Is the MVD getting into the macroeconomics game, or hinting at criticism of the Kremlin?

My eye was caught by a RIA Novosti news item today. For the sake of completeness, here’s the original and a hasty and rough translation:

МВД ожидает стабилизации общественно-политической ситуации в России

Mayhem in Moscow: Biryulevo, the (under)police state and a little slice of Novocherkassk

Беспорядки в московском районе БирюлевоAs if fate were an obliging sociopath, willing to burn and beat in a helpful effort to make my recent point–that Russia is not the massively policed security state some would suggest–today has seen a tragic murder spark an anti-migrant/non-Russian fury that, in turn, has stretched Moscow’s police to the limit. This ‘police state’ has had to put the entire Moscow Main MVD Directorate (MGUMVD) an alert and also deploy Interior Troops tonight to try and damp down violence in an outlying southern suburb of the city.

Biryulevo/Biryulyovo, at the southern rim of Moscow, is hardly on anyone’s tourist itinerary, and maybe that’s the point, it’s the kind of run-down industrial, crime-ridden, low-rent periphery where migrants–both legal and illegal, both foreign and Russian Federation citizens–find lodgings, jobs, market spaces and also live cheek-by-jowl with ethnic Russians who often resent them. And, let’s be honest, while many are hard-working and honest souls doing the back-breaking market, construction and similar work no one else wants to do, and for a pittance, there is also a problem with crime, random intimidation and cultural miscommunication.

On the night of 9 October, 25-year-old Egor Sherbakov was knifed and killed, reportedly by a non-Russian, who had been hassling his girlfriend. When no arrests were forthcoming, on Saturday 10 October, a group of maybe 40 Russians protested against what they saw as police inaction. Their rhetoric acquired an increasingly nationalist, anti-migrant tone. The protests worsened on Sunday, when a mob that at peak may have been a thousand-plus strong broke into a vegetable warehouse and shopping complex where many workers hail from the Caucasus. When the police intervened, the mob turned their anger against them and Biryulevo became torn by running clashes between rioters and police, reinforced from across the city and by the OMON security force. Cars were overturned, people hurt, mayhem ensued.

Biryulevo2As of writing this, over 300 people have apparently been arrested (and as I write this, the figure continues to rise: 380 and counting), Moscow police chief Yakushin has offered a 1 M ruble ($31,000) reward for identifying the killer, and #Бирюлево becoming a short-lived Twitter trend. The clashes may be bubbling down and the cries of “Russia for the Russians! Moscow for the Muscovites!” may be silent for now (and you never hear “Crappy Low-Pay High-Risk Remont Jobs for the Russians!” as a rallying cry), but nonetheless this explosion of violence taxed the MGUMVD to the limit. Police were bussed in from around the city and emergency mobilization plan Vulkan (“Volcano”) saw the entire force put on alert.

All this for just a thousand rioters? But what about all those OMON skull-breakers with their rubber truncheons, those formidable Lavina-Uragan water cannon, those thousands upon thousands of cops? It is perhaps unsurprising that already we are getting the hints that the cops were either complacent or complicit. Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva has said “It is interesting” [that classic passive-aggressive "I will hint at dubious practices without actually be willing to say so outright" phrasing], “why law enforcement personnel were absent in Biryulyovo. People who gathered in Biryulyovo were really aggressive, unlike those who filled Bolotnaya Square on May 6 2012… Why do our law enforcement services deal rigorously with peaceful demonstrations and are not active enough where disturbances really occur?”

On one level, fair enough, but misguided. Whatever the rights and (evident) wrongs of Bolotnaya, that was an event that was scheduled and anticipated, and the police mobilized substantial resources to that end, just as they did for the March 2012 presidential inauguration. That takes time, preparation, resources; it’s not something you can just whistle up on spec. Police are needed elsewhere, too; other locations have to be secured; officers are off-shift, on leave, sick. There aren’t necessarily the vehicles to get them to the right place at once, they need to get outfitted for riot duty, so it goes.

Беспорядки в московском районе БирюлевоIt also reflects the role that the OMON and other forces appear to have played in Biryulyovo. Instead of sending lines and phalanxes directly into the mob, which would disperse them quicker, especially if backed with tear gas and water cannon, at the cost of greater injuries and property damage, they were largely used to try and block the mob in smaller areas (“kettling”) and hoping it would disperse or could be dealt with piecemeal. It’s hard to reach any conclusive judgment from news video and pictures, but they seem not to have been especially successful at that, but I cannot help but wonder what the critiques would be had they rolled in hard.

