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Why Russians Resent The Police

Russian Police Major Denis Yevsyukov being led into court in April in connection with his shooting rampage.

Russian Police Major Denis Yevsyukov being led into court in April in connection with his shooting rampage.

Senior Interior Ministry officials in Kazan have accused the republic's media of launching a campaign to denigrate the police force. But media coverage is not why Tatarstan's population regards the police with growing hostility; the problem lies within the police force itself.

The main reason is that police leaders act increasingly as if they are above and beyond the law. In one conspicuous example from a year ago, a district police chief traveled to his home village, lined up a group of local residents, took out his revolver, and threatened to shoot them all on the spot -- simply because they were employed by a local entrepreneur whose line of business the police chief disapproved of. As though that weren't enough, the police chief, who is in theory duty-bound to protect the citizens of Tatarstan, returned later that evening with a number of his subordinates and beat up the villagers he had earlier threatened to kill.

Tatarstan's Interior Ministry saw nothing reprehensible in that behavior, and an investigation into the incident has been closed.

A far more serious tragedy took place in Moscow in April. Police Major Yevsyukov first shot the driver of a taxi that had taken him to a local supermarket, then opened fire indiscriminately inside the store, killing two people and injuring six others. A poll conducted in the wake of that incident by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 40 percent of Russians do not trust the police and one-third believe the police regularly resort to violence and/or themselves break the law.

Outraged by the closure of the investigation into the case, Kazan human rights activists convened a press conference in mid-May at which they listed three factors that they argued contribute to police brutality: the fact that the police are not made to answer for such violations, and thus become convinced that they can get away, literally in some cases, with murder; rank; and authority.

Symptom Of A Disease

I cannot agree with that argument. Believing you are beyond punishment is merely a symptom of the disease; and rank and authority are the conditions that predispose you to catching it.

The reasons for the emergence and spread of the phenomenon that I would term the Yevsyukov syndrome ("yevsyukovshchina") are completely different. The most important is the huge discrepancy between the real and stated primary task of the Interior Ministry, a discrepancy rooted in the inequality before the law of various categories of citizens.

The Interior Ministry ought in the broadest sense to be a "factory" that produces security. Not security for the state -- there are other agencies (the army, the Federal Security Service, the Foreign Ministry) to do that -- but security for the all the citizens of that state.

But for our police, citizen safety is a peripheral concern.

Has anyone ever heard of a police officer being fired because, say, burglaries increased by 10-15 percent or the percentage of crimes solved fell by the same amount? I personally cannot recall that happening. Of course, the police are expected both to solve crimes and to reduce the overall crime rate. And if the statistics are unsatisfactory, they are bawled out -- but only bawled out. In extreme cases, bonuses can be withheld or awards delayed -- but nothing more serious than that.

The Establishment

This is because the real primary task of the police in Russia is to protect the political establishment. And so the police channel vast human, technical, and financial resources into neutralizing those who are deemed to pose a threat to that establishment.

Take elections at whatever level. Who is it that bars importunate election monitors from election commissions? Who physically evicts those monitors from polling stations? The police! Even though election law does not provide for the presence of police officers at polling stations.

Who is it that, more often than not, physically disperses citizens who simply want to exercise their constitutional right to participate in public events? Again, the police.

What is the primary task of the traffic police, and heaven help them if they don't perform it efficiently? Correct! They exist in order to ensure that leading officials and VIPs can be chauffeured quickly and safely from point A to point B.

As they protect the security of the political establishment, very many police officers start to think of themselves as part of that establishment. They reason that if they perform an important service for the system, they should be permitted to get away scot-free with behavior that may constitute a violation of the law.

This is why police impunity is, unfortunately, not simply the sum of individual abuses of power by individual officers. There is no way to prevent a recurrence of the Yevsyukov tragedy unless and until the police force as a whole -- from the interior minister himself down to rank-and-file officers patrolling the streets -- acknowledges that its main task is to protect citizens rather than to ensure that the system continues to function smoothly.

Irek Murtazin is an opposition politician who formerly served as press spokesman to Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL