The latest Russian police reform: the Kremlin is likely to be the only beneficiary

On Thursday 24 December 2009, President Medvedev signed a decree which he said would “enhance the work of the Interior Ministry”, and in particular “specify organisational changes and changes in certain financial and legal issues.” This comes after a period of growing public unease about the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), fuelled by a series of high-profile cases such as Major Denis Yevsyukov’s drunken shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket, which left three dead, and Major Alexei Dymovsky’s public broadside against police corruption in his home city of Novorossiisk on Youtube. That unease is perfectly justified — despite some successes against crime (in fairness, the 2008 headline figures saw a 10.2% drop in total crimes, although in part this was because of under-reporting rather than a genuine decline), most Russians continue to see the police as at best incompetent, at worst corrupt extortionists and heavy-handed Kremlin goons.

Indeed, as Robert Coalson has noted, the paramilitarisation of the police, very much a feature of the 1990s (I wrote about it back in 1993), is alive and well. The OMON (Special Designation Police Units) riot police formations — most recently seen dispersing protesters in Moscow on New Year’s Eve, including an 82-year-old Sakharov prize winner — have actually increased in numbers from 98 in 2003 to 121 by 2007. That’s a total strength of 20,000 officers. The number of armoured vehicles the police deploy is rising, too (in 2006, the MVD announced that it would buy another 5,500, including new water cannon). Furthermore, it is also worth noting that the slight reduction in the size of the MVD’s military Interior Troops (VV) announced in December, from 184,000 to 170,000, is not only to take place on an elongated schedule (to be completed by 2020), but actually represents only a 7.6% cut — less than that envisaged for either the regular police or, indeed, the military.

Reform programmes and pledges come and go, and it is easy to be cynical. However, evidence from elsewhere within the Russian government does show that it is possible to drag a bloated, corrupt and inefficient relic of the Soviet era at least over the threshold of change. After all, 2009 saw an important step forward in military reform, with the relatively smooth reorganisation of the ground forces from a divisional to a brigade structure, one that is more flexible and granular, able to respond to smaller-scale challenges and also cope with a phased reduction in the total strength of the army. However, this took place after almost two decades of false starts and, above all, required not just the appointment of a defence minister from outside the military who could bring some degree of budget accountability to an embezzlement-ravaged ministry (Anatoly Serdyukov, appointed in 2007, was the former head of the State Tax Service), it also required the elevation of a senior general to the post of Chief of the General Staff willing to work for and with the minister and, just as important, the lacklustre performance of the military in the 2008 Georgian war. That the Russians beat Georgia, a country with less than one thirtieth of its population, was unsurprising. Just how badly Russian forces did, given that they had prepared for just this conflict, was much more of a shock and forced even die-hard conservatives within the High Command to recognise that substantive reform was needed. The final precondition, without which none of the above would have made any difference, was sustained political will, a commitment from both Medvedev’s Kremlin and Putin’s White House to push and fund real military reform, giving Serdyukov the authority and the budget to make a difference. Even so, this will be a long-term process, with scope for pain and missed opportunities along the way.

How, in contrast, is police reform faring? Badly, so far, something I have pontificated on elsewhere. But does Medvedev’s most recent edict offer many grounds for optimism? There are five main elements:

