Under Yeltsin, under Putin, and now it seems under Medvedev, reorganising law-enforcement agencies and overlaying new bodies on top of the existing ones has been the usual response to dealing with serious and organised crime. Cynic though I may be, this was my first thought on looking at Medvedev’s latest decree of 6 September 2008. The Interior Ministry (MVD) is to lose its specialised department for fighting organised crime and terrorism (DBOPT, but still widely known by its old acronym, UBOP) and its local branches. Investigating organised crime will simply be rolled into the work of the existing Main Directorate for Criminal Investigation (GUUR) and local CIDs, while UBOP staff will be transferred to a new body with a rather incongruous combination of roles: fighting ‘extremism’ and protecting judicial officials and witnesses.
Will it actually happen? The MVD’s Main Directorate for Combating Organised Crime (GUBOP) was technically abolished in 2001 but actually survived unharmed until ending up rolled into UBOP. Some DBOPT officers believe this just means a change of name, and they could be right. Given the ambiguity of ‘extremism’, this new body might still end up doing much the same thing, only using different nomenclature – it wouldn’t be the first time this happened in Russia! (For what it’s worth, as of 11 September, the MVD’s own website continued to list the old title and role.)
Will this strengthen or weaken the fight against organised crime? The rationale seems to be that the fight against OC has in many ways been won, and the major combines behind the mob wars of the 1990s have been broken, so that fighting OC can now be considered a part of ordinary policing. If the Kremlin really believes this, then it is showing startling naivety. The turf wars of the 1990s ended because (a) they reached their natural conclusion with criminal hierarchies and territories defined and accepted, (b) they were bad for business and (c) Putin made it clear that he was not prepared to accept such overt bespredel, lawlessness. OC has not so much been defeated as housetrained, as it is instead incorporated into the wider social, economic and even political matrix, which in many ways poses even tougher law-enforcement challenges. Even Interior Minister Nurgaliev seems to accept this is a serious problem – behind closed doors. An alternative rationale might be that the job of fighting OC should be left more either to the new bodies already created (most notable the Investigations Committee of the Prosecutor General) or those meant still to be created (a new Federal Investigations Service Putin announced and which should be forming by now, but seems to be on the back-burner). In this case, though, why not transfer experienced investigators to them rather than give them this new role? At first glance, I see little encouraging in this latest reshuffle.
What does this mean for the MVD? Some of the first reactions have been that it elevates the MVD above the other ‘power ministries’ because of its new role dealing with ‘extremism’ – which may turn out to be a code for anti-Kremlin agitation. I’m not convinced. Historically, the MVD has been the poor relation (indeed, this was also evident in its funding: between 2006 and 2007, its share of state expenditure rose by a very respectable 11%, although this compares with a 20% increased spend on the security agencies), and so far there is no real evidence of any change.
Why? What kind of ‘extremism’ is this new move meant to counter? If it is terrorism, which DBOPT already covered, then it simply changes the department’s second function from one thing to the other. In any case, the striking story so far is that – outside the North Caucasus where ‘terrorism’ is probably best conceptualised as the early stages of growing insurgency – Russia has been relatively little troubled by the problem. This is not to belittle the terror of Nord-Ost, etc, so much as to express some surprise that Russia hasn’t experienced more terrorism in the circumstances. Does it mean inter-communal violence? If so, then most of its work will be devoted to rounding up Russian nationalists, something for which I hardly think the Kremlin has the stomach. Or does it mean opponents of the Kremlin? But again it is hard to see any real resistance to the government, and certainly nothing which would overstretch the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Overall, I am perplexed and awaiting details. Part of this reshuffle will help strengthen the role of the MVD’s Main Directorate for Economic Crimes (GUEP) in also fighting corruption, which is a theme of the Medvedev presidency. There are some able investigators within GUEP and harnessing them to the fight against embezzlement and bribe-taking will be a useful step. It might also be intended to raise the profile of the more tractable MVD over the FSB and similar agencies which have a rather more assertive political profile and some scepticism about Medvedev. But overall this does not seem to strengthen the ministry or otherwise represent a challenge to the security agencies. So perhaps it is also that usual bureaucratic response – a reshuffle to give the impression of strong will, determination and a clear vision, even if in fact they demonstrate the absence of all three? I hope not, but let’s see.