Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whistleblowers in Russian Police Turn to Youtube, But Real Reform Still Unlikely

BROOKLYN, New York -- Several days ago, Alexei Dymovsky, a police major in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, released a series of Youtube videos that have caused a stir across the country. In the three videos, Dymovsky launches an assault on the country's law enforcement agencies, accusing them of corruption, incompetence, and abuse of junior officers. Throughout his monologue, he appeals to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to tackle these problems.

These videos have become an Internet sensation, drawing more than one million hits and sparking some measure of debate about the state of law enforcement in Russia. In very uncharacteristic fashion, Russia's Interior Ministry, which controls the country's police forces, has launched an investigation into police corruption, though the Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, denied that it has any connection to Dymovsky's allegations. Nurgaliyev claimed that it was part of a normal review process, yet he ordered that Dymovsky be suspended until the review is completed. Nonetheless, the major's employers in Novorossiysk were less impressed; despite the order from the minister to merely suspend him, he has been fired from the police force for slander. The local police chief, Valery Medvedev, has also asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against him for libel. Following the release of the videos, Dymovsky traveled to Moscow to address the news media - he claims that law enforcement officials attempted to prevent him from leaving Novorossiysk, forcing him to make the journey by car.

Here is the first of the videos, with English subtitles (here are the second and third, without translations):

Dymovsky’s videos have caused other police officers to come forward with stories of corruption and misconduct. One such whistleblower is Mikhail Yevseyev, who worked for the police department in the northern city of Ukhta, where in 2005 a firebombing of a shopping center killed 25 people. Yevseyev claims that the case against the two young men who were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison in 2008 was entirely fabricated, and following the verdict, he resigned from the department in protest. Soon after Yevseyev’s video was released, Grigory Chekalin, who formerly worked in the Ukhta procurator’s office, posted a video describing how his office fabricated the evidence in the bombing case. Dymovsky has spawned a whole new genre of Youtube videos in Russia, and even a Moscow traffic cop has gotten in on the action.

This story has been picked up by news outlets all over the world, but what does the case of Maj. Dymovsky really tell us about Russian law enforcement? Frankly, not very much that we did not know already.

The fact that the public has embraced Dymovsky simply underlines the high levels of distrust of the police and other public institutions in Russia. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center in 2005, only 12% of Russians expressed trust the police. Sadly, this ranked higher than many democratic institutions - the federal legislative bodies, the State Duma and the Federation Council, garnered only 10% trust, while political parties managed only 5%. According to a 2007 poll, 65% of respondents believed that efforts of police are "mainly devoted to their own interests," while only 21% believed they were "devoted to the security of the population of the country." Researchers Theodore Gerber and Sarah Mendelson concluded that policing in Russia was fundamentally “predatory”; that is, rather than serving a useful societal function, the police use their coercive power to extract wealth from the “prey” population.

For some, the quick reaction of Kremlin authorities was suspicious - one political analyst hypothesized that the entire affair was fabricated by the Interior Ministry, perhaps to draw attention away from other public scandals - principally, the murderous rampage of police officer Denis Yevsyukov, who killed three people in a Moscow supermarket in April. He, like many other officers guilty of heinous crimes, has somehow avoided prosecution. I think that this public relations conspiracy is unlikely, but what makes these whistleblowers somewhat convenient for the Kremlin is that they attack some degree of systemic corruption, but they do not challenge the foundation of Russia’s security apparatus. Dymovsky appeals directly to Vladimir Putin, as if he can sweep away his corrupt underlings with his purity and sobriety; what the major fails to understand is that this former KGB stooge is at the very center of the country’s systemic police corruption. He derives his power from the predatory state.

One of Dymovsky’s most important criticisms is of the quota system. This was one of the superficial policing reforms that Russia has undertaken in recent years. These quotas are so rigidly enforced that officers are in effect encouraged to make bogus arrests and fabricate cases to meet their absurd targets. Rather than improving professionalism and accountability, this system has had the perverse effect of retrenching the predatory policing model. Rather than tackle this substantive issue, it is more likely that the government will find scapegoats. This is a tried and true method of giving the appearance of making reforms while avoiding real change. During perestroika and the early years of the Yeltsin administration, some people were brought to justice for the excesses of Soviet oppression, but these were usually low-ranking officials. One would expect that the current investigation will result in some very public firings of regional officials but no concrete changes in policy or practice. Dymovsky actually gave the Kremlin the perfect scapegoats, blaming his superior officers in the local police force - the least-connected brass will make perfect sacrificial lambs.

Corruption has always been a popular target of reform because it is an issue that impacts many ordinary citizens’ daily lives, but focusing on the corruption and misconduct of individual officers distracts attention from the philosophical foundations of the Russian police state. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, reforms to the Russian security services have been superficial and ineffective. The Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB - formerly the KGB) remain largely unchanged in structure and function from the Soviet period. “Law enforcement” is a misnomer in Russia - you must have the rule of law in order for it to be enforced, which Russia lacks. The police forces (called the militsia in Russian, sometimes referred to as “militia” in English) may resemble those you would encounter in a Western democracy, but they differ in fundamental ways. Louise Shelley, an expert on policing in Russia and the Soviet Union, described the difference like this in her book Policing Soviet Society:
A superficial glance at the militia’s patrols, safe houses and covert techniques might suggest that the Soviet militia differed little from the police of western societies. Such superficial similarities, however, masked fundamental differences. Without procedural guarantees of the rights of citizens, the law remained on the side of the Soviet militia, which readily imposed its will on both criminals and law-abiding citizens.
This fact remains largely unchanged in Russia today. In the US and other democracies, most people (I will grant that there are those who disagree, and most justifiably) believe the job of the police is to protect the public against crime and disorder. In Russia, their job is protect the state from the public. As long as that fact remains true, and believers in this philosophy continue to hold power, not amount of Youtube videos will change the practice of policing there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

20 Years After the Fall: Progress for Some, Repression for Others

BROOKLYN, New York -- As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, commemorations of those momentous events of 1989 are all around us. I'm marking the occasion by reading The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia, Past, Present and Future.

The book was published soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and author Yevgenia Albats, an investigative reporter who currently hosts a radio program on the independent station Echo Moskva, recounts the rise of the KGB and its terrifying hold on Russian society from the early days of the Revolution to the nascent Russian democracy of the early 1990's. She began her work as a journalist in the 1980's during perestroika, when a small degree of openness allowed her to investigate the depravities of the KGB.

Russia has changed a great deal in the 15 years since this book was written, but what Albats wrote in 1994 - that the state was still in effect run by the KGB, as it always had been since the state security apparatus was erected soon after the October Revolution - is even truer today. During the 1990's, Yeltsin made half-hearted attempts to curb the influence of the security services, but they were in vain. There is no more KGB, but its successor, the FSB, remains largely unreformed, with the same institutional structure and personnel in place as in the Soviet Union. A KGB agent rose to the presidency, and he remains entrenched in power, surrounded by a coterie of stooges who are all veterans of the secret police. These torturers and assassins have traded epaulets for business suits, yet they still wield the power of a violently repressive state.

The problem is that Russia, unlike most of its neighbors in Eastern Europe, has never come to terms with its past. There were no Nuremberg trials for the tens of millions butchered by the Soviet state. Almost no one has ever been held to task for the crimes of the KGB; the few that have were merely the pawns of power struggles within the organization (for example, Beria was executed not for ordering extrajudicial killings, as his indictment stated, but for opposing Khrushchev). Even today, chekists, as agents of the secret police are known, are protected from prosecution (and not just protected - Andrei Lugovoi, the alleged murderer of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, is currently a member of the Russian parliament.)

Who wants to come to terms with anything? Putin's rule has reinscribed Soviet-era thinking among the people - democracy and free markets are a trick by the West to impoverish Russia, and the state must remain strong, even if that means resorting to violent repression. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Russians view the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "great misfortune." Since 1991, support for nationalist views and imperial expansion has increased, while support for multiparty democracy and free market capitalism has declined. History is written by the winners, and contrary to what the events of 20 years ago may have indicated, in Russia at least, the winners were not the democrats; they were the communist stooges who have always run the country, and they are writing a history that glorifies Stalin, demeans the victims of Soviet atrocities, and legitimizes state repression.

Things are not so grim everywhere in Eastern Europe. Nearly all the Soviet satellites have become democracies and joined the European Union. Even as we are disheartened by the lack of progress in Russia, we can celebrate the liberation of millions of people elsewhere on the continent. So, if you are looking for a more uplifting way to celebrate the fall of communism than reading about torture in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, over the next four months, New York will be host to Performing Revolution in Eastern Europe, a festival of music, theater, film and art.

To kick off the festival, this weekend (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village is hosting the Rebel Waltz music festival. The two-night event features bands from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland, all of whom found themselves at some point on the wrong side of the communist censors. In The State Within a State, Albats writes about the efforts of Soviet authorities to curb the deleterious effects of rock 'n' roll music. She quotes Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general who became a strong critic of the Russian security services. He was convicted in absentia in Russia for espionage in 2002, though his real crime was airing too much of the KGB's dirty laundry; he currently lives in exile in the United States:
"When Leningrad's stages began to fill up with rock-oriented musicians, a rock club was formed at the KGB's initiative to keep the rock movement manageable and under control."
Unfortunately, the censorship in Russia continues. DDT, a Russian rock band formed in the early 1980's that remains one of the country's most popular groups, has been unable to perform or record in Russia a song critical of Vladimir Putin, "When the Oil Runs Out." We now offer a recording from a concert in Lithuania, and with it a sincere hope that more tyrants will fall and criminals will be brought to justice twenty years on from the "fall" of communism:

And how would any celebration of the Berlin Wall coming down be complete without David Hasselhoff?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Canada Shores Up Arctic Claims With Olympic Flame

BROOKLYN, New York -- The torch relay for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver began on Friday. The Olympic flame started its Canadian journey in Victoria, British Columbia, and over the course of 106 days, it will travel 28,000 miles to hundreds of Canadian towns and cities, arriving back in Vancouver for the opening ceremonies on February 12.

One of the communities the torch will visit is Alert, which sits on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the province of Nunavut. Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place on earth, located just 507 miles from the North Pole. The torch will be flown more than 1,700 miles from Churchill, Manitoba just so it can briefly touch down and greet the five permanent inhabitants of Alert, all members of the Canadian military who man the signals and weather stations there. Alert will not be the only stop north of the Arctic Circle - on its way back south, the torch will stop in Ausuittuq (also known as Grise Fiord) and Qausuittuq (Resolute) in Nunavut. It will also make stops in Kugluktuk (Coppermine), Nunavut, Inuvit, Northwest Territories and Old Crow, Yukon Territory.

This arctic leg of the relay is particularly interesting because it has obvious geopolitical overtones. In recent years, Canada has increased its military presence in the north in an attempt to shore up sovereignty that it sees as increasingly under threat. The region is gaining geostrategic importance. As ocean temperatures rise and sea ice retreats, the Northwest Passage through Canada’s vast northern archipelago may become a viable year-round shipping lane. The arctic also holds vast untapped supplies of natural resources, especially oil and gas, that may become accessible in the near future.

The main competitors for these arctic treasures are the United States and Russia. The US refuses to recognize Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, asserting that it is international waters that foreign ships can ply without Canada’s approval. Russia, meanwhile, has claimed that its own territorial waters - and therefore its claims to undersea resources - extended to the North Pole and beyond, setting its maritime boundaries uncomfortably close to Canada. In 2007, in an apparent attempt to legitimize this claim, Russia sent a submarine to the bottom of the ocean at the Pole to plant a small Russian flag on the sea floor (they appear to be unaware that flag-planting ceased to be a legitimate way to make territorial claims sometime in the 17th century).

Now Canada is using the Olympics to further shore up its claims to the arctic, and the torch can be used to enhance sovereignty both externally and internally. Externally, the torch’s arrival in Alert signals to the world that Canada considers these far-flung regions as integral parts of their national territory. Internally, it binds these remote communities to the national center - Canadians who live in the arctic, or who are members of the First Nations minority, are just as much a part of the national celebration as the metropolitan south or Anglo-, French- or any other type of Canadian (the weekly television show Hockey Night in Canada plays a similar role).

Canada is not unique in doing this. Most host countries carry the torch through every one of their constituent regions. At the last Olympics, the Chinese government used the torch relay to reaffirm its territorial integrity, carrying it across the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang and even to the top of Mt. Everest (the Himalayan region has long been at the center of territorial disputes between China, India and Pakistan). Much of the torch relay in 2008 was besieged by protesters in foreign countries who spoke out against the Chinese government’s oppressive policies in Tibet and elsewhere, but once the flame reached China proper, it was met mostly with celebration of the Olympics as a symbol of Chinese global power and national unity.

During this march to Beijing, the American news media rediscovered the origins of the torch relay in the 1936 Berlin Games and spoke breathlessly about “Hitler’s Olympics” and the parallels with Red China and their nationalist spectacle. Chinese nationalism can be a terrifying and dangerous thing, and the government has shown a great deal of recklessness and a great lack of control whenever it unleashes nationalist anger. Nonetheless, the point here is that no one is above using sport, especially the Olympics, for promoting nationalism. The 1936 Olympics created many iconic images that linked sport to fascism, militarism, and racial prejudice. We like to think that instead we have inherited the mantle of Jesse Owens, who embarrassed the Master Race, but Berlin lives on at every Olympics. China was chided for its global torch tour, but no other country has shied away from the practice because of its Nazi origins. The International Olympic Committee has long been run by fascists, from Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage to Francoist Juan Antonio Samaranch. The current body is filled by corrupt sycophants and apologists who hand the Olympics to the highest bidder, even if it is an oppressive dictatorship like China or Russia. We would all be better off if we just did away with the Olympics entirely - the institution is too corrupt and too compromised to even approach any of the lofty goals it aspires to.

Canada is using the Olympics, albeit in a tiny, insignificant way, to further its geopolitical agenda, but so does every other country that hosts the Olympics. When Russia inherits the Olympic flame in 2014 for the Winter Games in Sochi, it will undoubtedly be used for far more aggressive and chauvinistic nationalist purposes. It will likely make stops in Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but I bet that it will also be taken to the North Pole, either undersea or over ice.