A couple of weeks ago, I took some time to examine the important bits that did and didn’t make it into the FSB reforms that were eventually signed into law by President Medvedev. In that same spirit, I’d now like to turn to the latest splash in Russia’s world of legalism: the Federal Law Project ‘On the Police.’
For those who don’t already know, the Law on the Police is a 57-clause proposal from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) that updates the existing militsiia legal code from 1991. The project initially made headlines for two main reasons: (1) the legislation would change the name of the Bolshevik-named ‘milistiia’ (милиция) to the more standard ‘politsiia’ (полиция, or ‘police’), and (2) the entire text of the proposal has been posted online by the government (at http://zakonoproekt2010.ru), in an interface that allows citizens to comment on individual clauses, whether in high praise or sharp criticism. (Most of the commentary appears to be quite negative.)
A quick note about the name change: Medvedev stated publicly that he thinks the time has come to jettison the Soviet legacy that is the ‘militsiia,’ a word used by the Bolsheviks to describe a people’s volunteer force, not a professional police. “The militsiia,” he said, “were vigilantes in epaulets.”
The law is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, there are vaguely-worded new police powers that have alarmed civil rights activists. There is also language in the project that I would describe as amusing window-dressing designed to assuage such worries — mainly codes of conduct relating to good manners and professional behavior. Section 4, Clause 15 is one of the most-commented-on pieces of the zakonoproekt — and understandably so, as it grants police the right to enter homes and search property without either the permission of the owners or a court order (though state prosecutors must be informed within 24 hours). Here is my full translation of the Clause 15:
Chapter IV. The police use of individual measures of state coercion
Article 15. Entering residences and other real estate.
1. The police have the right, at any hour of the day, to freely enter or infiltrate residences and other premises belonging to citizens and premises located on land owned or occupied by organizations. If necessary, [they have the right] to damage any locking devices, components, and structures that might impede their entrance into any containers, vessel-like objects, and vehicles (not including areas, facilities, and vehicles belonging to diplomatic missions and consular offices of foreign states). The police can examine these items:
1) in direct pursuit of criminal suspects, fugitives from bodies of inquiry and preliminary investigation, and persons escaping criminal sentences;
2) if there are sufficient grounds to believe that a crime or accident has occurred on the premises, or that a person there resides in a state of helplessness, or in order to detain anyone described in Paragraph 1 of this Article, to suppress a crime or provide assistance to victims;
3) in the event of natural disasters, catastrophes, accidents, epidemics, epizootic outbreaks, mass riots, or other emergencies directly threatening the lives and health of citizens or property, for the provision of security for individuals, society, and the state.
2. In exercising powers relating to limitations on citizens’ rights to the inviolability of their homes, a police officer must:
1) before entering a home, inform the citizens living there about the reasons for entry;
2) after entering into a home against the will of its residents, employ safe means and methods to respect and honor their dignity, lives, and health, and avoid unnecessary damage to their property;
3) not disclose private information learned in the course of entering a citizen’s home;
4) inform [his or her] immediate supervisor and submit a report about entering a home without the residents’ permission.
3. Within 24 hours, the police must inform the state prosecutor about any cases of home entry without the permission of the residents.
Section 6, Clause 22, Paragraph 1, Subsection 1 has been another headlines-grabber. This language actually lays out restrictions on what parts of the body a police officer may legally beat a Russian citizen:
“In an officer’s application of special means, the following restrictions exist: he is prohibited from striking a person with a rubber nightstick on the head, the neck, the clavicle, the stomach, the genitals, or the area of the heart — and he is prohibited from striking the same area of the body multiple times.”
In Section 9, Clause 50, Paragraph 4, police retained the right to commandeer vehicles and property, despite a public scandal last March, when traffic police attempted a roadblock using private cars and then refused to pay the owners compensation for ether damages or life endangerment on the grounds that the suspect escaped:
“Logistical support for the police [...] The police may take from citizens and organizations possessing or using vehicles and other property necessary to carry out duties in accordance with the civil laws of the Russian Federation. Federal executive authorities in the Internal Affairs [Department] will determine the conditions for exercising this right over vehicles and property.”
