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   September 23
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Analysis & Opinion
24.02.10 Facing The Firing Squad
By Roland Oliphant

Russia’s Interior Ministry has never been particularly popular. Visitors to the country have long been warned by their hosts to beware of police shake-downs and bogus document checks. But the ministry had an especially bad 2009. The catalogue of scandals included a police major who went on a drunken shooting rampage in April, several deaths in custody, whistle blowers posting internet videos detailing their units’ crimes, and a series of embarrassing media expos?s. Now President Dmitry Medvedev has declared a crusade to clean up the police, but he will have to go much further than he thinks if he is serious about it.

Dmitry Medvedev may actually have done something. Speaking at a meeting with Interior Ministry personnel on February 18, he said he had given Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev a month to come up with “a detailed plan for improving the ministry, including anti-corruption measures and a new selection procedure” based on recruits’ “moral and psychological qualities.”

He then told his audience that he’d ordered personnel attached to the ministry’s Moscow headquarters to be slashed to around 10,000 – a step that will entail firing the other 10,000 currently on the staff – and dismissed 17 Interior Ministry generals, including two of Nurgaliyev’s deputies.

That dramatic announcement follows a commitment made in December to reduce the size of the police force by 20 percent by 2012. Other moves include increasing wages for those who survive the cull, narrowing the ministry’s remit (deporting illegal immigrants will be the preserve of the Federal Migration Service; inspecting vehicles for road worthiness will be contracted out to private companies, and the notorious network of sobering-up stations, or “drunk tanks,” will be handed over to the health authorities.

Some of these changes are simply responding to recent concerns. Drunk-tanks became a scandal in January when a 47-year old journalist died after being brutally assaulted by an officer while detained in one. But other measures are overdue. Cracking down on illegal immigrants and vehicle checks are commonly regarded as cash-cows for corrupt cops, and the idea of slashing numbers and upping wages has been around for a long time – even amongst the police themselves. “Police officers have traditionally been paid much less than their peers in the judiciary, in the Prosecutors’ Office, in the Federal Security Services (FSB). It’s unjust, and every policeman knows it,” said Yevgenny Chernousov, a retired police colonel and currently a lawyer specializing in police abuse cases. “But there are 1,020,000 policemen in Russia, and there simply isn’t the money to pay them all properly; so you’ve got to cut the numbers.”

And those cuts will have to be serious. Chernousov reckons even the twenty percent (around 200,000) Medvedev has committed to cutting police numbers by is insufficient. He also argues that the spending would have to be significant, since to make up for the “injustice” currently suffered by policemen, pensions, as well as wages, would have to be improved (as a former colonel, Chernousov says he receives just 10,000 rubles ($333) a month).

Money might attract a better class of recruit and reduce the incentive to corruption, but Chernousov insists it is not a silver bullet. He advocates streamlining functions to allow the police to concentrate on being “a serious, national criminal police force,” although that would have to go beyond relieving police of their duty to baby-sit drunks and carry out service assessments of cars. But above all, the police need to be overlooked by independent bodies.

“Replacing generals is all very well,” he said, referring to Medvedev’s personnel changes. “But we don’t need generals – they’re already part of the system. We need an independent body, made up of human rights activists and honest citizens, not answerable to the Interior Ministry, and not part of that system.”

Chernousov reckons Medvedev’s team is on the right track, even if his gestures so far have been more dramatic than substantial. Critics, however, have been quick to point out Medvedev’s lack-luster record in delivering on reformist rhetoric, and the token nature of the offerings thus far – especially replacing the generals.

Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, agrees on the need for systemic reform of the Interior Ministry, but worries that the route of the problem lies elsewhere. “The problems at the Interior Ministry are just the problems everyone can see. But the truth is that you can’t change the police until you change the entire system of governance.”

For its part, the Interior Ministry is hitting back at some of its tormentors. On Tuesday its press service released a statement saying that “some media have conducted an extensive information campaign aimed at discrediting special police units and special forces.” That was in reference to a recent article in The New Times weekly that claimed to detail crimes and corrupt practices in a Moscow battalion of OMON special forces.

The BBC Russian service has reported that the battalion commander has filed a claim for slander with a Moscow court, hitting back at The New Times article which relied on the testimony of several serving OMON officers. The Interior Ministry has also apparently tried to silence critics within its ranks. Major Alexei Dymovsky, the Novorossisk officer who shot to fame after posting a video on YouTube, in which he detailed corrupt practices and appealed for reform, was arrested and is currently standing trial for fraud and abuse of office.

But The New Times was not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to publish the views of dissenting voices within police ranks. In the wake of the Yevsyukov shootings last year, Bolshoi Gorod, a Moscow lifestyle magazine, published a much more carefully anonymous series of interviews with police officers, in which they spoke frankly about how they and their commanders ran protections rackets to extort money from illegal immigrants and kiosk owners.
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