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Who You Gonna Call?

Russian police dealing with a Moscow protest against the falsified regional elections.
Russian police dealing with a Moscow protest against the falsified regional elections.
The scandal in the Duma this week, ironically (and, perhaps, brilliantly), has distracted attention away from the reason for the walkout – the massive and shameless fraud carried out in the October 11 regional elections.

More and more, analysts are being sucked into a discussion of what was behind the walkout – Naryshkin attacking Surkov? Surkov attacking Gryzlov? Medvedev taking on Putin? A nefarious plot to destroy Russia by outside enemies determined to drive the motherland to its knees? – and, as a result, no one is really looking at what happened on October 11. The falsification has been taken for granted and the question has become merely why is there even this tiny flash of apparently staged outrage.

But information about the falsification and how it was carried out is trickling out bit by bit and it is worth paying attention to.

There is so much to be outraged about that it is hard to know where to begin, but I’d like to take a moment to focus on the role of the men in uniform – Russia’s police and Interior Ministry troops.

By all accounts, they played a much more aggressive and active role in perpetrating the fraud and in protecting those who were perpetrating it than has been the case in previous elections. Duma Deputy Oleg Shein, A Just Russia’s losing candidate for mayor in Astrakhan, told RFE/RL that hundreds of police surrounded the city’s election commission during the vote count and would not allow election monitors or even law enforcement officials into the building.

One video making the rounds shows how election monitors in Azov discovered hundreds of marked ballots in a closet at one precinct and how a police officer on the scene refuses to take action and covers up the fraud.

Another video shows a Communist candidate for the Moscow Duma identifying people being allowed to vote with identification from outside the city. When he asks the police officer on duty to act, the officer instead detains him and a journalist on the scene and escorts them away, threatening to arrest them.

This list could go on and on. “The Moscow Times” reported on October 13 that riot police in Derbent “used tear gas and even fired at voters” to prevent them from casting ballots. The daily also reported that 75 Derbent police officers signed an open letter saying they were being pressured to back the incumbent, while a local Federal Security Service officer filed a libel complaint against the main challenger.

It is safe to say that the police are not doing these things for no reason. The police role on October 11 is a clear and frightening indication that the political manipulation of law enforcement is alive and well in Russia. New York University professor Mark Galeotti touched on this in a recent commentary for RFE/RL. He argues that a key reason why police reform in Russia is going nowhere is that “the police are still seen as an essentially political tool.” “Everyone from the Kremlin down to municipal authorities seems to prize loyalty over professionalism,” Galeotti writes.

The police played a key role in handing unrestrained political power to United Russia. And they are going to expect to be repaid, in the form of a free hand to continue their corrupt and criminal practices. In a recent RFE/RL interview, St. Petersburg law professor Yakov Glinsky quoted an FSB officer who told him, “The police racket has replaced the criminal racket. And not on the level of individual members of the force. But on the level of whole departments.”

President Dmitry Medvedev has made a lot of bold public statements about the need to combat corruption and legal nihilism. But, as I have argued before, his own power rests on this corruption and he cannot divert from it without undermining his own tenuous legitimacy. There is some informed speculation that he is using the anticorruption drive to build his own political base, one independent of Vladimir Putin. But the October 11 fiasco demonstrates far more clearly than his liberal proclamations that law enforcement remains a political weapon in Russia. Any anticorruption fight that comes out of the Kremlin is really a witch hunt against political enemies.

It is an ugly bargain. The ruling elite uses the police to destroy their political enemies. In return, the police are turned loose among Russian business and the Russian people like wolves among sheep.

-- 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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