Riding the tiger


Peter Evans, a British journalist, once wrote that public support for the police is at its lowest when the gap between the public and the government is widest. Indeed, no other state body affects our daily life more than the police.

The very sight of the approach of a man in uniform creates an uncomfortable sensation inside almost anyone: a creepy mixture of reassurance coupled with guilt, deference with hostility. If this is true in any country, it is still more true in Russia where, according to a survey by the Moscow-based Levada Centre, more than 70% of Russians distrust law enforcement agencies.

The police are a reflection of a society: the police are, after all, an army comprised of 1.4 million citizens. If society is violent, so are the police. If the police are corrupt and anti-democratic, so is society. The relationship is an ambivalent one. It is like a furtive glance in a mirror - you are wary because you are not always pleased with what you see.

Russia is willing to go down this road through the looking-glass. Reform is mooted. The bill ‘On the police’ has been prepared and, an unprecedented step, put online for public discussion.

The name will change. ‘Militia’, a tribute to the times of the Social Revolution of 1917, will become ‘police’ – a boon for translators and a pain for older Russians: that was the name given to people who collaborated with the Nazis.

There are other changes too. The police would have the power to stop, search and detain people for up to an hour just to check their documents. If the bill becomes law they will also be allowed to enter private homes without a warrant. A twenty percent reduction in the size of the police force together with a pay-rise is suggested.

It is not clear yet whether these changes will come into operation: the law still needs to go through parliament. What is clear is that the police will remain a national organisation controlled from the centre and not answerable to local communities. Funding will come from the Kremlin too, as opposed to the joint central / local financing today. This should make the police immune to outside influence – that is from local authorities and provincial nouveau riches – and break the circles of small-town corruption.

The proposed law buttresses ‘power vertical’, centralising the country to an even greater extent than had been the case in the USSR

Yet the reason why in most countries the police are a tangle of independent forces lies elsewhere and is, arguably, fundamental. The public’s suspicion of a national, unified law enforcement force is based on the risk of political abuse. When police are answerable only to central government they are perceived to be - and quite commonly act as - a political instrument.

‘Doubtless all arbitrary powers, well executed, are the most convenient,’ wrote the legendary jurist Sir William Blackstone, ‘yet let it again be remembered that delays, and little inconveniences in the forms of justice, are the price that all free nations must pay for their liberty in more substantial matters.’ The price Russian society is ready to pay for combating parochial venality may turn out to be costly in the long term.

Goering, Hitler’s Minister of Police, wrote in Germany Reborn: ‘It seemed to me of first importance to get the weapon of the police firmly into my hands. Here it was that I made the first sweeping changes. Out of thirty-two police chiefs I removed twenty-two. Hundreds of inspectors and thousands of police sergeants followed in the course of the next month.’ It was only because this had been done that Hitler’s gangs were able to get the nation into their grip. In Germany today control over the police (apart from comparatively few federal forces that guard airports and the frontier) is in the hands of the regions, the Lands.

The proposed law buttresses Putin’s ‘power vertical’, centralising the country to an even greater extent than had been the case in the USSR: the soviet militia owed an allegiance both to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and to the soviets, local governmental bodies.

We don’t know how many police officers would be willing to resist the transformation of their forces into a political instrument. The right answer is, perhaps, not many. When German forces occupied the Channel Islands in the Second World War, British policemen there continued at their posts. In France in 1958 a march by policemen to the Palais Bourbon signalled the fall of the Fourth Republic.

Russian police played quite an unsavoury role in the Jeltoqsan riots in Kazakhstan in December 1986, in the Tbilisi massacre in April 1989, in Black January in Baku in 1990 and, more recently, the police forces have frequently been used against their own citizens, dispersing demonstrations.

Local control over law enforcement is needed to regain public confidence in the impartiality of the police. Yet, even more importantly: losing such control is a one way street: once lost, it will not be got back easily. As Chinese people say, ‘He who rides a tiger will never get off.’


September 2, 2010


text: E. Andreeva
photo: niakc10 - Fotolia.com




Why the police should be local