April 29, 2009
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
The Dismissal of the Moscow Police Chief May Have Appeased the Public but Did Little to Help Solve the Problem
By Roland Oliphant
When a senior police officer went on a drunken rampage and murdered several people at a Moscow supermarket, it looked like an isolated tragedy. But then it turned out that his supervisor had resigned a week earlier over unrelated issues of incompetence, and President Dmitry Medvedev sacked the chief of Moscow police shortly after the indicent. Now rumor has it that the killer, Major Denis Yevsyukov, may have bought his position for $5,000. So was this really an isolated case, or is there something systemically wrong with the Russian police?
Russia is no stranger to either alcohol-fuelled murder or police corruption. But the gruesome crime in the capital on Monday has put both at the center of a media storm. Television and radio stations, newspapers and Internet sites are all asking the same question: how could the kind of man who would walk into a supermarket and randomly start shooting innocent people could become a senior police officer, or even be recruited into the force at the most junior level? Why do police officers get away with so many heinous crimes? And are the authorities going to do anything about it this time?
About half an hour after midnight on Monday evening, Major Denis Yevsyukov, the chief of the Tsaritsino police district in southern Moscow, arrived outside the Ostrov supermarket on Shipilovskaya Street. He shot dead the driver of the car that had brought him there, and calmly entered the supermarket, where he killed two more a female cashier and a male customer and wounded six others. He was eventually detained by police responding to an emergency call, but only after he had dodged no less than seven bullets fired at him.
The response was timely. Vladimir Pronin, the Moscow police chief, turned up at the scene almost immediately, and interviewed Yevsyukov personally in the small hours of the morning (he later told reporters that Yevsyukov had “eyes like soup plates, knew nothing and did not remember what happened. He only cried.”). In an interview to the Vesti News channel on Tuesday, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev offered his condolences to the victims, promised to take personal charge of the investigation, and declared that his ministry would tighten standards to ensure the “moral and psychological” fitness of police recruits in the future.
Meanwhile, however, higher powers were looking for heads to roll. On Tuesday afternoon, President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed Yevsyukov’s superior, Major General Victor Ageev, the head of the Southern Moscow police district, and several others.
But it then turned out that Ageev and his deputy had already tendered their resignations a week earlier because their office had been found “not to be coping with the tasks assigned” long hand for presiding over an incompetent department (the most high profile, but far from the only, example of the southern district’s bungling was the discovery of official documents relating to the investigation of Yevgeny Chichvarkin, the former head of Yevroset, in a dumpster).
Realizing that Ageev’s resignation would have been accepted anyway, Medvedev is said to have declared that a “ritual sacrifice” (a phrase quoted across the Russian press, but apparently originating in Kommersant, which cited an “unofficial” police source) would not be enough and late on Tuesday night his press office announced that non other than Pronin himself had been relieved of his duties.
Pronin has been police chief since 2001, and has come under pressure to resign in the past. He presided over football riots in central Moscow in 2001 that left two people dead, the disastrous handing of the Dubrovka theatre siege later that year, and explosions at a rock festival and on the metro. But even on occasion proffering his resignation, he had until now outlasted his critics (perhaps, say critics, because of his close ties to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who apparently only learnt of the dismissal when he was asked about it during a scheduled appearance on television, and described the decision as “regretful.”)
Why Medvedev would decide, almost on the spur of the moment, to fire the capital’s long-serving police chief without even bothering to consult the mayor would make a story in itself. But it is the combination of homicidal madness, incompetence and corruption inside the police that has really caught the public imagination, and the story of systemic failures that is emerging makes even the dismissal of Pronin seem like a “ritual sacrifice” albeit a high profile one.
That a lone police officer went mad after a drunken argument with his wife could be dismissed as an isolated tragedy. But rumors are already circulating that it was more than an innocent mistake in the psychological screening system that allowed such an unstable man to reach such a high rank. The Izvestia daily has reported that he may have bought his position as head of the Tsaritsino district for $5,000. Kommersant reported rumors that he had a “special relationship” with police management that allowed him to climb to the rank of major by the age of just 31.
More lurid allegations at the yellower end of the media spectrum, about a past as a skinhead and a penchant for getting drunk while dressed in a Nazi uniform, should probably be taken with a grain of salt. But the allegations of “buying” a position, combined with the fact that Medvedev found it difficult to find someone to fire who had not already lost his job for incompetence, point to what Gennady Gudkov, the leader of the Just Russia party and deputy chairman of the State Duma security committee, called “systemic” failure.
“Firing Pronin was the right thing to do and we support that step,” said Gudkov. “But Pronin himself is not the problem. Although this case is an isolated incident the guy went mad, maybe because of alcohol, and no one can be held responsible for thatthe sad truth is that there are plenty of other examples of police beating, torturing and even shooting people. And that speaks of systemic errors.”
Nor is there any direct answer to the problem. Gudkov acknowledged that the dismissal of Pronin was a measure for public consumption, and that since his replacement will probably come from the police ranks anyway, it would do little to end the systemic rot.
The problems are well known. Low pay and poor social benefits give police an incentive to turn to corruption, and the tale of paying $5,000 for a promotion will surprise few. Asked whether the answer would be to simply fire everyone and recruit a brand new police force - a measure taken in Georgia in a bid to curb corruption in the traffic police Gudkov was dismissive. “It wouldn’t make a difference. Whoever you recruit would turn into a prostitute anyway.” He suggested that increased parliamentary controls over the police, along with cuts and systemic reform might be the way to change the police from “this vast organization that is incredibly inefficient at fighting crime.”
Gudkov’s colleague on the security committee, Chairman Vladimir Vasilyev, apparently disagrees. “I am convinced that the attempt to blame what happened on the whole system would be a profound mistake,” he told the Interfax news agency, adding that the police had recently come under “a lot of pressure,” and constant criticism from the media (as if to suggest, the Izvestia daily wryly noted, that is “all journalists’ fault.”) But if the growing tide of bewilderment and anger surrounding the case is anything to go by, the public and the media will not be willing to settle for such excuses. And the firing of Pronin, who seemed more sympathetic to Yevsyukov than to the victims, suggests that president Medvedev may be in similar mood.