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Russia Profile
May 25, 2009
The Most Brutal Defenders
Faith in the Police Is at Rock Bottom, but So Is Faith in the Power of Protest
By Shaun Walker

When Major Denis Yevsyukov went on a shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket late last month, the political shock waves were so severe that President Dmitry Medvedev fired the head of Moscows police force. Now, a wide coalition of NGOs and liberal politicians is calling for widespread reform of the police. But public sympathy for their cause is tempered by equally ubiquitous cynicism that anything can actually be changed.

The Russian president has talked at length about the need to strengthen the rule of law in Russia and reduce corruption, and in both cases the police force should probably be at the forefront of any planned reforms. Surveys show that the vast majority of Russians do not trust the police, and do their best to avoid confronting it. At the same time, it is the branch of law enforcement that ordinary Russians come into contact with most frequently.

At a street meeting held last week in central Moscow to demand police reform, the participants were divided on how best to tackle this Herculean task. Many said that it was impossible to talk about reforming the police in a vacuum, as it is an integrated part of a whole system that needs reforming. We need reform not just of the police but of the army and the courts, said Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a veteran campaigner from the Moscow Helsinki Group. The reason the police causes antagonism among the population is because it is closest to the people on an everyday basis. At the moment, the main task of the police is not to defend people from criminals, but to defend important people from the masses.

A sense that it would be impossible to change things leads many Russians to feel that their protest voices are as worthless in the case of police reform as elsewhere. The meeting last week was held in the large central Moscow square at Mayakovskaya, and despite thousands of commuters and passers-by walking past the demonstration and banners, many of whom undoubtedly shared the views of the demonstrators when it comes to the police in Russia, few people thought to join in and add their voices to the protest.

According to Sergei Smirnov, a youth activist, everyone knows that the police force in Russia is corrupt, that it doesnt seek to prevent crime but instead looks for personal enrichment, and that it hassles opposition activists and plants drugs on them or frames them for other crimes. However, said Smirnov, a feeling of powerlessness means that people dont feel they can change anything, and so they stay silent. I met some people this morning and told them about this protest, said Smirnov. They said that they hated the police and would love to change the way that the police operates, but they didnt believe that there was any point in coming along to a meeting. The main problem in Russia is apathy. But if people dont display a desire to change things, then the authorities will feel that there is no need to make an effort, either.

The organizers of the event distributed a leaflet with six demands for police reform, which certainly read like an ambitious wish list. The demands include a dramatic reduction in the number of police officers, especially those in bureaucratic positions; an end to police cover for criminals; and a ban on using the OMON riot police against peaceful protests.

In its current form, the police force itself has become a direct threat to law and order, and can no longer stay the same as it is today corrupt and evoking horror in citizens, read the statement. The organizers promise to continue holding rallies and meetings until senior police agree to meet them and hear their demands, but some of those present were doubtful that change could come simply from negotiations with police or even politicians.

We live in a corrupt state, and the police is an indication of that corruption, agreed Sergei Mitrokhin, the leader of the liberal Yabloko political party. It is impossible to talk about the reform of the police in a vacuum. If anyone in power seriously started talking about reforming the police, would they be able to do it? Probably not.