The Politics of Law Enforcement in Russia’s Far East

Posted: May 31, 2012 at 3:19 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:53 am

Author: Aaron Beitman, PhD Student, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Political Science

Starting with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet law enforcement was designed to serve as a centrally controlled apparatus sensitive to the wishes of the Communist Party.  As Shelley (1996) indicates, some postcommunist states acutely examined past policing techniques and supported reforms aimed at ensuring that police practices were squarely in line with the requirements of a democratic society.  However, Russia has been less successful in this regard.  Indeed, reformers have been more successful in removing symbols of state coercion such as the statue of Feliks Dzherinsky (the founder of the Soviet security police) before KGB headquarters in Moscow than in restructuring law enforcement bodies.

This post examines the path dependence of Russia’s law enforcement agencies, namely the continuing politicization, severe trust issues, and personnel deficits that have undermined the country’s crime fighting strength.

The political business cycle and law enforcement 

Following then-President Vladimir Putin’s 2007 declaration of war against corruption in Russia’s Far East, regional politicians have worked at varying levels of intention and success to address this endemic problem.  In particular, analysts have noticed an interesting pattern regarding anti-corruption or decriminalization programs.  According to Vitaly Nomokonov, head of the Center for the Study of Organized Crime in Vladivostok, interest in combating crime and corruption among local politicians tends to pick up prior to elections.  Just as enterprising politicians may seek manipulation of economic conditions, Nomokonov sees political will to address crime and corruption appearing largely at opportune times in the political business cycle.


Trust issues

Former Vladivostok city prosecutor and judiciary official Yuri Mel’nikov believes that decriminalization will only take place if a new paradigm for the relationship between law enforcement and politicians is developed.  Mel’nikov suggests that there exists a huge deficit of trust between law enforcement and politicians.  One of the main reasons for this deficit of trust is that individuals with criminal backgrounds or with current, unambiguous ties to known organized crime figures are routinely appointed to sensitive state positions or are selected to run in tightly controlled and predictable elections.

In Vladivostok, it is much more difficult to commit crimes anonymously, as opposed to Moscow, for example.  With social circles as small as they are Vladivostok, facts concerning corruption in federal, regional, and municipal state structures may reach law enforcement personnel through acquaintances, relatives, fellow officers, schoolmates, and university classmates.  When these crimes, because of varying circumstances, go unpunished, the gulf of distrust between law enforcement and politicians increases greatly. As long as severe trust issues exist between law enforcement and politicians, the overall crime situation in the Far East is unlikely to improve.


A falling crime rate? 

In 2010, 50,900 crimes were committeed in the Far East Federal District, which represents a 10 % decline from 2009.  The number of cases clеаred by law enforcement personnel fell from 49% in 2009 to 46.5% in 2010.  In 2011, the number of registered crimes in the Far East Federal District fell to 45,600, or 5,000 crimes fewer than in 2010.  The number of cases cleared by law enforcement fell to 44.9%.

In other words, the crime rate has fallen in the past few years, while the number of cases cleared has also fallen.  However, variation in the Far East Federal District crime rate may deserve closer scrutiny.  According to Mel’nikov, the reduction in the crime rate is due in a large part to the demographic crisis facing Russia.  It is thought that as Russia’s population continues to age, the number of criminals, who are usually younger members of society, are fewer.  Hence, the lower crime rate.  In effect, Mel’nikov is arguing that the reduction in crime rate is less about decreasing criminalization, but more about fewer criminals on the street.


What is to be done? 

For Mel’nikov, a major reason for paralyzing weakness in law enforcement agencies is that many middle and lower-ranking personnel are poorly qualified for their jobs.  Why, one might ask, is this not the case for FSB personnel?  Arguably, this is because there is a different approach to service in the FSB, and a different level of professionalism.  In Mel’nikov’s view, as such, the biggest challenge for law enforcement agencies is hiring personnel who are not merely seeking employment, but who are dedicated to the pursuit of justice.

There are a few crucial steps that should be taken to improve this situation.  More than anything, according Mel’nikov, what is needed is procedural transparency and the establishment of the rule of law to ensure that crimes committed will actually be punished.  Administrative openness should be accompanied by the inclusion of civil society, the business community, and other stakeholders in decision-making about decriminalization.


Final thoughts:  politics and crime 

Law enforcement in the Russian Federation continues to bear the legacy of the highly politicized Soviet police system.  While addressing the distrust between law enforcement and politicians appears to be a key aspect of decriminalization programs, political support for anti-crime and anti-corruption programs may be closely related to the political business cycle.  Given the unfortunately extensive overlap between politics and crime in Russia, it seems as though the road to repairing trust between law enforcement and politicians will be a long one.

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