It’s not all about powers, though. Section 4, Clause 14, Paragraph 4 will be of interest to the Strategy-31 protesters, so fond of getting arrested at Triumfal’naia Square. Russia takes a step closer to Miranda Rights with this proposal:
“An individual detained is entitled in accordance with federal laws to the services of a lawyer and a translator from the moment he or she is placed in a specially assigned area.”
In the bill, there is also some extremely noble — if equally toothless — rhetoric in support of increased accountability. “An officer will apologize to a citizen whose rights and freedoms have been violated” (says Section 2, Clause 9, Paragraph 5) and “the opinion of citizens regarding police actions” would become “the basic criteria for the formal evaluation of the police’s work” (says Section 2, Clause 9, Paragraph 8).
Aleksei Nikol’skii and Liliia Biriukovka, writing in Vedomosti, were not impressed by the Clause 9 provisions. Instead, they probed the economic sphere of the law, pointing out that — despite the Kremlin’s much vaunted campaign to make the MVD an entirely federally funded operation, governors and regional leaders will still be able to influence the police by paying cash bonuses and providing subsidized apartments. The new law upholds a ban on officers owning commercial enterprises, but it fails to close an existing loophole on the exact definition of what constitutes such holdings. Despite a long history of police-involved extortion rackets, Section 3, Clause 13, Paragraph 31 includes as one of the police’s rights: “the right to participate in tax audits when required by the Russian Federation’s tax bodies.” According to Nikol’skii and Biriukovka, the overseer of the Department of Economic Security in the MVD, Evgenii Shkolov, personally insisted on preserving this power. (And he got is way, in this draft anyway.)
In a separate piece, the Vedomosti editorial staff accused the president of failing to deliver on past promises:
“The president pledged to free the police from superfluous functions — but this hasn’t happened: still remaining is vehicle inspections, and driver licensing, and migration control, and private-contracted police units, and the opportunity to participate in economic disputes. [And] a new power to prevent extremism has appeared.”
This last sentence refers to Section 3, Clause 12, Paragraph 1, Subsection 14, which reads:
“The police have the following responsibilities: [...] to employ measures in accordance with federal law aimed at preventing extremism, detecting and suppressing the extremist activities of public and religious associations and other organizations and citizens.”
This responsibility to “prevent extremism” echoes the controversial purpose of last month’s FSB law, which applied not to the police but Russia’s special security agency (whose clearest American parallel would be the CIA). Rashid Nurgaliev, the Minister of the Interior and one of the chief architects of the MVD draft legislation, told reporters that the project embodies “the development of the idea of humanizing the forms and methods of police work. Precaution and the prevention of crimes are the main activities [of the police], and officers’ resort to force will only be permitted in instances when nonviolent methods do not enable them to complete their duties.”
The recent flood of legal reforms to Russia’s police and security apparatuses would seem to constitute an important new phase in Dmitri Medvedev’s much-publicized ‘modernization’ campaign — an effort many commentators have foolishly described as Perestroika 2.0. But there are more nuanced ways to understand these developments.
To borrow Professor Mark Galeotti’s interpretation, one possibility here is that Medvedev is moving to assert authority over already-occurring practices (and ongoing abuses of rules) by codifying the status quo, in order to render the MVD and FSB more dependent on his power to allow or disallow certain behavior.
Also possible (and indeed more likely, given the overall weakness of the civil rights safeguards written into the law) is that this first draft of the MVD bill belongs more to the siloviki than Medvedev and his ‘civiliki.’ Nurgaliev represents powerful interests in the Kremlin, and perhaps he and his allies are making the same play that the FSB’s leaders did in July. This would certainly explain why the legislation’s human-rights-friendly provisions are so thoroughly cosmetic.
The question then is whether or not the president and his ‘lawyers clan’ will back off from another confrontation, or if they will mount an effort to either boost the civil rights aspects of the MVD bill, or — as happened to a limited extent in the Duma with the FSB law — water down the new police powers.
The zakonoproekt will remain open to public comments until September 15th, at which time it returns to the president’s office for revisions. Medvedev has announced that he intends to submit an updated draft to the Duma before the end of the year.