Is it possible there was a sense that ethnic Russians deserve to be treated with a lighter hand that “blacks”? Quite possibly. And given the way that cops were mobbed in the Matveyevsky food market back in August when they tried arresting a Dagestani rapist, this may also have, if you’ll excuse the expression, colored their views. But there is also the unavoidable truth that violence can also beget violence. As was, the police received a considerable degree of abuse for not protecting Russians from “foreigners” and it is unlikely that a good dose of o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile (that’s CS gas to its friends) would do much for community relations.

The fact of the matter is that a police force which is qualitatively often mediocre–and I think it’s fair to say that the Russian police too often still are–needs to make up the shortfall with quantity. By my calculations, Moscow has a respectable 426 officers per 100k population, but only if one goes by the official census population of 11.5 million people in the city. It’s generally accepted that the real population is distinctly greater, although no one really knows by how much. If we accept the high-end estimate of 17 million (even though I’d guess this is too high, although I am no urban demographer), then actually the ratio is actually 288 per 100k. The real figure is no doubt something between these two extremes, but even so the ratio is going to be substantially below that of London (430/100k) or of New York (415/100k: 34,500 cops for a population of 8.3 million). Sure, central Moscow always seems full of cops (although in part this is also because many of the uniforms that look like cops aren’t, being anything from private security guards to state security), but head out to the suburbs, somewhere like Biryulevo, and the situation is very different.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen racist violence on Russian streets. We could look to this summer’s “Russian Raids”, or the 2010 “soccer riots” in Moscow, or Kondopoga 2006, or… you get the idea. Maybe we could just consider this part of the vicious background noise of modern Russian multiculturalism, especially given the tensions between the Russian/neo-Soviet nationalism underpinning Putin’s state-building efforts and his refusal to accept a narrowly ethnic notion of Russian statehood.

But I confess that I can’t shake off more than the obvious unease generated by inter-ethnic violence and mobs in the street. What I might think of as bunt (Pushkin: “The Russian bunt [rebellion], mindless and pitiless, will sweep everything, turn everything to dust”) appears instead to be known these days as  “narodny skhody” or “popular gatherings”; -the term echoes both the  “skhod” or “skhod grazhdan” (citizens’ gathering) in traditional local government and also the “skhodka” sit-downs between gangsters. This seems to suggest a degree of popular legitimacy and I fear it may be accurate.

I find myself thinking about Novocherkassk, 1962. By chance, piece-rate norms and thus in effect wages at the Budenny Electric Locomotive Factory had been cut and then food prices were increased. A strike became a protest, became a march on the town hall and police station. The police were unable or unwilling to disperse the swelling crowds of protesters. The army was recalcitrant. Eventually the security forces opened fire on the crowds: 29 would die, 116 arrested and the whole event hushed up until 1992. On one level, this was a minor issue; the Soviet state was easily able to squash such incidents. However, what made it significant were two points which have resonance with today’s Biryulevo bunt.

1. The police could not or would not deal with the protests. To be honest, the dividing line between won’t and can’t is often unclear, but one of the key jobs of police is to be the civil security force, the agency that can mediate between the public and the state in such a way as to resolve things without escalating to agencies that turn more quickly to kinetic solutions (if you’re not up on that particular euphemism, it means shooting people). Ironically, it should be the aim of every liberal to see a strong police force; you may not be a fan of the riot-armored “cosmonauts” but were they not there, which do you think is more likely, that the state will meekly accede to your reformist desires, or that it will unleash soldiers and security troopers?

2. Novocherkassk was nowhere special. It was just one more shabby industrial city. That was precisely why the events of 1962 scared the Soviet elite, because of a sense that if a confluence of unfortunate events could lead to protests and bloodshed there, it could happen anywhere. Likewise, with all due respect to the Biryulevo Vostochnoe raion, but that counts as nowhere special, too. There may be some specific circumstances that made it more likely to be the epicenter of such actions, but I am sure that several dozen Moscow rains alone could just as easily have exploded were the stars right (or wrong).

