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Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Will Police Reform Result in Name Change Only?

Introduced by Vladimir Frolov Russia Profile 08/27/2010

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Alexandre Strokanov

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev continues his high-profile political campaign to fundamentally reform the Russian police force. In early August the president unveiled his much-anticipated bill to reform the Interior Ministry and proposed to replace its Soviet-era name "militsia" with the tsarist-era "police." Will the new legislation bring about a transformation in the Russian police force, more substantial than a name change?

This issue has evolved into one of the most important political initiatives of Medvedev’s presidency, and much of the judgment on his performance as president will be based on the demonstrated results of the campaign to reform Russia’s corrupt and bloated police force.

In an unusual move, Medvedev called for a broad public discussion of the new Police Law and ordered to post the draft on the Internet, while inviting the Russian public to submit their suggestions and recommendations. The 11-chapter draft was immediately posted on the government's Web site Zakonoproekt2010.ru. More than 2,000 comments had been posted 24 hours after the draft was put online.

Medvedev announced the name change by saying the police needs "professional, effective employees ... so I think the time has come to return its name." In an effort to limit the potential for police abuse, Medvedev called for a set list of police duties and capabilities to be enshrined in the new law. "The law should contain a clear and detailed list of the duties and responsibilities the employees of the Interior Ministry are to carry out in accordance with other legal acts," said the president. He stressed that "the list of such duties must be comprehensive."

Another significant change in the new law is to make the police a wholly federal agency, thus abolishing the old arrangement where the police units responsible for public order and petty crimes were in effect regional and city government agencies, partially funded out of regional and local budgets and responsible more to the regional governors than to the federal center. Now the federal center will fund all police activities and appoint all senior police officers in the regions.

Will the new legislation bring about a transformation in the Russian police force, more substantial than a name change? Will Medvedev’s proposal for the name change be largely symbolic or will it in itself become an important factor in transforming Russia’s law enforcement agencies? How would a public discussion of the draft of the new law on the Internet contribute to the success of the police reform? Is it enough to take public concerns into account in the new law? Will the proposed federalization of the police functions and structure help improve the police force’s efficiency and reduce corruption risks, or will it make the work of the local police less effective and less accountable to the public? What impact could the success or failure of the police reform have on Medvedev's presidency and his chances for reelection in 2012?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of the Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

The public discussion of the draft of the new law on the country’s major law enforcement agency is certainly one of the most important events in Russian political life in 2010. The decision to make the discussion open and present the draft of the law on the Internet is absolutely right and deserves unquestionable support. There are many reasons to believe that the new law will be much better than the one it will replace. However, the major problem is not there, but in the people who will implement this law, and in the Russian mentality. And public discussion is unlikely to be able to change that.

President Medvedev is a lawyer by education and a university law professor by profession. And he probably believes that society and its institutions can be changed by good laws, and with the use of more correct and precise definitions in them. And this is the reason for his particular insistence on changing the name from “militsia” to “politsia.”

Meanwhile, real life is much more complex and informed by factors as diverse and unquantifiable as a country’s traditions, mentality, and the historical memory of its people. That is why, in my opinion, the proposed name change is actually a serious mistake which may further alienate Russian people, in particular those who live outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, from the legal authorities and those serving in the law enforcement agencies. The Kremlin should pay much more serious attention to the fact that most people in the country do not want that “name change.”

The major problem of Russia lies neither in definitions nor in good or bad laws. The problem is in Russia itself, and especially in the last 20 years of life in the country. This period inspired so many hopes and illusions in the beginning but brought so few positive results at the end.

Russian people see serious problems and even degradation in many areas of life today. Education is obviously declining in quality, especially the quality of teaching, despite many new laws and reforms; medicine is suffering from many problems, despite new laws in this field; law enforcement agencies are reasonably accused of many sins related to their personnel. Corruption is everywhere, in schools, in hospitals, on roads, and in the offices of law enforcement agencies.
Was it the same in the Soviet Union? Any objective observer will tell you that it was not so. Despite all the ills of the Soviet system, Soviet education in 1960s and 1970s was respected by the people, and even today appreciated in many universities around the world, where graduates of Soviet universities are teaching. Soviet medicine in the same period was far from perfect, but patients were not treated according to their wallets. Finally, the “militsia” at the "time of stagnation" was not regarded as a threat to the safety of law-abiding citizens, and most Soviet cities were quite safe.
To blame the “democratic Bolsheviks” of the 1990s and the rule of then-President Boris Yeltsin has already become a commonplace. When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 the country was in a really bad shape and just a step away from collapse. With “Putins’s majority” and the so-called “vertical of power” many negative tendencies that had developed throughout the 1990s were stopped. The country was probably saved at that point.