  1. A 20% reduction in the size of the police force. On the surface, the police force is a bloated bureaucratic leviathan reminiscent of its Soviet and even tsarist predecessors. Its 1.4 million staff include many paper-pushers and official busybodies, and a cut thus seems a tempting and populist move. 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, at least until after qualitative improvements are in place. The MVD’s current establishment strength means a relatively high ratio of one staffer for every 101 citizens (compared with the UK’s 1:254, for example), but this is deceptive. That 1.4 million includes 180,000 VV, an unknown number of unfilled positions (the highest estimate would be around 40,000) and a larger proportion of officials 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, over half the total strength of 240,000 are genuine police; while it is hard to come up with precise figures, the Russian figure is probably closer to 40-45%. This would suggest that the ‘1.4 million cops’ are actually only some 530,000. Still more than in smaller, more advanced states (the true cop 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. In any case, this is unlikely to prove more than a cosmetic change, as most of the reductions will come either from pruning unfilled positions and possibly but cutting expansion posts. For example, at the start of December, Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced a planned 30% increase in the numbers of officers; given that Medvedev’s reductions are due to be in force by 1 January 2012, Kokoltsev could simply meet this target by scaling down on his expansion plans.
  2. Pay rises for police officers. At present, police officers are paid relatively low salaries, making recruitment and retention difficult (especially given the attractions of the private security sector) and corruption not just endemic but widely accepted as a necessary means of supplementing low incomes. This is, after all, a tradition dating back to the tsarist-era approach of kormlenie, ‘feeding’, of assuming that public officials will not live on their salaries alone. Increased salaries will help improve morale and in due course honesty and professionalism. However, not only has the MVD been given until 1 January 2011 just to come up with a plan for how to do this, let alone actually implement rises, but it is envisaged that much of the money will come from savings through the 20% establishment cut. Given that much of this will be illusory (and much of any initial savings will in any case be consumed through the costs of redundancy payments and restructuring), it raises doubts about how great and how quick these increases really will prove.
  3. Reorganisation. Arguably the MVD, whose structure is fundamentally unchanged from Soviet times, needs a fundamental reorganisation both to improve efficiency and also help close the yawning gulf between the  police and those they police. Experiments with neighbourhood policing and similar outreach projects have almost invariably become mired in bureaucratic limbo, while the paramilitarisation of the force continued regardless, as if firepower could in any way substitute for public trust and legitimacy. There is to be no reform comparable to the transition to brigades in the military. On this issue, Medvedev had nothing substantive to offer. Instead, he made a token demand that the MVD disband two of its fifteen main departments “in order to optimise management”, without specifying which. Interior Minister Nurgaliev promptly announced that initially the transportation police would be merged with the agency which oversees security in restricted areas (which goes by the cumbersome acronym DOPZTRO). However, this is to be purely a reshuffle of badges and office directories as the respective forces will still operate, just now under a single title. A very Russian ‘efficiency.’
  4. Switching responsibility for the funding for the police from a joint central/local basis to a central one. Since the 1990s, a serious problem has been the tussle, sometimes covert at others all too obvious, between local and central authorities over control of the police. In the Yeltsin years, when the MVD in Moscow often simply lacked the funds adequately to meet local police costs and salaries, city and regional authorities and even businesses stepped in to make up some of the shortfall. None of this was without a price, though, as those who paid the cash assumed — often entirely correctly — that this would buy them power, impunity and, often, the use of the police as their private enforcers. Since 2000, the problem has been more that local circles of mutual corruption have emerged that are difficult to break and challenge the ‘power vertical’. Making the central budget responsible for all police funding (with the possible exception of some earnings through the ‘extradepartmental guard’ programme which allows businesses to hire police for security work) will certainly help reduce some of the freedom of manoeuvre for these cosy local cabals, especially when twinned with a policy of more actively rotating officers between regions or departments. However, the corollary is that this will also give Moscow, which itself is hardly averse to using the police for its own political ends, greater power at the local level. In a perverse way, the corruption of the police in some ways — and this is not in any way to downplay its numerous and obvious downsides — acted as a crude check to the power of the central executive. At the end of 2008, for example, the local police refused to disperse protested in Vladivostok, with the clear connivance of the regional government, forcing Moscow to pull together a scratch force of OMON riot police from across Russia to do the job. Whether or not it makes for a better police force, shifting sole budgetary responsibility to the centre will certainly help further consolidate Moscow’s grip on the regions. Furthermore, it will do so at no cost to itself, as Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has said that the cost to the federal budget, estimated at 200 billion rubles ($6.7 billion), will simply be deducted from subsidies to the regions.
  5. An anti-corruption programme. Ah yes. Again. This is no laughing matter, but the number of anti-corruption campaigns, programmes, initiatives and drives launched by and within the MVD is such as to make it difficult to take a new one seriously. (Especially as Dymovsky was suspended and harassed after making his claims.) Of course, until the most recent military reform programme, I was equally sceptical about that, so perhaps I will be eating my words here. However, all Medvedev has done is task Nurgaliev — who, after all, has himself presided over this corrupt kleptoconstabulary for five years without having made any appreciable headway in combating the problem — with coming up with a new programme within three months. I await with baited breath. However, I find it hard to be optimistic given that, speaking to officers in Saratov on 22 December, the best he could do was essentially put the onus for dealing with the problem on junior officers, telling them that they ought not “leave to their own devices those staff who discredit the honour and dignity of an officer, those who decided long ago they don’t give a damn about the interests of service, and don’t work in the interests of stability of the state.”

This last point, of course, points to two of the most fundamental dilemmas of reform, one intractable and one apparently inconceivable. The intractable issue is that real reform of the police will need to be a cultural one, changing the force’s very identity and social role from being the enforcer of the will of those in power to being the champion of the law and thus the defender of the weak against those who would oppress them, whether thuggish protection racketeers or corrupt officials. Any reforms enacted now will take a generation truly to take effect, until today’s new recruits rise to replace the present cohort of senior commanders, many of whom are able, even honest, but whose mentality has been shaped by past experiences.

The seemingly inconceivable one is replacing Nurgaliev. I have not seen any credible suggestions that he is personally corrupt, and his record as a criminal investigator in first the KGB and then its successors, the FSK and then FSB, is a respectable one. However, in his current role, it is hard to see him as anything better than a politically-compliant and moderately-competent manager. He has demonstrated a striking lack of leadership, failed entirely to make any significant inroads into the corruption, unprofessionalism and demoralisation which so deeply undermine the police and instead seems comfortable presiding over the MVD in its current form, stirring periodically to make some new pledge of probity and reform. If Medvedev is serious about wanting what he called “sharp and serious” changes, he could start at the top. Just as meaningful military reform required both a clear and determined commitment from the powers-that-be and  the introduction of a new leadership team with the skills, mandate and vision for change, so too the MVD is going to need a thorough reshuffle at the top if it is ever to change. As is, beyond further strengthening Moscow’s grip on the power structures, it is hard at present to see this latest reform offering much to those honest cops still trying to do their jobs and the long-suffering Russian population alike.

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