Biryulevo4The next few days will no doubt see statements, inquests, recriminations and rationalizations galore. (Though the MGUMVD’s own website’s newsline only has one short story to the effect that they are looking for the murderer; otherwise the big story seems to be the grand opening of a wrestling gym.) It will be interesting to see how the narrative emerges. But for me, amongst many lessons (chief of which seems to be the urgent need to address the terrible inter-communal relations within Russia) is precisely that stability and civic peace would be well served by qualitative but also quantitative development of the police force. At a time when the Kremlin seems to be wondering whether it needs two or four ocean-going aircraft carriers, I’d suggest the MVD ought to be much more of a priority.

Is Russia Really The World’s Most Heavily Policed State? No.

I suppose counting these guys would lead to those elevated figures...

I suppose counting these guys would lead to those elevated figures…

There’s a common assumption that Russia is packed with police officers, most recently given form in a Most Heavily Policed: Countries that has Russia topping the table with 564.6 cops per 100,000 population, followed at some distance by Turkey with 474. Can it really be that Russia has so many more police per head of population than everyone else in the world, that it is so much cop-dense? And if so, why do they have to raid the training academies and Interior Troops just to police parades in Moscow, the city with the greatest concentration of them?

Well, first of all it is worth noting that the table, which is based on UNODC data, excludes such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, North Korea and Uzbekistan which might well be expected to topple Russia from its pinnacle. But it still dramatically overstates the size of Russia’s police force. This is a common and recurring theme; I wrote this over a year ago for my article ‘Purges, Power and Purpose: Medvedev’s 2011 police reforms‘ in the Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies:

On the surface, the police force was a bloated bureaucratic leviathan reminiscent of its Soviet and even tsarist predecessors. Its 1.4 million staff as of 2010 included many paper-pushers and official busybodies, and a cut seemed an obvious move, especially given that it would free up resources for qualitative improvements. However, the real problem is not over-staffing but inefficient use of resources. If anything, given the size of the country and the scale of the challenges, a case could be made for more officers, not fewer. On the face of it, the MVD’s 2010 establishment strength meant a relatively high ratio of one police officer for every 101 citizens (compared with the UK’s 1:254, for example), but this was deceptive. That 1.4 million included 180,000 Interior Troops, an unknown number of unfilled positions (the highest estimate would be around 40,000) and a larger proportion of office workers compared with active police officers (defined as those who carry a badge and can make an arrest). Again to draw the comparison with the UK, there over half the total strength of 240,000 in 2010 were genuine police. While it is hard to come up with precise figures, the Russian figure was probably closer to 40-45%. This would suggest that the “1.4 million cops” were actually only some 530,000. Still more than in smaller, more advanced states (the true police officer to citizen ratios in the UK and US are 1:429 and 1:380, respectively, compared with 1:267 for Russia) but not quite so ridiculously excessive as might have originally appeared. (For the references to sources, please see the original article)

The UNODC data on which Bloomberg draws likewise, although claiming to exclude support staff, seem to include in practice uniformed officers, and many of the jobs which in Western countries would be carried out by civilian and contract staff are instead handled by uniforms in Russia. That does not mean they are ‘police’ — they are neither trained nor equipped to go out on the beat. But they do artificially drive the total strength upwards. Likewise, the Interior Troops must be discounted–although they are sometimes used for policing public events and the like, they are no more ‘cops’ than the New York National Guardsmen on the concourse I see every time I take a train from NY Penn Station. They are not like the Italian Carabinieri and French CRS, who blend military, public order and police roles.

The MVD now has a strength of around a million, factoring in unfilled positions. This includes the now around 170,000 Interior Troops, leaving 830,000. Nonetheless, although it would be possible to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation about the number of real cops across Russia as a whole, perhaps a better exercise would be to compare the Moscow GUMVD (Main Directorate of the Ministry of Interior Affairs ), which is rather more extensive and close to establishment strength (94.1% staffed, according to Moscow police chief in his 2012 report to the Moscow City Duma) with the London Metropolitan Police Service.

As of the end of 2011, the Met had 48,661 staff, of whom 31,478 (65%) were sworn police officers, 3,831 (7.7%) police community support officers (uniformed but civilian officers used for patrol and neighborhood support roles) and 13,350 civilian staff. Let’s be generous and lump the PCSOs in with the real police; that means that the Met is 73% cop, 27% civilian staff, with 430 officers per 100k population (and incidentally the Bloomberg figures give the UK a figure of 262.1).

