Russia’s brutal police: why has reform not stopped the abuses?

Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil

It’s a year since the Law on the Police was introduced amidst a series of genuflections towards the need to improve the cops’ human rights record, close the legitimacy gap between police and the policed and generally do something about long-entrenched habits and practices of corruption, intimidation and brutality. Heavens, the police were even banned from truncheoning pregnant women; I’d have thought this shouldn’t have needed to be said, but given the choice, I’d rather it be proscribed than permitted.

So has the world changed? It may not seem so. We are still being horrified by a litany of abuses and tragedies, from the fatal beating and torture of Sergei Nazarov in Kazan on March 9, through journalists being attacked and beaten while covering anti-government protests. (Parenthetically, Russian prisons are also still rife with violence.) So, what’s going on?

It’s easy to be cynical and assume it was all a sham, some cosmetic PR. In fairness, it’s hard truly to believe that a government and senior police command willing to condone certain practices for so long would undergo a Damascene conversion and suddenly find them wholly abhorrent. Furthermore, given that the treatment meted out to those overseeing abuses are often determined more by politics than justice (consider the ousting of St Petersburg’s Sukhodolsky compared with Moscow’s Kolokoltsev’s surviving abuses on his watch), it seems legitimate to question how far the culture of impunity has been addressed. Human Rights Watch has demanded that Putin “Make a public commitment to genuine police reform, including ending police brutality,” for example, and that so far reform had “not done a thing,” while according to Mikhail Pashkin, head of the Moscow Police Employees’ Trade Union, “it seems that nothing has changed, except for the sign.” Well, maybe, but thinking that a police culture that dates back decades — indeed, as long as Russia has had a police force — could be changed in a year is naive.

The answer that such reform takes time is at once entirely fair and deeply dissatisfying, not least as it is one of those classic excuses trotted out precisely when institutions don’t want to change: witness the military in the pre-Serdyukov era. But sadly, infuriatingly, it’s true. No reforms were ever magically going to change place culture, just — as part of a wider campaign — begin to re-educate serving officers and tilt the balance of risk versus reward. After all, what has been striking is that these abuses have been widely reported and condemned and that officers have been dismissed, disciplined and even charged. The death in custody of an alleged thief in St Petersburg led to the downfall of the chief of police; the Kazan case very quickly likewise led to dismissals and criminal charges being brought.

That in and of itself does demonstrate a slow improvement. So the very fact that abuses are being reported and acted upon, regarded as breaches of discipline, is a sign of change. This is also a snowballing process; for example, as it became clear that the Kazan case was being treated seriously, people began to come forward and make allegations about prior misdeeds at the same precinct. Nonetheless, in reality this is going to be a generational process: it will above all be the new generation of police being recruited and trained now (and the higher salaries being paid cops should help attract a better kind of applicant), who are most likely to internalize any cultural shift.

But I would also add that this is a granular process that will be more evident in some places and services than other and which can and will be given different emphasis and importance at different times. It remains to be seen whether or how far Putin will continue to push the legalizing agenda which is so important to Medvedev. (William Partlett at Brookings says yes; I’m not quite as optimistic but certainly wouldn’t rule it out — it depends on whether he truly accepts the point that economic modernization and his own long-term interests require it.) The police’s handling of the protests have not been without any grounds for reproach, but throwing tense, excited men in riot gear at tense, excited protesters is always going to mean there will be some scuffling, and while in some cases they went well beyond that and were outrightly vicious, by the standards of the OMON — not, admittedly, always the highest bar — I feel they were quite restrained. Whether OMON, NYPD or the Met, when riot-armored cops are deployed, there will be some instances where people go over the line.

Is this because of some cultural shift amongst the ordinary officers? Probably not; in my experience most Russian cops, while casually venal in the way they supplement their pay with judicious bribe-taking, are not sadists or sociopaths. What is more likely to have changed is a sense within the police command about the risks in violence, especially in a day of 24-hour news and ubiquitous cellphones, as well as within the Kremlin as to how necessary and productive any strong-arm tactics would be. Sadly, common sense and self-interest are better at restraining authoritarian regimes than morality ever can be.

One of the saddening aspects of the reform is that while talking about the relationship of police and society, the MVD still has not made any meaningful moves towards developing any kind of program for community policing (recruiting Cossack auxiliaries emphatically doesn’t count!). But — and this is one of the granular elements — much will also depend on the attitudes of local elites and, more to the point, (as others have noted, including Brian Taylor and Elisabeth Sieca-Kozlowski) the willingness of local communities to hold their police to account yet, and this is vital, also work with them. A striking feature of the Kazan case was the extent to which community groups and the local press also made sure the abuses received due attention. At the same time, though, they seem to be managing to do so in a way which is not alienating the police command (with such a nasty case it is easy to end up treating the whole police force as equally culpable, which tends simply to force them to entrench). They also seem to have done so drawing on support from counterparts across the country. In this respect, it may even be considered a victory for what RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore usefully calls the “Power Horizontal“, like-minded Russians coordinating and agitating not just locally but nationally, not least thanks to the new social media.

I certainly do not minimize the daily abuses of the Russian police, from the shakedowns to the casual mistreatment of suspects and transients. But at the same time, most Russian cops I’ve encountered don’t want to be stormtroopers of repression or extortionist pariahs; they usually do genuinely believe in the police officer’s mission, but a combination of ingrained culture, economic pressures, demands from above them and rejection from around them tend to lock them into a certain pattern of behaviors and attitudes. It can and will change, but it will take time, continued political will from the Kremlin, but also continued but constructive pressure from society at large.

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