President Dmitry Medvedev picked up a bunch of positive press on February 18 when, apparently in response to the massive numbers of police-abuse scandals that have emerged in recent months, he appeared at an Interior Ministry conference and laid down the law. Even fellow Power Verticalist Brian Whitmore and myself were mildly impressed that Medvedev had summoned the power to dismiss two deputy interior ministers and some 13 other police generals. It is the common wisdom that the Interior Ministry is one of those areas of government that Vladimir Putin keeps strictly under his thumb, so it seemed a little odd to see Medvedev making a strike so close to Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, a Putin protectorate.
Of course, the fact that Medvedev tapped Nurgaliyev to implement his as-yet-undetailed Interior Ministry reform is a pretty good clue that the changes are likely to be cosmetic. “Ogonyok” did a nice series of pieces on the ministry’s troubles and noted that "the majority of experts agree that for now the guiding tool in the matter of reforming police structures is not a systematic approach, but a 'personal' one." That is, in good Soviet tradition, a reform initiative will just be used to settle political scores and/or provide the background music for a game of Kremlin musical chairs.
“Ogonyok” also noted some interesting facts about the two deputy interior ministers that Medvedev bravely dismissed. One was Arkady Yedelev, who was in charge of the Southern Federal District and, particularly, the counterterrorism operation in Chechnya. He had essentially been sitting around with nothing to do since the government declared the successful conclusion of that mission last spring and his dismissal now probably has more to do with Medvedev’s recent reorganization of the Southern Federal District than with any meaningful police reform. When the music stops, we can be pretty sure that Yedelev won’t be standing.
The other deputy minister to get the ax was Nikolai Ovchinnikov, who had been serving on a contract basis for more than a year since he passed the mandatory retirement age. (More on Ovchinnikov below.)
Of the 13 other generals that Medvedev “fired” on February 18, one was Viktor Syusyur, former head of the Interior Ministry’s Bashkortostan office, who has been in custody since last October on dozens of corruption charges. Another was the former head of the municipal police in Tomsk, Viktor Grechman, who was actually fired in January after one of his officers beat a local journalist to death at a police facility.
With a police force like Russia’s, one would think that it would be pretty easy for Medvedev to take aim and hit some pretty slimy characters. In fact, one would think that it would be pretty hard to do otherwise. But he seems to have managed it.
Ovchinnikov, despite his advancing years, seems not to have been one of the bad apples at all (which, come to think of it, may be the reason he was fired). Yesterday a group of leading Russian human rights activists sent Medvedev an open letter urging him to reinstate Ovchinnikov, whom they credit with doing much to help improve relations between the police and civic groups. At the top of the list of signatories was the 82-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva, who was roughed up by Moscow police at a peaceful demonstration on December 31. Their letter is worth reproducing here in full:
On February 19, 2010, Deputy Interior Minister and police Colonel-General Nikolai Aleksandrovich Ovchinnikov was dismissed. Ovchinnikov had dedicated more than 40 years to service in police agencies.
The beginning of a fruitful dialogue between human rights organs and the Russian Interior Ministry, an increase in the openness of the Russian Interior Ministry in relations with civil-society organizations, and the struggle to clean up the ranks of the police are all connected with the name of Nikolai Ovchinnikov.
In his role as Interior Ministry state secretary, Ovchinnikov actively worked for the passage of the law on public control over corrections facilities. As a representative of the Interior Ministry, he unfailingly supported other legislative initiatives aimed at fostering the development of civil society.
As a deputy minister, Ovchinnikov was unusually open to the mass media, representatives of civic organizations, and the public.
His ability to win the sympathies of the most difficult audiences was rare for a leader of his status. His programs on television improved the attitude toward the police of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens and helped television viewers maintain their faith in decency and to become a little wiser.
When professionals of this caliber among police generals are fewer than the number demanded by police reforms, Ovchinnikov’s dismissal seems strange and surprising.
But it is even more surprising that in a European country where the retirement age is being pushed back almost every year that a man of just 61 is considered too old to fulfill important government duties.
We call on the president of the Russian Federation to find a way to further exploit the talents and human qualities of Nikolai Ovchinnikov for the good of our country and Russian society.
Lyudmila Alekseyeva (Moscow Helsinki Group); Andrei Babushkin (Committee for Civil Rights); Valerei Borshchev (Social Partnership Fund and chairman of the Moscow Public Oversight Commission); Valentin Gefter (Human Rights Institute); Sergei Grinin (Civic Safety); Lyubov Kravtsova (Moscow Oblast Public Oversight Commission); Sergei Nikitin (Russian chapter of Amnesty International); Vladimir Khimanych (Free Will); and Tamara Flerova (Moscow Public Oversight Commission)
Clearly, Medvedev has picked a strange way to launch his loudly proclaimed police reform.