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A Law On Lawlessness?

There has been a lot of ink spilled in recent weeks evaluating the proposed new law on the police and, before that, the law on expanding the powers of the Federal Security Service (FSB). Good textual analyses of both bits of legislation can be found on the blog A Good Treaty here and here.

However, to a large extent all the talk about various articles and subclauses strikes me as yet another act in the political theater that dominates Russia today. No one in authority seems to be addressing basic issues, not the least of which is that no one believes the abuses Russian law enforcement agencies have committed over the last decade and longer occurred because of bad laws.

Earlier this year, the website of the Russian version of “Esquire” posted this damning calendar of police abuses – a day-by-day litany of rights violations and crimes with the grim title “We Work Without Days Off.” Reading this list, one thing is clear – all of these abuses are violations of current laws.

In a commentary for Russian “Forbes” today, businesswoman Yana Yakovleva hit the nail on the head: “What is the rush with passing the new law on the militisiya, or politsiya? Are police officers tormenting citizens because the law is bad? Are they violating their rights and depriving them of liberties because the law allows them to? No. They are doing this because they are allowed to do it.”

It is a basic fact of life in Russia that law enforcement organs – police, prosecutors, the courts, etc. – earn their license to steal (and worse) by propping up the political regime – by helping them get away with rigged elections, by suppressing legitimate and lawful dissent, by settling “business disputes” in ways that always work out conveniently for the Kremlin, and so on.

After last October’s farcical local “elections,” I wrote about the role of the police in manufacturing victory for United Russia and predicted that they would be expecting payback. Now, as “Time” magazine has noted, another tense political season for the ruling elite is approaching, with another round of regional elections slated for October when the current drought and fires will still be in the back of the public’s mind:

Practically every national vote in Russia is marred by allegations of wholesale fraud, and even during the last nationwide round of balloting in October 2009 [sic: there was a smaller round of local elections in March 2010] — when Russia was on the verge of financial collapse, unemployment was spiking, factories were closing — United Russia still won virtually all of the 7,000 regional elections held that day. "So, of course, this calamity has shaken the people's trust in power at all levels," says Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst in Moscow. "But aside from showing the ruling elites that they should do more to manipulate public opinion, give some more handouts, further marginalize the opposition, I don't think that any real change can come of this.”

It doesn’t take a law professor like Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to know that no one can expect the police to break the law in October and then quietly become a professional politisiya when the new law takes effect (as Medvedev has stated) in January. And even if they did, another round of voting is coming in March and so on and so on.

The problem isn’t the law.

Ilya Yashin and former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov, activists with the opposition Solidarity movement, have proposed their own police reform. But they preface their effort with some solid reasoning about why the current government cannot and will not enact real reform. Medvedev has not responded to critiques such as this:

The steps taken by D. Medvedev toward reforming the Interior Ministry are fragmentary and unsystematic. It is absolutely clear that the president does not have the will or the desire to go after the root problem – the centralized vertical of the law enforcement organs itself, which is fed by corporativism and collective security, corruption, and a sham struggle against crime.

Is there any chance that the current authorities will bring order to the law enforcement system? No.

The Interior Ministry, to a significant degree, is infected with all the fatal injuries of the political regime that has been created in Russia over the last 10 years.

The political system in Russia is based on opacity, corruption, bureaucratic license, and, most importantly, a lack of public oversight. And it is these development impulses that it passes on to all its structural components.

The vertical structure of the Interior Ministry also transmits development impulses down to its very lowest levels. The essence of these impulses is simple: obey orders, generate “pretty” reports, and otherwise, do what you please.

The president, the prime minister, and the ruling United Russia party have over recent years concentrated unlimited power in their own hands. They bear complete responsibility for the formation of the law enforcement system that we have today. They are its architects and engineers. It would be naïve to suppose that the current authorities can or want to seriously and fundamentally reform the Interior Ministry.

To my mind, the fact that Medvedev is unable to carry out an intellectually honest discussion of police reform is already pretty substantial evidence that Yashin and Milov are right. If the old law on police wasn’t the problem, then why should we think the new law will be the solution?

In an interview with “Newsweek” this week, Ella Pamfilova, who resigned on July 30 as head of the presidential human rights council, made some statements that also cast doubt on the ability of the system to reform itself, even if one accepts (as she does) that Medvedev sincerely wants reform.

Speaking of massive human rights abuses in the North Caucasus, Pamfilova said: “The president looked into the cases of human-rights violations. That was my victory. The problem was that most of the president’s orders stayed ignored—that I consider the president’s failure.”

Speaking about the Khimki forest case, she said: “Aware that the case involved corruption at the highest level, the president ordered the prosecutor general to investigate. But the system does not work—somebody does not want to obey the president’s orders.”

Speaking about the law to expand FSB powers, she said: “Our main frustration was to see the president drown in the total indifference demonstrated by his men in power. So even in the cases where our council found common ground with President Medvedev, his system failed him—we saw no outcome from his measures.”

And asked what advice she has for the president, Pamfilova says: “The problem with human rights and freedoms is very deep in Russia. But that is just a part of a much bigger issue: human rights and freedoms cannot be protected in a country with immature democratic institutions.”

A new law on the police is not going to fix that, not matter how beautifully crafted Article 6, Subsection 4, Paragraph 8 turn out to be.

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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