Russia's infamous police force will change its name on March 1, but will it change its ways?
The renaming, under which the country's police force will formally be referred to as "politsia" instead of the Soviet-era "militsia," is part of what the authorities have billed as a sweeping reform to clean up the police of corruption and abuse of power.
The Russian public, however, is skeptical. "Apart from several minor improvements I don't see anything new here," political analyst Nikolai Petrov says. "This is a profanation of the very idea of reform that reflects negatively not only on the police but on other reforms, too."
Arkady Murashev, who headed Moscow's police in the early days after the Soviet collapse, likewise doesn't expect the new law to have much effect. "On March 1, we will have a change of name. But the 'politsia' will work just as poorly as the 'militsia,'" says Murashev, who now chairs the Center for Liberal Conservative Policy.
The much-advertised reform was initiated by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2009 in response to a spate of grisly police crimes that shocked the country.
Police Major Denis Yevsyukov's rampage shocked Russia.
These included a midnight rampage at a Moscow supermarket that killed three people and injured six others. Police Major Denis Yevsyukov
said he went on the shooting spree after having an argument with his wife and father-in-law.
In another incident, an off-duty police lieutenant colonel shot the driver of a snow plow that had allegedly grazed his car, and left the driver to die.
Smaller Force, Bigger Pay
The reform will lower the number of police officers by 20 percent over the next 10 months and increase salaries. Officers will also undergo more intensive screening and candidates who have criminal records or drug and alcohol addictions will be rejected.
To further improve its image, the Interior Ministry this week launched an upgraded website aimed at reaching out to society. The site, mvd.ru, includes a section devoted to the reform, a special option for readers with impaired vision, and a section where citizens can send their questions to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. The website is available in a mobile-phone version.
Many Russians see the new police law and the interactive website as steps in the right direction. But like Petrov and Murashev, most doubt the reform will put an end to the police's near-total impunity and make its officers more accountable.
In a poll conducted last year by the independent Levada polling center, 52 percent of respondents said the new police law was superficial and would not bring meaningful change. Only 19 percent said they believed the police would improve, while another 29 percent had no opinion on the matter.
Irina Borogan is the deputy editor of agentury.ru, an investigative website studying security and intelligence agencies. She sees only one positive aspect in the reform: "the decision to reduce the number of police officers."
According to Borogan, the "huge number" of officers patrolling the streets and the subway "poses a threat to ordinary people, who are often robbed. The same applies to officers from the financial departments, who are meant to fight economic crimes but who actually represent a grave danger to businesspeople."Shielded From Scrutiny
What most concerns Borogan is a new provision banning officers from discussing their superiors' orders or voicing their opinions publicly and in the press, which critics fear will discourage whistle-blowers.
Will Aleksei Dymovsky be the last police whistle-blower?
Many see this restriction as a response to the high-profile case of Aleksei Dymovsky, a police officer who denounced rampant police corruption in his hometown of Novorossiisk in a video clip posted on the Internet.
The clip inspired a series of similar Internet postings in which officers described how police routinely extorted money from ordinary Russians and framed innocent people.
Dymovsky was immediately fired from the police after posting the video. He was later briefly jailed on fraud charges
Murashev, the former Moscow police chief, believes the new legislation -- which he refuses to call a reform -- will actually increase corruption in police ranks.
"The only thing that will change is that centralization will be greater, particularly financially -- money will be taken from the regions and transferred to the Interior Ministry, which had sought this for many years," he says. "Greater centralization automatically means more corruption, because a centralized system in our country is always more corrupt."
Critics say the reform cannot succeed since it provides no mechanism to ensure the announced steps will be duly implemented. Police, they say, remain largely shielded from public scrutiny.
Although the number of surveillance cameras in Russia's streets is rapidly increasing, proposals to install cameras inside police stations under the new reform were rejected.
Proposed amendments aimed at curbing the use of physical force by police have also been scrapped.
The Russian parliament, dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, unanimously passed the new police law without amendments that would have banned officers from beating women, using batons on certain parts of the body, or entering people's homes without suspicion of a crime.
These shortcomings are widely seen as stemming from resistance within the government of Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer who has famously said that citizens taking part in unsanctioned protests deserved to be "clubbed."