However, those factors that worked in the first decade of the new century are not working anymore today. They were set for particular goals that are now mostly achieved, and obviously a new paradigm of power is needed today. A new "majority" and a new "vertical.”

Unfortunately, President Medvedev has so far been unable to deliver it.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Center for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

Trying to reform the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in isolation from introducing major changes to the manner in which Russia is governed is almost certain to fail. It will certainly fail if there is not a simultaneous growth in the number of lawyers willing to represent individuals against the government and its employees, or the Office of the Ombudsmen does not become better staffed, better funded, and more assertive. Equally crucial are a more independent judiciary and prosecution service, and the emergence of a more aggressive press and media. The Interior Ministry is plagued by corruption and incompetence, as some of the recent personnel changes in senior positions demonstrate. Its problems are so ingrained that the time when it might have been possible to improve its effectiveness by replacing people at the top of the organization and in its ranks, along with shifting responsibilities to different units within the ministry or transferring them to another part of the government, has passed.

Renaming it, breaking it up into small units dedicated to performing particular tasks, merging it into better performing governmental bodies, or making it entirely beholden to the federal government (as proposed by the draft legislation) will not produce cognizable improvements. I think president Medvedev would be making a grave error if he were to stake his political future on improving Russian law enforcement. The situation is one that simply cannot be improved in the near-term. The problem has developed over time and not on his watch. If he were to fail (as he almost certainly would), it would be most unfortunate since he is likely to blamed – ironically, he will be accountable for a problem primarily not of his making.

There are certain steps that should be explored. The Interior Ministry (or a phoenix built upon its ashes) should be decentralized with the exception of intelligence and anti-corruption functions. For the Russian national security community to improve its national intelligence capability, there needs to be greater cooperation among its components (e.g. assessment and dissemination to other state bodies) to avoid wasteful duplication and to provide senior officials competing views of the “big picture,” particularly in the anti-terrorism area. Furthermore, as a general rule, it is important to ensure that persons involved in combating corruption are kept separate from persons with operational responsibilities.

I would hope that domestic intelligence gathering remains decentralized, so that those collecting information could provide the political leadership with more accurate data – a key element for forming effective policies. It is most unfortunate when those who are largely motivated by policy issues (e.g. non-violent separatists, persons seeking greater, albeit more limited, autonomy, and other activists such as those concerned with protecting the environment or combating corruption), are wrongfully grouped together with terrorists and organized crime groups.

The Interior Ministry, like the Russian armed forces, is presently incapable of assembling quality personnel and maintaining a high level of discipline. A large percentage of its members suffer from mental illness and are not physically fit. Although it is impossible to deny that the ministry is a “sick” organization, efforts to undertake reform under these circumstances may result in only treating part of the problem or some of the symptoms. If changes are carried out rapidly, they are unlikely to succeed.

Sometimes I read that downsizing the Interior Ministry and increasing its members’ salaries will improve the situation. While there may be some benefits to downsizing, boosting salaries alone is bound to fail. Instead, perhaps the Russians should study the French model. Granted, Russia is not France, but France’s approach to law enforcement may offer important lessons. For example, at the national level France has three organizations involved in law enforcement: within the Ministry of the Interior is the Police Nationale, which is a civilian force; the Gendarmerie Nationale, a paramilitary organization where organizational and logistical matters are handled by the Ministry of Defense, but the Ministry of the Interior exercises operational command; and a civilian customs service that reports to the Ministry of Budget, Public Accounting and Civil Servants (as I understand it, it is this organization that is principally tasked with anti-corruption functions within the French bureaucracy). It is noteworthy that members of the Gendarmerie receive free housing as part of their compensation package so that they can maintain a reasonable quality of life despite differences in the cost of living in various parts of the country.

