The reform of Russia’s Interior Ministry (MVD) produced some news this week in the form of an amusing interview with Rashid Nurgaliev, the ministry’s chief. Nurgaliev called the MVD “the very poorest of current law enforcement agencies” and voiced concerns that many officers are “very deeply sick,” explaining that traffic patrols last 50% longer in Russia than in other countries, exposing men to car pollution and increased strain. “This is a very serious problem,” he said.
Not surprisingly, newspapers the next day ran headlines like “We’re the very poorest” and “Nurgaliev found the cops’ main problem: they’re all ‘very deeply sick.” Сноб.ru, the classy e-journal that it is, published an article titled “The pathological physiology of the Russian Police Officer,” and included a photo of an unidentified cop resting his weary, fat body, while on a smoke break (see photo). The sub-header reads: “Minister Nurgaliev claims that police officers suffer from lead poisoning. Accordingly, ‘Nauka’ blog moderator Ilya Kolmanovskii analyzes the epidemiology of this difficult profession.” Kolmanovskii goes on to explain that lead hasn’t been used in automotive fuel for a decade, and that it’s far more dangerous to children than adults. “Their chief problems,” he proposes, “are obesity and alcoholism.” Before posting another image of a chubby cop, Kolmanovskii adds, “When I was in jail [he was arrested during the May 31 Moscow protest], I was literally surrounded by fatties.”
To an extent, this kind of reporting is inevitable. Nurgaliev didn’t choose his words very carefully, and what came out of his mouth did sound rather silly. That he offered up some bogus-sounding ecological science (police endure “lead, heavy metals, and [bad] weather conditions”) only made it all the more an opportunity to laugh at the not-widely-liked Russian police force.
Because of the timing of the interview (and the fact that the Chief himself addressed the issue directly some), many are viewing Nurgaliev’s comments through the prism of Monday’s police-protesters confrontation in Triumfal’naia Square. In this context, Nurgaliev’s silliness becomes an indictment against the police, as you see in the Сноб.ru article. “When I was in custody,” Kolmanovskii says, “the whole time I thought about how these guys won’t live to see their grandkids. Except that won’t be because of lead — it will be thanks to Nurgaliev.”
In the interview, I heard a statistic that I’m shocked Russian police authorities don’t repeat more often: 410 officers died in the line of duty last year. In that same period, American cops had less than a third as many casualties. Even Vladimir Putin, master of memorized figures, didn’t specify in his debate with Yuri Shevchuk just how atrociously high the murder rate is among Russia’s law enforcement. He said merely that many of them “put their lives on the line.” In 2009, more than four hundred of them lost that gamble.
This got me thinking a little more seriously about the MVD reforms, which include anti-corruption efforts like removing street cops’ authority to conduct spot checks for vehicle safety, and goodwill initiatives such as increased access to medical care. Less because of violence against uppity demonstrators and more thanks to terrorist attacks and pervasive corruption, Medvedev has staked a significant part of his modernization campaign on improving the performance and reputation of the MVD. He wants to cut the police force by 20% and the central management by half. More than any benefits adjustments or curtailment of access to bribes, firing so many people will undoubtedly have the most immediate impact (for better or for worse).
Alexandr Podrabinek published an article in Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal not long ago on the subject of corruption as a social glue in Russia (see here for Russian, here for English). “Corruption is the government’s hope for an obedient society,” he writes. In an environment of scarcity, where everyone has to break the law in order to survive, everyone is “on the hook” before the state. Overplay your hand, and the government will step in and prosecute you for an unavoidable crime. The problem is twofold: (1) there isn’t enough wealth to go around, and (2) the state sets wages and entrepreneurial hurdles in such a way as to make an honest living impossible.
He offers the following explanation of corruption as an organizing “entanglement”:
Practically all of state government, all of business, and a large part of society are entangled by ties of corruption. A new campaign against corruption is declared in the country from time to time. All the key corrupt officials — from a rayon’s top officials to the top officials of the state — act as the most energetic warriors against it.
Is this what’s happening now with Nurgaliev and the MVD? Journalists like Podrabinek (who today is notorious for having said that Soviet dissidents were better patriots than WWII veterans) prefer to argue that this web of corruption is aimed at Russia’s intelligentsia and civil society — that it’s an instrument of fear used to suppress liberal protests and democratic activists.
For starters, I fail to see how Russia is terribly unique in relying on illegal behavior as both a glue between conspirators and a grounds for punishing political challengers. Could anyone honestly deny that Washington, D.C., operates on inside deals and illegitmate connections? Conversely, actors who overstep their bounds are exposed and expelled from the inner circle. In Russia, they certainly take things a bit further. People don’t just fall from grace: they go to jail or worse.
Russian political battles have a tendency to become more total and extreme, and perhaps this is because power is less diffuse. Less than fighting over pieces of the pie, you find people (like Khodorkovsky) fighting over the whole damned pie. So corruption is indeed a tool of the powerful everywhere: wielded with varying levels of devastation to political diversity by private or public bureaucrats and managers.
But is Russia’s corruption designed to limit the influence of liberal democracy crusaders? With the possible exception of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (who, according to former PM Mikhail Kas’ianov, was arrested for financing the Communists, not the liberals), Russia’s liberal political stars have not been dragged off to the gulag for unavoidably breaking the law. The likes of Ilya Yashin and Gary Kasparov, perhaps Russia’s two most prominent opposition organizers, might get pushed around when they march at an unsanctioned rally, but they’ve so far been spared all serious punishments for their activism.
If pervasive corruption is truly a weapon in the hands of the powerful (which I imagine it is), the reasonable conclusion would seem to be that Russia’s liberals are not viewed as a serious political threat. The regular harassment they currently suffer is the result of something else. Poorly trained officers? Protesters actively seeking out confrontations by purposefully choosing unsanctioned demonstration sites? Perhaps the police simply need to rethink their methods of maximizing the public peace?
If these are the root problems behind the repeated incidents between liberal activists and Moscow cops, then the current MVD reforms would seem to be a well conceived approach to improving police performance. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll actually reduce Russia’s corruption.