In comparison, the Moscow GUMVD has an establishment strength of about 80,000; let’s assume it’s now at 95% strength, so 76,000 in reality. The Russians don’t provide a neat break-down of police to staff, but considering that the Met is one of the more efficient and lean services around, I very, very much doubt the Russians can match it. So, arbitrarily, I’ll assume a 65% tooth-to-tail (cop-to-civilian) ratio, which would still make MGUMVD distinctly more efficient than most other Russian police commands. That would suggest some 49,000 police, responsible for a city with a notional population of 11.5 million, although in reality it might be as high as 17M. Still, sticking to the official census data, that suggests that Moscow, the most heavily policed city in Russia bar Grozny, has 426 officers per 100k population. That’s about where the Bloomberg table puts Algeria, below Kazakhstan.

These are rough, back-of-the-envelope figures but honestly, they feel right. Certainly the notion that Russia today is some police state knee-deep in cops just doesn’t hold true, especially once one looks beyond Moscow and St Petersburg. Russia’s irony has often been, after all, that for its size, heterogeneity and challenges, it has often been under-policed, not least as the more numerous and powerful political police–which meant the Okhrana and Gendarmerie of tsarism as much as the Cheka, NKVD and KGB of Soviet times–would often annex police resources to their own ends.

A battered cop, some marketplace raids, and what’s wrong with Russia

russia_raidIt started as a story about a cop getting mobbed in a marketplace. On July 27, a police officers were attacked by some two dozen people at Moscow’s Matveyevsky food market as they were detaining a Dagestani man who was suspected of raping a 15-year-old girl. One of them, Anton Kudryashov, sustained a severe head injury when he was struck in the brawl.

Cops, unsurprisingly, don’t take kindly to one of their own being beaten, doubly so when by ethnic minorities, triply when the attack is—as in this case—captured on video and spread across the internet. Moscow’s police launched a massive series of raids across the city, sweeping the marketplaces for illegal migrants and those suspected of involvement in other crimes. The rape suspect and the alleged cop-beater were both detained, along with more than a thousand others.

In many ways, though, it is the subsequent fallout that has been the most telling.


New article: ‘Purges, Power and Purpose: Medvedev’s 2011 police reforms’

Glad to see the back of the old ‘militsiya’?

Did Medvedev’s much-vaunted police reforms account for much, and in any case will they survive Putin’s return and the swing towards a more repressive and political use of the police? Although I very much see progress as a two-steps-forward-one-back journey, I do see some grounds to praise the Medvedev reforms and express cautious optimism for their continuation under VVP in an article, ‘Purges, Power and Purpose: Medvedev’s 2011 police reforms‘, which has just appeared in the latest issue of the excellent Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies.

Edited by Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski and Anne Le Huerou, this issue (no. 13) addresses brutality and reform in the Russian police and includes a range of fascinating articles, commentaries, interviews and reviews. It’s online and free — well worth following.

Striding or Staggering? Kolokoltsev’s five steps towards police reform

Kolokoltsev: on hold or getting through?

Amidst the twin storms of Hurricane Sandy and midterm grading, I’m indebted to Kevin Rothrock of Global Voices for bringing to my attention a fascinating and important article by Sergei Kanev in Novaya Gazeta that I might well otherwise have missed, on police reform, silovik politics and other subjects close to my heart. The article, ‘Kolokoltsev’s Five Steps’ (Пять шагов Колокольцева), notes that Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev recently admitted that police reform had had limited success to date and in effect launched a renewed effort.

After all, while reform has led to a shrinkage in the force of some 200,000 officers, it is harder to see that this — and the much-vaunted change of name from militia to police — has had direct and positive effects on its efficiency and probity. To an extent, I feel sorry for Kolokoltsev, in that any change will be slow, even generational. No such reform program could have a quick impact, however much policy-makers and public alike might hope for them. Indeed, he deserves some credit for being willing to recognize that reform so far has been more a declaratory than practical act.

