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Three Reasons Why Russia's Police Remain Unreformed

  • Mark Galeotti

Protesters hold a banner reading "Militia [police] -- time to change" at a demonstration against police despotism.

Protesters hold a banner reading "Militia [police] -- time to change" at a demonstration against police despotism.

While so much else in Russia has changed, its police force is still strikingly unreformed since the late Soviet era. From time to time, this is recognized as a problem and promises are made to modernize the Interior Ministry (MVD). Rarely do they come to anything.

Since late September, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has been on the news almost daily, announcing new measures and condemning backsliding local commands. However, as is so often the case, this flurry of activity seems meant not to further reform but mask its absence.

In many ways, developments in Moscow highlight the problems of the police as a whole. Back in April, a police officer went on a drunken shooting spree, killing three bystanders. This was used as a convenient excuse by President Dmitry Medvedev to dismiss Moscow's police chief, Vladimir Pronin.

It's not as if any particular blame could be attached to Pronin. Arguably, the real fault lies with the Kremlin, as years of relative neglect of the police hindered the MVD's efforts to improve the quality of its personnel.

Pronin, though, was regarded (rightly) as a client of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. Dismissing him was an essentially political act. Medvedev could demonstrate his resolution and distance himself from the incident. It also clipped Luzhkov's wings at a time when he was looking a little too independent and, it was hoped, would signal to the police that the president was in charge.

Here is the first problem, though: the police are still seen as an essentially political tool and everyone from the Kremlin down to municipal authorities seems to prize loyalty over professionalism. They continue to regard it as acceptable to dictate not just who runs local forces, but their priorities and activities as well.

All Corruption Isn't Equal

Dismissing Pronin was easy. Finding a credible successor who was acceptable to both Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and whose past activities did not make him a potential liability -- that was the challenge.

Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Moscow's new police chief
On September 7, after five months in which the largest police force in the country was effectively rudderless, it was finally announced that Major General Vladimir Kolokoltsev was to be the capital's top cop. A career officer who had previously served within the central MVD apparatus, he previously led a major anticorruption campaign in Oryol. This saw not just a purge of the local police, but arrests in the local government and the departure of longtime Oryol Oblast Governor Yegor Stroyev.

This is encouraging, especially given the renewed recent impetus behind anticorruption efforts more generally. A few recent cases such as the indictment of Vladimir Makarov on charges of abusing his position as head of the Moscow Advertising Committee, suggest that the city administration itself is now in the firing line. Certainly Luzhkov seems uncomfortable, publicly condemning Makarov's arrest.

However, this seems to be another targeted campaign, with corruption that was once tolerated now used as a weapon to tame Luzhkov before the certain victory of his supporters in the October 11 city-council elections.

And this is the second fundamental problem: not only is policing in general too often politicized, but the fight against corruption is still regarded as something to be deployed only against one's enemies. The problem is still endemic throughout Russia and certainly within the police. There are arrests and successes, but too often those close to the powers that be remain untouchable.

What Can Be Done?

Attempts to deal with the problem continue to be of limited effect. On September 25, Nurgaliyev pledged that from next year, all police officers and their families would have to declare their incomes.

The idea that this would highlight those living beyond their means thanks to corrupt earnings was dismissed even in an internal MVD report. Indeed, two days later Kolokoltsev himself admitted how far corrupt officers were protecting organized crime gangs, concluding that "preventive measures won't help."

Finally, the challenges facing Kolokoltsev in reforming Moscow's police are huge and beyond the scope either of his budget or his remit. He cannot expand his force or even afford to retrain his officers to modern standards.

To take just one example, new weapons are being issued, but there is no sign that adequate time and resources will be provided by the MVD to ensure his police can use them to their full effect. Meanwhile, the MVD recently made headlines by spending 4.26 million rubles ($141,000) on a gilded bed for accommodating foreign guests.

This is the third fundamental problem: the Kremlin still seems to see the problem just in terms of local backsliding. In late September and early October, Nurgaliyev embarked on a tour of Siberia and the Far East, interspersing photo opportunities with complaints about local police forces. Yet if anything, the few signs of real initiative have been at the local level.

Beyond a general improvement in the MVD's budgets in line with the upturn in state resources, little has been done on a national level. There is no real blueprint for reform and what changes are made come slowly (only in 2004 did the police officially shed a Soviet-era role registering color-copying facilities).

Indeed, if anything, the disconnected decrees the center does issue are ignored. In September 2008, Medvedev ordered the closure of the MVD's specialized department for fighting organized crime and terrorism. Yet it is still alive and well -- after ignoring a similar abolition decree in 2001.

While last year saw the headline crime rate fall by 10.2 percent, this trend may reverse in 2009. With budgets again under pressure and no real lead from the center, Russian policing seems to be virtually running on autopilot: unreformed, unsupported, and thoroughly unprepared for the challenge.

Mark Galeotti is the academic chair of the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and author of "In Moscow's Shadows," a blog on crime and corruption in Russia. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.