Mar 18th 2010 | MOSCOW | From The Economist print edition
THEY shoot, beat and torture civilians, confiscate businesses and take hostages. They are feared and distrusted by two-thirds of the country. But they are not foreign occupiers, mercenaries or mafia; they are Russia’s police officers. The few decent cops among them are seen as mould-breaking heroes and dissidents.
Daily reports of police violence read like wartime bulletins. Recent cases include a random shooting by a police officer in a Moscow supermarket (seven wounded, two dead), the gruesome torture and killing of a journalist in Tomsk, and the case of Sergei Magnitsky, a young lawyer for an American investment fund. He was denied medical treatment and died in pre-trial detention in Moscow having accused several police officers of fraud.
Police violence is not new in Russia, but a recent wave of publicity is. A simple explanation is that police lawlessness has exhausted people’s patience and that pent-up anger has finally burst into newspapers, websites and even state television. The internet makes it harder to hush things up. Earlier this month a Moscow motorist posted a video online alleging that he and several other drivers were used as human shields by traffic police trying to catch an armed criminal.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s web-aware president, has been quick to respond. He has fired Moscow’s police chief, ordered an overhaul of Russia’s arcane gulag system and called for reform of the interior ministry. Yet this reform involves cutting police numbers by 20% and centralising control over regional police.
Ordinary policemen, many of whom despise their own service, seem baffled and angered—not by the claims of abuse, which almost no one disputes, but by the hypocrisy of their bosses, who have turned them into scapegoats. Some have started to spill the beans on their superiors.
The rot has now set in so deep that real reform of Russian policing would mean reform of state power, says Sergei Kanev, a crime reporter for Novaya Gazeta. The main function of law-enforcement agencies in Russia is not to protect the public from crime and corruption, but to shield the bureaucracy, including themselves, from the public.
To ensure loyalty the system allows police and security services to make money from their licence for violence. Police escorts can be officially purchased. Other commercial activities include charging for proper investigation, extortion, selling sensitive databases, tapping phones or raiding businesses for competitors. Many police officers have their own private business on the side. Unsurprisingly, top jobs in the police are a valuable, and traded, commodity. Most new recruits sign up to make money, according to internal questionnaires. As Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a businessman serving an eight-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges, has written, the police, prosecution and prison services are component parts of an industry whose business is legitimised violence and which uses people as raw material.
Yet even as thousands of businessmen lose their livelihoods or serve time on bogus charges, bureaucrats guilty of real crimes are escaping lightly. In recent days a police officer who murdered an independent journalist in Ingushetia was put under house arrest after the court decided that his two-year penal-colony sentence was overly harsh. Seven time zones to the east, a customs official found guilty of trading in contraband was given a suspended three-year sentence.
Ultimately, the police are instruments in the hands of a more powerful institution: the Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, which remains outside public control and above criticism. The Russian police service is not only headed by a former FSB operative but is packed with its people, says Vladimir Pastukhov of the Russian Institute of Law and Public Policy, a think-tank. The FSB can dabble in any business it likes, but relies on the police to do the footwork. Serious police reform is therefore impossible if the masters are left alone.
The FSB, a factional body with its own vested interests, has a near-monopoly on the repressive functions of the state. More worryingly, it relies on its traditional links to organised crime. Mr Kanev, who has investigated some of the most high-profile kidnappings of wealthy businessmen and their relatives, says few of them could take place without the knowledge and even collusion of former and current members of the security services.
Commercial kidnappings—once the prerogative of Chechnya—are now big business in Moscow. Many cases, says Mr Kanev, never get reported; instead, the victim quietly pays up. This is what people in occupied territories do.