The article presents a nice snapshot of how Kolokoltsev — advised by his consigliere, outspoken ex-cop and academic Vladimir Ovchinskii — hopes to make reform work, his five-step plan:

  1. Further demilitarization of the police. This ranges from the cosmetic (making uniforms less like soldiers’) through to changing training and police procedure, doing away with army-style drill.
  2. Making contracts for good officers open-ended and flattening the pay structure. In addition, pay bonuses (currently a great motivator for report padding and forcing the innocent to confess) should be phased out, or replaced with essentially honorific awards such as certificates of merit.
  3. Doing away with the infamous palochka (‘stick’) quota system which again encourages officers to falsify reports and fabricate convictions in the pursuit of promotions and bonuses. Even Russian cops have begun complaining publicly about this system.
  4. At present, the police can refuse to open a criminal case and the public has very little recourse — or even right to know why. This is a perfect smokescreen for cops to take bribes to ensure a case remains closed or simply for them to keep a case which looks difficult or politically-sensitive from messing up their metrics. Kolokoltsev intends to do away with the current scheme and make the whole process much more transparent.
  5. Set up a website detailing — with photos — cops and MVD staff sacked for inappropriate conduct, and also banning them from being employed in other state agencies for life

These are all good, useful measures (even though the last smacks a little of gimmickry — I’ve never been a fan of “name and shame” as a policy). The fight against corruption is an implicit sixth element, but it could have done with being explicit, and in many ways will prove the most crucial in that without that, none of the others will have their desired effect.

Beyond that, there are 3 key issues I think worth noting:

1. The debilitating effects of reform, especially in the short term. In classic style, those with pull managed to avoid the purge, and one effect has been a shortage of street-level patrol officers and precinct inspectors. According to Kolokoltsev, 40% of rural settlements have no police in their districts. I have also heard tales of disarray within the police training apparatus, as some instructors find themselves unsure how to adapt to the new line espoused in the Law on Police. Generally, change will dismay some and confuse many, and transitions are rarely periods of efficiency. In the short term, things will seem worse before they get better.

2. The politics of the MVD. As Kanev rightly notes, any reform project can become a battlefield between ‘clans’ within the MVD itself. Kolokoltsev has far, far more authority than his predecessor, Nurgaliev, but that’s not exactly saying much. He will need to demonstrate both strength and political skill to carry his reform through. Many are doing very well from the status quo — especially the corrupt and the cynical who, alas, did well under Nurgaliev. At best, they will try to protect themselves, at worst they will seek actively to undermine Kolokoltsev and sabotage his reforms, if they begin to feel under threat.

After all, Kolokoltsev has already faced challenges from within the police. Fortunately for him, Nurgaliev had already dealt with rival contender for the ministerial position Mikhail Sukhodolsky (and in gratuitously brutal fashion, at that), but there are still those whispering that he would make a better minister. More to the point, attempts were made around the time of his elevation to smear and discredit him, largely through his son.

3. The politics of the Siloviki. Kolokoltsev will not only have to negotiate MVD politics but also those of the wider security elite. In part, this is for institutional reasons — as Kanev notes, the MVD is now overseen not just by the FSB (who snoop on everyone) but also formally by the Investigations Committee, which is also taking away the lion’s share of the MVD’s investigators. Bastrykin is a complex character who understands many of the philosophical reasons for a law-based state, but at present he seems consumed by the struggle against the opposition and it remains to be seen how he responds to police reform.

Indeed, even within the FSB, three separate and often-feuding elements watch and work with the MVD: Directorate M (specifically tasked with watching the law-enforcement agencies), the Interior Security Directorate (USB) and Directorate K (economic security). These have their own agents, allies and interests within the MVD and thus in my experience as often seem to combine with forces within the MVD to foil the plans of their FSB comrades as exert any meaningful oversight.

More generally, Kanev identifies the main blocs being one dominated by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and Sergei Naryshkin (and which also includes Deputy Interior Minister Sergei Gerasimov and Yuri Draguntsov, head of the MVD’s internal affairs directorate); another under head of the Presidential Control Directorate Konstantin Chuichenko and former Deputy Interior Minister (and now Medvedev advisor) Sergei Bulavin; and a third under Head of the Presidential Administration for Public Service and Human Resources Sergei Dubik. These might not be quite the same blocs I see, but the point on which I agree entirely with Kanev is that the wider power struggles within the siloviki — which are arguably resurgent — intersect with MVD politics and have a direct bearing on the progress of police reform.

Overall, it is hard to give a clear prediction as to whether this reform will succeed, but it is encouraging both that Kolokoltsev is willing to listen to the right people and say the right things and that there is informed and informative debate in the press. That is still a long way from success — but these are all necessary early steps.


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