Financial crisis puts new pressure on Russian police, but means boom time for security forces

Although Putin made a great play of his commitment to law and order, the emphasis always seemed to be on order more than law. Resources were devoted more to defence and public order, but nonetheless the bonanza of oil and gas revenues did mean that spending on the police picked up, making good some of the deficits created in the 1990s, when successive budget crises left them in a disastrous state. At the same time, a trickle-down of prosperity did help control (if not really reverse) the rise in street crime, while organized crime matured, with real power in the underworld moving from ‘street mafiya’ to ‘suit mafiya’, the age of the overt gangsters known as ‘bandits’ giving way to the behind-the-scenes ‘authorities’ who blended crime, business and politics. This did not mean that organized crime disappeared, but at least it did mean an end to the more violent, indiscriminate days of the 1990s turf wars.

However, the global financial crisis is making its mark in Russia, too. Street crime appears again to be on the rise (although comprehensive and reliable figures have not yet been released) and organized crime is also under pressure. The old underworld status quo is being put in question as cash-strapped gangs seek to make good their deficits by muscling in on others’ territories and businesses. (The drug trade within and more to the point through Russia is a particularly attractive bone of contention.) Meanwhile, the ‘authorities’ are finding that their incomes from white-collar crime are falling, and may well drift back into their bad old ‘bandit’ ways.

Sadly, Medvedev does not seem to take organized crime seriously as a threat and even at this time appears to be following in Putin’s footsteps in prioritizing public order over law enforcement. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) still maintains its own army, the Interior Troops (VV). While sometimes deployed for patrol and similar duties, essentially this is a military force trained and equipped for public order and internal security duties, with army uniforms, combat weapons and even armored vehicles.

The VV are currently number just over 200,000 effectives, but this year they were to begin to be reduced as part of a plan promulgated in 2006, down to 140,000 by 2011. However, according to the VV commander Army General Nikolai Rogozhkin, this draw-down has been placed on hold – presumably because of the Kremlin’s fear of mounting public unrest caused by the global economic slow-down. Indeed, if anything more resources are being diverted to public order forces, also including the OMON riot police who most recently were deployed in force in Vladivostok against protesters. Rogozhkin himself has been promoted to the rank of Deputy Interior Minister, a position also held by his predecessors but originally withheld from him since his appointment in 2004 precisely because of the planned diminution of the VV’s role. Meanwhile the VV themselves are gaining three Special Designation Centers (TsSNs), essentially special force detachments, to add to their existing Spetsnaz elements, including Vityaz. There is also a massive re-equipment program under way, equipping the VV with everything from new weapons (they look, for example, set to replace their ageing AK-74 assault rifles with the new AK-104 even quicker than the regular military) to unmanned aerial vehicles (airborne drones).

The MVD’s 2009 budget was predicated on a reduction in the VV of some 15,000-20,000 men, largely by not taking new recruits and thus saving not only on their salaries and maintenance costs but also training. Instead, not only are the VV maintaining their current strength, the introduction of new kit costs money and brings with it new training needs. Although the new MV budget has not been released, the hints and omens suggest no substantive increases given the government’s overall drive to cut expenditure. Even if the MVD budget remains stable, though, instead of being able to divert savings from the VV to regular policing it will actually have to increase its spending on its paramilitaries. This money will have to be scrounged from the expenditures on regular policing which – as in Soviet and even tsarist times – always seems to be the poor relation.

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