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Debate Over Police Reform Heats Up

The long-simmering debate over Interior Ministry reform began gaining momentum Thursday, after a senior United Russia lawmaker proposed disbanding the police and another death at the hands of law enforcement was reported.

The unprecedented proposal from State Duma Deputy Andrei Makarov was quickly dismissed by others in his party, raising speculation that it was a Kremlin-backed move to challenge the country’s powerful security services.

A spate of violence, including at least two fatal beatings this month, has left the Interior Ministry struggling to repair the image of the country’s already notorious keepers of the peace.

The latest blow was the revelation Thursday that a St. Petersburg citizen died in a hospital after suffering heavy stomach injuries. The 43-year-old died Nov. 12, a week after being rushed to the hospital because police beat him severely after responding to a drunken brawl in an apartment, local media reported.

On Tuesday, three drunken Moscow police officers were detained after they beat an Abkhaz man to death, posing an early challenge to the city’s new police chief. His predecessor was sacked after a police major killed three and wounded six during a supermarket shooting rampage in April.

And complaints with the ministry don’t stop on the street. Human rights leaders widely criticized last week’s death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was jailed for almost a year in Moscow prisons awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges related to a dispute with the Interior Ministry.

But the debate only reached ≠political prime time when Makarov, a deputy head of the Budget and Taxes Committee, told reporters Wednesday that the public felt the Russian police were waging a war against its own citizens.

“You can neither modernize nor reform the Interior Ministry. You can only abolish it,” Makarov said.

As immediate steps, he proposed halving the country’s sprawling police force of 921,000. “The whole police force needs to be decommissioned and cleansed with help from civil society and human rights groups,” he said.

He also proposed separating investigative bodies from the ministry and making it illegal to detain suspects before a court ruled that there was reasonable cause.

Party officials were quick to dismiss the proposals as Makarov’s personal position.

“[Makarov] just stated his personal opinion as citizen and as a lawyer but not as a member of United Russia’s faction,” said Andrei Pisarev, the political head of the party’s executive committee.

Police officials, too, were quick to criticize the comments. Moscow police chief Vladimir Kolokoltsev and Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky challenged Makarov’s proposal on the grounds that the country had no other force to maintain law and order if the ministry were disbanded.

Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev took a different approach for his rebuttal, saying citizens needed to fight back to prevent police violence.

“Can a citizen fight back when a policeman attacks him? If there’s an attack, there should be a necessary self-defense,” Nurgaliyev told reporters, Interfax reported. “We’re all equal, and citizens are doubly equal.”

Attempted murder of a policeman is punishable by up to life in prison or death under the Criminal Code, although Russia has a moratorium on capital punishment.

Andrei Piontkovsky, a political analyst with the Russian Academy of Sciences, said he believed the clash within United Russia reflected the widening differences between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

“Makarov is an important ideologist within United Russia, and I’m sure his statement was not made by chance, but organized in circles close to Medvedev,” Piontkovsky told The Moscow Times.

Reforming the country’s police, however daunting, is a task that could raise Medvedev’s popularity, he said. “Everybody hates the police today. If he can solve that problem, he can get 90 percent support and also reform the security services.”

Medvedev’s approval rating has been stable at well above 50 percent in recent months, but he consistently trails Vladimir Putin’s popularity. The prime minister had 65 percent approval in a survey released this month by state pollster FOM.

Piontkovsky cited Georgia as an example of successful police reform in a former Soviet country. After coming to power in 2003, President Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed much of the 70,000-member force, although many were later trained and rehired.

Georgia has since risen dramatically in international corruption ratings, reaching 66th place earlier this month on Transparency International’s index. Russia rose one spot to 146th.

But Kornely Kakachia, a Georgian political scientist who has written extensively on police reform, said the countries could not be easily compared.

“In Georgia, there was demand from below, including NGOs and civil society, even before the revolution, making the job easy for the government. With Russia, I don’t think that ‘the top-down’ system may work,” he said in e-mailed comments.

Analysts agreed that the Interior Ministry could not be reformed separately from other major state bodies, like prosecutors and the courts, which they said made the tax impossible.

“Even establishing public control over the police, as demanded by liberals, would be useless now, because general public, not to mention the state, aren’t ready for it,” said Andrei Soldatov, an analyst with the Agentura think tank, which studies law enforcement and security agencies.

Soldatov and Dmitry Badovsky, a political analyst at Moscow State University and a member of the Public Chamber, agreed that reforming the structure of the police, raising salaries and even changing the much-criticized evaluation system — which pushes officers to manipulate their statistics for crimes uncovered — would not stop the brutality and corruption.

“These would be cosmetic changes. The underlying principles will remain the same,” Badovsky said.

Another major barrier to meaningful reform of the Interior Ministry is that the state sees it as its main protector, Soldatov said.

“The main threat, as perceived by the Kremlin, comes not from outside the country but from within, and this makes police a critically important force,” he said.

In 2006, Ivan Safranchuk, then an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a U.S. think tank, calculated that since 1992 the share of state spending to combat internal enemies — the combined budgets of the Interior and Justice ministries and prosecutors — had risen more than threefold.

And the trend shows no signs of stopping. Mayor Yury Luzhkov said Thursday that the city’s police budget would increase by 8 billion rubles, or by almost 40 percent, to 29 billion rubles ($1 billion) next year, Interfax reported.

But Soldatov and Badovsky agreed that public resentment would only worsen because the force will deteriorate and because of growing information available online about police abuse.

“They often say the country lives off infrastructure built in the Soviet era. The same holds with the police: Whatever good and professional was in the Soviet police force is being sidelined by the new generation of cops who care little about the law,” Badovsky said.

The crackdown on political dissent, which the Kremlin portrays as a fight against extremism, has further contributed to the violent degeneration of police, Soldatov said.

“They don’t get punished for violence against the opposition at public events, and this gives the cops a sense of impunity,” he said.

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