Russia’s Anticorruption Campaign: Putin hopes the KGB veterans in the Presidential Admin can turn the tide

A revised and updated version of this post is up on the Russia! website, here.


Bribe_Petersburg(1)_0Russia’s new draft Public Security Policy says that corruption ought to be considered a serious national security threat—something I’ve long argued—and also suggests that it is a growing challenge. After all,

We are seeing stable tendencies towards the merging of the interests of businesses and officials and inclusion in corruption schemes of officials and foreign businessmen.

Now, I don’t read “stable” in this passage as being a compliment, but rather meaning a continuing one, given that it is in the context of a process that is taking place, and the document admits that (more…)

Who actually is in the Investigations Committee?

SKThe Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation (SKRF) is, of course, the current bête noir of every liberal Russia-watcher, but beyond big bad Bastrykin and his press spokesman/vicar on earth/Mouth of Sauron Vladimir Markin, we hear and know very little about just who else its staff may be. I’m thus indebted to Sean Guillory for pointing me towards an article in Russkaya Planeta (a source I confess new to me) which cited data from a 2010 issue of that riveting page-turner The Journal of the Investigations Committee (Vestnik Sledstvennogo komiteta) which provide a slightly-dated but nonetheless fascinating snapshot.

At the time, the full-time complement of the SK was 19,156 people (excluding military personnel and civilian  investigators working in the military but assigned to the Committee).


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.


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.

Putin: Tactician or Strategist?

I had an interesting exchange earlier this week with some Russia hands from the US government within the context of a forum held at the Brookings Institute. At issue was whether or not Putin could be said to have a strategy or whether – as I would suggest – he should instead be considered an often masterful tactician but not, ultimately, a strategist. What’s the difference? Strategy implies some quite specific long-term roadmap: not just a general sense of goals and ambitions, but a clearly-defined idea of the steps which will be taken to reach that objective. My view rather is that while Putin has a definite worldview, an idea of where he wants Russia in the world and what kind of Russia that should be, he no more has a logical and methodical notion of how to get there than, to be blunt, near enough any other leader in the world. Instead, he responds to opportunities and events in the way that suits his ambitions and temperament best and which he thinks is most likely to advance him towards his long-term goals. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he wakes up each day with some new scheme in mind; clearly there are policies which are essentially spur of the moment, and others which unfold over months or even years.

The evident change of heart which led to the “castling” maneuver in 2011, the shifts towards, away from and perhaps again towards freer market policies, Moscow’s position over Syria, all these suggest tactical rather than strategic thinking. Where there has appeared to be more of a strategic rationale underlying policy, that often seems to reflect the role of trusted allies of his, such as Kudrin on macroeconomics (until his grumpy resignation), Surkov on mass politics (until his marginalization), even Medvedev on legal reform (until the recent campaign to roll back many of his initiatives)

Beyond being simply a wonkish thought-exercise, does any of this matter, though? I’d suggest it does, for three main reasons:

1.  It tells us something about Putin’s political style. He can be a sharp, quick-acting and ruthless operator, but in many ways Putin is not only quite conservative but he also does listen to, and work through and with trusted allies. He is strikingly risk-averse and tends only to act when he feels he has a pretty definite chance of success. (He may be wrong, of course. The ‘castling’ is, I think, an especially good example of a move in which he was caught entirely off guard by public and elite dismay and disgruntlement.) Even when this means confrontational acts, from invading Chechnya to victimizing US ambassador Mike McFaul, he does so believing that he is going to get away with it. (And in the main he’s been proven right, not least in his calculation that the West has no stomach for challenging him hard.) Likewise, for all the myth – perpetuated by his supports and critics alike – of the brooding solitary father of the nation, Putin understands – or maybe understood, but I’ll get on to that later – the value of listening to good advice and letting trusted allies and underlings do their job. We see the occasional, highly-choreographed example of micromanagement when Putin upbraids a minister for some specific failing or sweeps into town to fix a local problem, spouting facts and figures. But those are the exceptions, pieces of political theater rather than reflections of his general style of rule. Having helped build a ‘deep state‘ of like-minded allies, as well as a team of suitable ‘managers’, he is largely happy to let them get on with their jobs, so long as they do.

2.  It tells us something about Putin 2.0 and why his time may be (slowly) coming to an end. Think of those people on whom he relied. Kudrin has gone and the window of opportunity to bring him back into the government seems to be closing. The current mess over pension reform and contradictions over the budget speaks volumes about how pivotal he was. Surkov likewise has been sidelined to the White House and may, according to some (I’m not convinced, I should add, but can’t definitively rule it out), even actively be stirring up mischief for his successor. Medvedev, the loyal factotum, seems to be increasingly persona non grata. Sechin is still a fixture, but it is questionable how far this is a positive factor. Even his traditional role as godfather of the siloviki may be unclear – certainly I’ve heard siloviki deriding him as now just an oligarch by any other name. Those people who provided a strategic complement to Putin’s tactical skills seem to be going – and I can’t yet see anyone taking their place.

3.  It helps explain the often-contradictory approach to the opposition. To many, there is little contradiction. The new laws on NGOs receiving foreign funding, the Pussy Riot trial, the expansion of the internal security apparatus, the rise of Bastrykin and his Investigations Committee, the new attention being paid to the Russian Orthodox Church, the Gudkov affair, the media smear campaigns against opposition leaders, all these seem to fit together into one authoritarian campaign. However, I think that over-simplifies the situation. First of all, however retrograde these measures undoubtedly are, we must appreciate that they are far more limited that the state could apply (and some advocate). The overblown and distasteful parallels with the Stalinist purges actually underline this point; when the state is simply embarrassing people through NTV rather than sending them to a Gulag for twenty years, then it is a rather different state.

Secondly, we ought not to bundle all these measures into a coherent whole – that is too much like seeing a series of dots and insisting on drawing a picture from them. The Gudkov affair was, I think, initiated by elements within the Duma rather than originally dreamt up in the Kremlin. Bastrykin has been empire-building since the SK was formed, and while the emergence of the opposition movement helped him push for new powers, he is likely now to be reined in somewhat. Meanwhile, rather than trying to insulate itself from foreign political and cultural influences like some onion-domed North Korea, Russia is pushing for freer travel to the West for its citizens and funding greater levels of student exchange. These are exactly the kind of grass-roots consciousness-raising experiences which play to the opposition. Surely these new authoritarians ought to be trying to limit such exposure before they face a new generation of Decembrists?


The answer is that there is no strategy. Putin the risk-averse leader does not seem to know how to assess the dangers and opportunities of the current political environment and so is doing lots of ‘stuff’ but not articulating any overarching plan. This is not masterful inaction, just busy-work to mask the absence of strategy. As a result, numerous individual and institutional interests are pushing their own agendas, from Bastrykin’s hard line to a modernizing agenda that is eager to encourage the influx of Western ideas and technologies.


Of course, the question becomes whether and when Putin will find a strategy – and whose it may be? A Bastrykinesque campaign of repression? A Medvedian drive for rechtstaat? A return to crude nationalism a la Rogozin? Sechin’s cynical state capitalism? It may well never happen, of course, leaving policy instead largely a matter of responding to the events of the day. You know, like most democracies.

In EUROPP on the political (ab)use of the law in Russia


Just to note, Once again, the law in Russia is becoming a tool of political control, a commentary of mine on the use of the law and the investigatory apparatus in Russia as a tool to silence and suppress the opposition — including figures such as Gennady Gudkov — is on EUROPP, the LSE’s European Politics & Policy blog, here.


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