Kolokoltsev in his own words, and some cautious optimism on police reform

Kolokoltsev stands for…?

For what does new Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev stand? While we wait to see what he will do in office, here are a few hints from his public statements, which are more encouraging than not:

“We need as many police officers as the government can feed” (Komsomolskaya pravda, 9 September 2009) This might sound like an appeal to hire more officers, and as Moscow police chief Kolokoltsev did try to get round Medvedev’s mandated 20% reduction, but in this case he was saying better have fewer officers if need be, but at least support them adequately. In this respect, his line — taken from a 2007 interview with a local paper, the Kuranty-Mayak — is strikingly in like with one of the key precepts of Medvedev’s reforms.

“The major challenge is of course people’s trust. No matter what good progress we might make and what useful reforms we might conduct, just any crime or human rights violation on the part of policemen will send our achievements down the drain. … No professional authority will be efficient without public trust proper.” (Izvestiya, 24 May 2012) This is an encouraging statement, which is entirely true. Admittedly, Nurgaliev said the same kind of thing on many occasions and hardly did much to close the trust gap, so this might simply be a case of mouthing the right pious niceties. However, it is noteworthy that Kolokoltsev chose to highlight it as such a salient issue, as he is in effect making it one of the yardsticks by which his ministry will be measured, and also — as I’ve argued — that he appreciates how far public legitimacy is also a force for better policing.

“People do not need armchair generals and reports on control card.” (Kommersant, 23 May 2012) This might also sound like obvious and empty rhetoric, but here Kolokoltsev is identifying two very real challenges for police reform: a top-heavy apparatus (reminiscent of the defense ministry, especially in pre-reform days) and a reliance on metrics which tend actually to get in the way or rather than measure or encourage good policing. One of the drivers or violence in police detention, for example, is after all the pressure on officers and precincts to meet their quotas, with the ensuing temptation to beat confessions out of innocent (or even guilty) victims.

“We really need to have a look at how far our liberal democratic principles correspond to the demands and desires of the city’s population.” (2010, just after ultranationalist riots against the presence of non-slavs in Moscow) On the other hand this statement, which could at best be considered politically tone-deaf, speaks to an underlying nationalism that is a concern, especially in contrast to his Kazakh-Tatar predecessor Nurgaliev. This seems compounded by his willingness to speak with those protesters directly and his ability to conciliate them, compared with his absence of any similar outreach to liberal/radical movements. Indeed…

Comparing the way Russian police deal with protests with the methods of many Western, democratic regimes, “the comparison is clearly not in their favor.” (Rosbalt, 26 May 2012) Really? Of course, there have been admirable cases of police restraint in Russia, just as there have been excesses in the West. However, especially outside Moscow and the glare of national and global media, to describe Russian policing as especially humane is distinctly questionable. Either Kolokoltsev has a very skewed notion of what is going on in Russia and the world, or else he knows to give the right, nationalist line.

Nurgaliev’s departure is an unrelievedly Good Thing. He was a poor interior minister, who lacked any real vision of reform and much traction over the MVD and police apparatus. Kolokoltsev is a seasoned and highly-respected insider with all the vices and virtues and involves: he has authority and legitimacy within the service, he knows how policing works and has a decent idea how it should work. I don’t believe he has any problem using coercion against protest, for example, but I’m sure it’s not something he especially relishes and, more to the point, he’s aware of the cost this can have on the police’s relationship with society.

On the other hand, there are signs of a worrying nationalist streak (not exactly unknown amongst senior police officers in the West…). More to the point, although he will be a bullish advocate for the MVD, he is the product of a disciplined service and as a result I imagine sees his role as to execute orders. I do not see him as a man likely to challenge the Kremlin when the orders come down. Also, as an insider he has existing loyalties and habits that will make it harder for him to be genuinely novel or to go against the grain of MVD thinking.

I would have liked to have seen a real outsider appointed, a counterpart to Serdyukov at the defense ministry, who could have pushed reform forward without undue concern for tradition and how it impacts on the generals. However, in the current hyper-charged environment I think the Kremlin is concerned with strengthening the central control and discipline of the MVD rather than worrying too much about reform. I am not sure how far the truly liberal aspects of Medvedev’s original concept of police reform will be pushed under Kolokoltsev compared with focusing on efficiency, discipline and central control, especially considering his track record as a loyal soldier of the MVD.

The more I look in detail at Kokoltsev’s statements — and the appraisals of those who know him — I confess the more optimistic I am. He’s not a reformist, and certainly not a liberal, but he seems to be a sober, honest and dedicated cop, and that’s a good place to start.

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