Andrew Osborn








Russia's broken police force

7th November 2009 16:23

What happens when the people who are supposed to protect society – the police – turn on society itself? As Russia’s policemen and women prepare to celebrate their annual holiday – Police Day, a sugary Soviet-era holiday supposed to engender respect in Russia’s thin blue line - many, even within its own ranks, believe that the Russian police force has become a dangerous and sometimes lethal menace to the people it is meant to protect and serve.

One event, more than any other, has come to embody this deep malaise.

On 27 April, Police Major Denis Yevsyukov ran amok in a Moscow supermarket with a pistol.

CCTV footage showed the uniformed Yevsyukov calmly reloading his gun as he strolled the supermarket aisles. He had just celebrated his 32nd birthday with his wife and the pair had argued about how much time he was spending at work. After the argument, he returned home, changed into his police uniform, and headed for the supermarket. It was already after midnight. By the time Yevsyukov was done, he had shot nine people. Three of them died. Yevsyukov, who had been drinking, did not care who he shot. A supermarket cashier, the taxi driver who took him to the shop, and unlucky supermarket customers. He mowed them all down. Later, he would lament the fact that he had not brought a Kalashnikov assault rifle to get the kill rate up. Yevsyukov, it turned out, had a history of violence and had robbed the same supermarket several times before. The handgun he used turned out to be stolen, stoking speculation that he was caught up in an arms smuggling racket.

Russians were shocked by the senselessness of the crime but not surprised by how corrupt and venal a cop Yevsyukov turned out to be. What really shocked them was the reaction of Yevsyukov’s superiors. Incredibly, Colonel-General Vladimir Pronin, the then Moscow police chief, appeared to be looking for a way to excuse Yevsyukov’s murderous behaviour.

“He was a great officer who was on a good career path – he obviously had some kind of psychotic attack," Pronin said immediately after the shooting spree. Angry listeners bombarded the lines of radio talk shows. 

Pronin, who was later fired by President Dmitry Medvedev in a rare case of an official carrying the can for wrongdoing, felt the media’s full fury.

The opposition Novaya Gazeta newspaper headlined its front-page report: “It would be better to dissolve them completely because it is impossible to control a lawless police force.” It continued: “They take bribes and torture detainees, kill suspects and take away businesses, throw out criminal cases and fabricate charges, organise illegal surveillance and sell information to criminals... abduct people and demand ransoms... they are so busy with their own criminal business that they have no time to catch criminals.”

Gennady Gudkov, the deputy chairman of the security committee in the Duma, Russia’s parliament, said the case demonstrated that the police had “got out of society’s control”.

Back then, Russia’s Interior Ministry, the body that runs the police, promised that something like this would never happen again. The only problem is that it has – again and again. The Russian media now have a name for it: the Yevsyukov syndrome. The problem has caused a bout of public hand wringing. Frightened citizens have held protests as far away as Siberia demanding the police force be overhauled. Rashid Nurgaliyev, the interior minister, has promised tough action, blaming allegedly lax recruitment standards in the 1990s. But the killings have not stopped.

Last month, Alexander Mets, a policeman in the Siberian city of Omsk, clocked off work and went to meet his girlfriend. He obviously did not like what his girlfriend had to say. He shot her dead, killed the taxi driver who drove him to the meeting, and then blew his own brains out.

Just over a week later, another Siberian policeman flipped out too. The 25 year-old crime fighter, Ayan Pavlov, went berserk after the traffic police stopped his car for a routine check. Pavlov shot both traffic cops, one of whom later died. He then shot and killed himself.

That same day, in the same Siberian region, another policeman was out killing. Barbak-ool Bair, a traffic cop, pulled over a young couple, again for a routine check. Claiming that the driver, a 17 year-old youth was drunk, he shot him in the head at close range. The bullet passed through the boy’s head and entered his girlfriend’s body. The boy died. The girl remains in a serious condition.

The police complain they are overworked, underpaid, brutalized, and despised by the society they serve. Starting salaries begin at a miserly 8,000 roubles a month, the equivalent of 160 pounds. Many serving police officers are veterans of Russia’s two bloody Chechen wars, hardly a suitable training ground for community policing. One opinion poll memorably revealed that people regarded terrorists and drug dealers as the second and third most criminal professions in Russia. In the number one spot: the police, often referred to as “werewolves in epaulettes.” Vladimir Putin, the prime minister, has conceded that many people opt to cross the road when they see a policeman, while surveys show that the mere sight of a policeman stirs fear in half the population.  Using torture to extract confessions is common. One of the most notorious torture methods – attaching electrodes to a person’s ears – is known as zvonok Putinu (a phone call to Putin). 

Experts say that most people who go into the police do so to make money or exercise power. Only a minority signs up to protect ordinary people. Nor are they accountable to the people they are supposed to serve. The monolithic system of arrest quotas and the vertical axis of power that runs through most state organizations in Russia means that the needs of the ordinary citizen come last. “We need to radically change the nature of the tasks the police handle,” Mikhail Babayev, a senior interior ministry expert on the police, says. “Right now they are programmed to serve the authorities and not the population. It should be the other way round. When a policeman knows that he is in the first instance responsible to the population and not to some old man who is senior to him, that is when they will start to worry about us.”

Experts say the long-suffering population is, instead, seen as a lucrative source of much needed extra income. Traffic policemen extort bribes from drivers, criminal detectives take kickbacks to drop cases they have often fabricated, and there is, in short, a price list for almost any police service. People familiar with the situation say there are very few situations that you cannot buy yourself out of, if of course your pockets are deep enough. It should come as no surprise then that plum police jobs are also up for sale with the price varying depending on what the potential for extorting money from local business is on any given patch. The most lucrative jobs in Moscow change hands for anything up to one million dollars reflecting the enormous potential for making money on the side.

Keeping the police in their current brutalised and semi-criminalised state is, however, likely to suit many in power. It is the police that keep a lid on political dissent and crush opposition demonstrations so decisively at the behest of their political masters. A police force that felt its duty was to serve ordinary people rather than those in power might not be so ready to trample on fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of assembly or speech.

The problem is getting worse not better and the scale is enormous. Policing the world’s largest country is labour-intensive. The force, which traces its history back to Tsar Peter the Great, numbers an estimated 821,000 people, meaning that almost one in every 17 people is in the police. Official figures- likely to have been lowered in any case – show that they are committing more crimes against their own people each year. Data shows that the police broke the law 69,000 times this year, a 16% increase on 2008, and that hundreds of criminal cases – from bribery to murder - were filed against them. Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran human rights activist, says the Kremlin needs to grasp the nettle and force through radical reform. “This is the moment of truth for the president,” he says. “If he is able to achieve anything, he must go for serious reform. Society is waiting. If (Dmitry) Medvedev goes down this path, he will become the leader of the

nation. If he does not, he will continue to be the second-in-command (after Putin).”

This coming Tuesday is Police Day. Moscow’s snow-covered streets are already bedecked with banners reminding people about the “holiday”. If past years are anything to go by, state-controlled TV will be awash with grinning police choirs and variety concerts glorifying the force’s work. Russians could be forgiven for changing the channel.