are foreign models and jeeps that cost so much that an honest employee wouldn't earn that kind of money if he worked irreproachably for a decade," he said.

Statistics back up Anatolii's bleak picture. Recent surveys indicate corruption is on the rise. According to the Interior Ministry, which oversees the country's police force, a staggering 21,000 police officers were censured for criminal and other offenses last year alone; 17,000 were fired. That number includes police chiefs in 10 of the country's 89 regions.

President Vladimir Putin, in a meeting this month with ministry officials, said the problem is contributing to concerns among the population that the police are not doing their job. "People don't feel comfortable and safe -- at the very least, the number of crimes against citizens' property and real estate speak to that," Putin said.

The president added a thinly veiled reference to police corruption: "Especially dangerous is the involvement of Interior Ministry employees in corporate wars and economic disputes. I urge you to stay away from this."

During the meeting, Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov agreed police are not doing enough to tackle corruption. He said he was demanding that action be stepped up to counter corruption at "all levels" of the law-enforcement system.

But experts say such admirable words fail to reflect the true extent of the predicament.

Anatolii says it's hard to get far in Russia being honest. Although he has been reinstated on the police force, he has yet to be issued a new badge. Unable to patrol the streets -- and earn a living -- without one, he currently uses a fake badge he bought from a colleague.

"A minimum of 90 percent of those currently working in the police force are involved in corruption," he said, adding: "For many, bribe taking is their main work."

One study published last year says the traffic police alone earn an annual $1 billion in bribes.

Anatolii repeats a familiar lament: that many police officers turn to corruption because it is nearly impossible to live on their official salaries. An officer's average monthly wage is no more than $100 a month.

Bribe taking constitutes only one form of police corruption. A two-year survey of some 2,200 police officers (published last year by the Socioeconomic Problems of Population group) found more than half admitted to performing illegal work in addition to their official duties. Moonlighting took up an average of 34 hours a week.

Some outside work includes racketeering and what is known as "protection." For example, Anatolii said that behind each of Moscow's ubiquitous street kiosks selling pirated compact discs stands a police officer who has been paid to keep the kiosk's vendors safe from prosecution.

Anatolii added the police routinely obstruct justice by refusing to register and investigate crimes. He said this is partly because they are required to meet monthly quotas for solving crimes. Even Putin, in his recent meeting with Interior Ministry officials, admitted that police often fail to report all crimes.

"The percent of crimes solved -- which no one has changed [recently] -- is a number that is false on all accounts. Far fewer crimes are registered than are actually committed. And so-called 'solved crimes' are often fabricated by the police themselves," Anatolii said.

Anatolii cited a common example of such "fabricated" crimes: "agents" working for the police seek out people likely to commit crimes, such as the homeless, whom they falsely tip off about stashes of money or other valuables. When the unwitting subjects attempt to carry out burglaries, police are waiting to catch them. Police also reportedly regularly plant drugs and weapons on unsuspecting people as a way of filling their solved-crime quota. Anatolii said police even set up violent crimes, going so far as to give weapons to potential burglars.

Prisoners are also used to boost statistics. Police sometimes induce those incarcerated for life without parole -- and therefore with nothing to lose -- to falsely admit guilt for additional unsolved crimes they did not commit. In return, the prisoners are rewarded with better living conditions, food, alcohol, and visits by prostitutes.

Anatolii said corruption can be found in even those structures meant to monitor the police -- such as the anticorruption police (RUBOP) and the internal security department. "I know of a case in which members of the internal security department, having collected compromising material on an officer, approached him and said: 'We have compromising material on you. And we'll put you in jail if you don't pay -- say -- $10,000.' The person knows that either he'll be arrested or he'll have to pay up," he said.

Anatolii is not optimistic about the future. He said internal reforms and firings in the past have not helped. Referring to campaigns such as Operation Clean Hands -- a 1996 Interior Ministry drive targeting police corruption -- he said: "The cleanest hands always suffer the most. Those who have large flows of money also have big connections."

Economist Otto Latsis said corruption among law enforcers is significantly more dangerous than in other spheres, not least because it gives the signal to others in society that breaking the law is acceptable. He said police corruption reflects the economic system that took shape after the Soviet collapse. "Top bureaucrats -- people who controlled state property -- aimed at grabbing each piece of the national pie by trying to turn former so-called public property into their own private property. And for that, of course, they used the power structures -- and first of all the police," he said. Police in turn began to abuse their official authority in order to profit themselves.

Latsis agreed there are no quick fixes. He said the number of state officials in all spheres must be reduced and salaries increased significantly, but added that real change will take many years and must involve society as a whole.

Anatolii said change will only come about if Russia's tiny middle class grows into a substantial socioeconomic group that can live independently on an "honest income" and that insists on enforcement of the law. "Instead," he says, "we have only the very rich and everyone else." In this system, Anatolii said, the police force remains a "repressive organ that was handed a club and allowed to go to work."