Entirely separate from federal law enforcement bodies are the municipal and rural police, both of which are run on the local level. France, like Russia, is highly centralized, but the French recognize the importance of local policing. Having both federal and local police probably reduces the level of corruption as each can function as the other’s watchdog. While the federal police may be better trained and equipped, the local police are more connected to the residents of the territories in which they operate, and to lower-level politicians. No law enforcement system is perfect, whether in fighting crime or corruption. Still this overlapping structure adds an element of competition within the law enforcement community, which probably leads to greater effectiveness. In addition, abuses of power committed by personnel within one organization may be uncovered within the organization, or, if the wrongful acts are committed by federal personnel, the public can turn to the local police. The local police are similarly aware that if they overstep their authority, the federal police might intervene on behalf of the citizenry.

France is much smaller than Russia in both size and population. Its population is more homogenous, and its record for upholding the rule of law and civil rights in recent years is much higher. France is not without its own share of corruption, and law enforcement officers tend to treat non-ethnic French citizens with a heavier hand than ethnic French citizens. It is unrealistic to expect perfection in any country, but if Medvedev is looking for a reason to visit France, he might make excellent use of his time by seeing if the French model of law enforcement could be replicated in part in Russia.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

It seems like a bit of a reach to suppose that Medvedev’s presidency will be judged on the results of this one (important) reform. He has other accomplishments that the electorate can appreciate: the handling of the conflict with Georgia in 2008, the survival of the shoals and rapids of the global financial crisis, the relationship with Washington, to name just a few.

Reforms anywhere often generate results which do not quite exactly match the original intent.

So Russia needs a professional police force. This in fact is another element of modernization. It is remarkable how Russian society is confronting this initiative. It is a very direct and unambiguous step away from the Soviet lifestyle, which is still profoundly ingrained in social consciousness.

The key challenge in this matter is human resources. To produce a reformed police force one must renew to a great degree the personnel of an organization scattered over a huge country, engaged in an enormous variety of activities. One also needs to replace an administrative system that is symbiotic with incompetence, corruption and patronage, with a modern, effective, information-driven, technologically enabled 21st century architecture.

Basic social services – safety, law enforcement, health maintenance and education – interact with society and are in tune with it; their operation reflects a society’s abilities and values.

ike all people everywhere, Russians often voice contradictory wishes. They want a corruption-free society, but are willing to pay bribes (and to accept them); they want an honest police force, but they do not want to obey the laws with the punctilio of Germans; they do not want burning forests, but want to grill shashlyk on open fires among the pines.

Reforming the “militsia,” and creating a modern Russian police force is truly transforming an important sector of society. And even more: it is the transformation of a whole lattice of social interactions and expectations.

The challenge is not in the name change alone (although this name change is extremely important, far more so than some imagine). It is a change in how law enforcement operates and fundamentally how the law itself is perceived. Is law something to be obeyed as law? Or is law something to be circumvented? One watches the youths of Moscow riding the roofs of suburban trains “for fun” or firing “traumatic pistols” into the air (like some tribe of mediaeval nomads) and wonders – how much sense of law abiding is truly there in that society?

From its inception, the Soviet system instilled a pernicious sense of lawlessness in society. Legality was defined as the will of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as anything that is good for the revolution. Decades later, the same logic was used by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and Russians who, even in the Soviet times, were appalled by the crimes committed in Cambodia, did not think that those crimes were based on the Bolshevik perversion of legality, and that their own country experienced similar mind-bending as it was being established by Vladimir Lenin & Co.

The notion that laws must be obeyed because they are the law, rather than out of fear of the NKVD, is not very widespread in modern Russia, regrettably – another Soviet legacy. Anyone who has stumbled in a urine-stinking entryway to an apartment house, with its lamps systematically vandalized, is a witness to this sad reality.

To be effective, the creation of a real police force requires a thorough social acceptance of a new perception of law itself. Time will tell whether the Russian society is mature enough to implement the change. Medvedev deserves warm praise for his timely and bold initiative.

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