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Cosmetic Police Reforms

At a meeting with top Interior Ministry officials on Thursday, President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed two deputy interior ministers and 16 other high-ranking police officials. He also ordered the number of personnel at the ministry’s head office to be halved to about 10,000. The authorities rushed to present these cuts as severe, unprecedented and almost revolutionary reforms, but this is not entirely accurate.

First, the Kremlin previously carried out massive layoffs that included generals in the Interior Ministry in 2002, the Federal Security Service in 2006, the army in 2007 and the Federal Prison Service in 2009. Second, large-scale staff reductions do not by themselves constitute reform. Even the “major changes” in the Interior Ministry that Medvedev announced in December and February lack the substance or careful planning required to be considered true reforms.

The presidential administration apparently asked the Interior Ministry beforehand to prepare an impressive list of people to fire so that Medvedev could announce those layoffs together with his reform bills for the State Duma during Thursday’s meeting with the Interior Ministry.

Unfortunately, the firings within the Interior Ministry do not directly punish those responsible for a string of high-profile police abuse cases over the past year, such as the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in his pretrial detention cell in November or the supermarket shooting spree in Moscow committed by police major Denis Yevsyukov in April. Only two of the seven regional police heads dismissed were directly connected to well-publicized cases of gross negligence. For example, Viktor Grechman, the head of police in the Tomsk region, was dismissed after journalist Konstantin Popov was brutally beaten to death last month by a young police officer while in custody in a police station as seven other officials reportedly looked on.

Will the system work better after Medvedev’s shakeup? Probably not. The individuals who were fired were by far not the worst in the Interior Ministry’s ranks, and those replacing them are not likely to be any better. The problem is not limited to one or two dozen generals. The whole state apparatus operates inefficiently.

The Interior Ministry is not the worst part of the system, only the most visible part. Not only do law enforcement officials interact daily with ordinary citizens, but an endless string of scandals in 2009 and early 2010 has made the problems in the Interior Ministry a subject of discussion around the dinner table of every household.

The methods for raising the effectiveness of a nation’s government institutions vary depending on whether the country is democratic or authoritarian. In a democracy, the state might grant the people or their representatives in state and federal legislatures more control over all areas of government, including law enforcement officials. In countries where the people prefer a Stalinist state, they institute strict discipline, harsh punishments, periodic purges and an atmosphere of fear. But making changes to either form of government requires systemic reforms and not merely populist gestures or superficial administrative measures.

Medvedev needs to understand that he can’t carry out systemic reforms by addressing on an ad hoc basis individual aspects of the Interior Ministry if the entire system is fundamentally flawed. Reform of the ministry will require a lot more than simply removing a few bad apples from its ranks.

Nikolai Petrov is a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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