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Medvedev's Police Reform Is More About Control Than Reform

Russia's police -- not exactly racing toward reform.
Russia's police -- not exactly racing toward reform.
The state of the Russian police has long been scandalous, but even the Kremlin's tolerance has its limits.

After a year that saw a drunken officer go on a shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket and another publicly bemoan corruption on YouTube (and be suspended for his pains), President Dmitry Medvedev seems to have decided that enough is enough. On December 24, he signed a decree to "enhance the work of the Interior Ministry."

However, the initial signs are that for all his promises of "sharp and serious" changes, the only real outcome of his proposed reforms is likely to be a further tightening of the center's grip on the police and security apparatus.

Beyond a trivial and entirely token instruction that two of the 15 main departments of the central Interior Ministry (MVD) be closed, perhaps the most striking element of Medvedev's plan is to reduce the overall police force by 20 percent.

On the surface, the force is a bloated bureaucratic leviathan reminiscent of its Soviet and even tsarist predecessors. The MVD's 1.4 million staff includes many paper pushers and official busybodies, and a cut seems a tempting and populist move.

However, the real problem is not overstaffing, but inefficiency. The MVD's staffing includes 180,000 Interior Troops, an unknown number of unfilled positions (the highest estimate would be around 40,000), and a larger proportion of bureaucrats to active police officers than in many other countries. Over half the United Kingdom's total police service strength of 240,000 are genuine officers, but the Russian figure is probably closer to 40-45 percent.

This would suggest that the country's "1.4 million cops" are actually only some 530,000. This is still more than in smaller, more advanced states (the true cop-to-citizen ratios in the United Kingdom and the United States are 1:429 and 1:380, respectively -- compared with 1:269 for Russia), but the Russian police's numbers are offset by antiquated equipment, inefficient procedures, and inadequate training -- none of which are likely to change anytime soon.

Will Anything Change Much?

In addition, this is Russia, where reform initiatives usually simply spark ingenious countermeasures. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has already announced that one department "closure" will be achieved by merging the transportation police with the agency guarding restricted areas, though this will mean no reductions of personnel or paperwork.

Likewise, most of the personnel reductions Medvedev demanded will come either from pruning unfilled positions or cutting expansion plans. For example, Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev has announced plans to grow his force by 30 percent. Given that Medvedev's reductions are due to be in place by January 1, 2012, Kolokoltsev could meet this target simply by recruiting fewer new officers.

Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev won't need to make many cuts.
Part of the rationale for the cuts is to fund pay raises. At present, salaries are relatively low, making recruitment and retention difficult (especially given the attractions of the private-security sector). And corruption is not just endemic, but widely accepted as a necessary means of supplementing incomes.

Increased salaries will help boost morale and, in due course, honesty and professionalism. However, not only has the MVD been given until January 1, 2011, just to come up with a plan for doing this, but it is also envisaged that much of the money will come from savings through the personnel cuts.

Given that much of this will be illusory (and much of any initial savings in any case consumed by the costs of redundancy payments and restructuring), it raises doubts about how large the pay raises can be and how quickly they will be implemented.

Moscow's Bureaucratic Gravity

Medvedev has also demanded that responsibility for all police funding be transferred to the central budget, and this is likely to come to pass. Since the 1990s, the tussle -- sometimes covert and at others all too obvious -- between local and central authorities over control of the police has been a serious problem.

In the Yeltsin years, when the MVD in Moscow often lacked the funds to adequately meet local police expenses and salaries, city and regional authorities (and even businesses) stepped in to make up some of the shortfall. None of this was without a price, though; those who paid the cash assumed -- often entirely correctly -- that this would buy them power, impunity, and, often, the use of the police as their private enforcers.

Bringing all police funding under the central budget will help squeeze these cozy local cabals, especially when twinned with a policy of more actively rotating officers between regions and departments. However, the corollary is that this will also give Moscow -- itself hardly averse to using the police for its own political and commercial ends -- greater power at the local level.

In a perverse way, police corruption -- and this is not in any way to downplay its numerous and obvious downsides -- acted as a crude check on the so-called power vertical. Whether or not it makes for a better police force, shifting sole budgetary responsibility to the center will certainly help further consolidate Moscow's grip on the regions. Furthermore, it will do so at no cost to itself: the 200 billion rubles ($6.7 billion) involved will simply be deducted from federal subsidies to the regions.

After all, Moscow is not so much concerned with the efficiency of the police as with its discipline and subordination. This helps explain Nurgaliyev's ability to ride out scandal after scandal.

He has failed to make any significant inroads into the corruption, unprofessionalism, and demoralization that so deeply undermine the police. However, he is politically compliant and discreet, and, rhetoric notwithstanding, comfortable presiding over the MVD in its current form. With this leadership, 2010 does not look like the year of reform for the Russian police.

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, which featured an earlier and longer version of this piece. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL