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.

No comments:

Post a Comment