Russia's Latest YouTube Craze: Exposing Police CorruptionNov 20, 2009
By Carl Schreck / Moscow
Public antipathy toward the police runs so deep in Russia that it would seem impossible for the reputation of those paid to protect and serve to get any worse. Reports of graft, assault, fraud and even murder committed by Russian police creep across the news wires almost daily, and according to a recent survey by the Moscow-based Levada Center polling agency, 40% of Russians say they do not trust police, while 28% say they actually fear the cops.
But then came the sensational police whistleblower videos on YouTube. Earlier this month, Alexei Dymovsky, a drug cop in southern Russia, posted emotional video addresses to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on his personal website, accusing his superiors of severely overworking him and pressuring him to fabricate criminal cases to improve clearance rates — a practice known in Russian police jargon as "chopping sticks." Dymovsky was fired over the videos, which have amassed more than 1.2 million views since they were reposted on YouTube.
Following his demarche, several more whistleblowers have posted videos on YouTube — to much fanfare — accusing their superiors of fabricating cases, including one that led to life sentences for two men convicted of a 2005 arson in which 25 people were killed. The two men convicted of setting the fire in the northwestern city of Ukhta were innocent, former policeman Mikhail Yevseyev and former deputy prosecutor Grigory Chekalin said in separate videos.
The online grievances — a rarity in a country where law enforcers typically close ranks in the face of public criticism — come at an awkward time for Russia's police. In Siberia last month, two police officers allegedly committed separate murder-suicides, leaving a total of five people dead, including themselves. A third policeman in Tuva has been charged with using excessive force after shooting a 17-year-old boy dead in what he claims was self-defense. The slayings came just months after the arrest of a Moscow police officer accused of drunkenly shooting nine people in a supermarket, killing two.
The scandals have sent the country's top cops into damage control mode and intensified calls for an overhaul of Russia's profoundly broken law enforcement system. In late October, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev announced a series of measures aimed at combating graft and weeding out officers prone to violent abuses. The measures include tightening psychological screening standards for new hires, improving transparency when dealing with the media and forcing police officers and their relatives to submit copies of their tax papers in order to keep tabs on any assets gained in illicit ways. "Every day I ride to work and see what kind of cars our employees are driving these days," Nurgaliyev told Russian lawmakers in October. "You can't even imagine it. There's no way many of these cars could be purchased on an officer's salary." The measures follow the release of a code of conduct earlier this year that discouraged drinking on duty, indiscriminate sex and accepting bribes.
Critics, however, deride the new measures as toothless and say tackling the problem requires serious structural reforms. Former St. Petersburg police investigator and prominent crime journalist Yevgeny Vyshenkov compared Nurgaliyev to a collective farm owner whose chickens keep dying mysteriously. "To fix the situation, his great idea is to have the chicken troughs made in the shape of a triangle, but the chickens keep dying," Vyshenkov said. "Then he has the troughs made in the shape of a rectangle, but the chickens keep dying. Then a worker tells him all the chickens have died, and the owner says: 'What a shame, I had so many more great ideas.'"
At the heart of the problem, experts say, are the paltry wages that hinder the recruitment of good officers and encourage police to supplement their wages through graft and criminal rackets. Dymovsky, the Internet whistleblower, complained that his monthly wage as a policeman in the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk was only 14,000 rubles ($487) and that he worked extensive overtime for no additional pay. "What motivation is there to serve honestly?" said Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anticorruption Committee, a nongovernmental organization. Many prospective recruits eschew police forces in favor of security agencies such as the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB, which pays about $1,500 to $2,100 per month, he adds.
But the problems run deeper than just meager salaries, says Alexander Gurov, a senior lawmaker with Putin's ruling United Russia party and a former head of the anti-organized crime units in the Soviet Interior Ministry. He says the roots of the current difficulties can be traced to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many police officers went into the private sector en masse, fed up with low pay, corruption and the brazen violence sweeping the country. He estimates that 100,000 officers left the profession each year from 1991 to 2004 nationwide. "There are very few people anymore who work as police officers because it is their calling," Gurov says.
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has called rampant corruption a threat to national security and made an anti-corruption drive one of the signature campaigns of his presidency. However, even he is realistic about what can be done. In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Medvedev questioned a pledge by Nurgaliyev earlier this year to eradicate corruption in the nation's police forces over the course of a month. "I would hope that the Interior Minister has a clear idea of how to combat corruption," Medvedev said. "This certainly cannot be achieved in one month. I also think that he only meant the most grievous offenses in his ministry. Rooting out corruption will keep us busy for years."
Until the Kremlin finds the money to overhaul the system completely, Vyshenkov says a few cheap measures could help matters. For one, police officers should be required to wear uniforms embossed with the motto: "I selflessly serve the law." "It's not going to deter all officers from corruption," he says. "But maybe it will make three out of 100 embarrassed to take a bribe."