14 October 2020
Economists often disagree among themselves. But there is a topic on which all economists have full consensus: one of the main obstacles to Russia’s economic growth is its ineffective, corrupt, and unaccountable system of law enforcement. Sergei Guriev speaks to Pavel Chikov, head of the Agora International Human Rights Group, about what should be done with it.
Pavel, if it were up to you how the Russian law enforcement system and Russian judicial system were to be constructed, what would you do?
For starters, I should say that there are systemic problems getting in the way above all. Of course, there has been a major consolidation of power and authorities in the hands of law enforcement agencies, their centralization, their federal subordination, their numbers, their functionality, and their budget, which is overblown, gigantic, and this is clearly not appropriate for many things. Right now we have the lowest level of crime in the entire Soviet and post-Soviet era. If crime is so low, why do we need so many law enforcement agencies?
We know the average world figure: three police officers per thousand inhabitants. In America, it’s a little more than three. Japan, Scandinavia, and India have one police officer per thousand inhabitants. A rough count for us gives at least nine police officers per thousand inhabitants, but that number may in fact be 12. That is, we can easily set ourselves the goal of reducing law enforcement agency staffing by a factor of three.
This means three times more money would be available. This means we could increase the monetary compensation for those remaining, we could raise our demands on those remaining, and, consequently, select a minimum of one out of three, but it would be better to bring in people from outside this system.
Second. We are living in a declared federation, but in reality virtually all law enforcement functions are federally subordinated. Moreover, one of the basic ideas of the 2010-2011 police reform was the final resolution of the issue of police federalization. Because up until then the police were subordinated simultaneously to regional authorities as well. We have had cases when one specific patrol officer beat up some detainee and the [patrol officer] was convicted. And when the case reached the point of seeking compensation for moral harm to the victim, the question arose as to which budget it should be paid from. We have also had instances when the court fined the municipal, regional, and federal budgets jointly, 33% each, because this patrol officer’s salary was paid out of three different budgets at different levels. Right now, all police officer receive a salary only from the federal centre.
When you said “federalization,” you meant subordination to the federal centre. Because when people say “federalization” they often mean the opposite, decentralization.
What I mean is that federal subordination and centralization have been the police’s objective, but what’s needed is to decentralize: more powers for the regions, and more powers for the municipalities, because in 90% of cases crime is absolutely specific to each specific region. If it’s a border region, it’s going to be some kind of contraband; if it’s Siberian regions, then it’s illegal logging. If it’s a region located along a drug trafficking route, it’s drug trafficking. Some regions have a primarily urban population, and there you’re going to have apartment burglaries. In rural regions, there’ll be livestock theft, and these are different crimes, they’re solved in different ways, and they have completely different stories and characteristics.
This year the Yakutia Interior Ministry’s Twitter account became popular. It has a very cheerful social media marketer, and he writes about what the Interior Ministry in Yakutia is doing, basically, what jobs they are getting called out on. And this is naturally funny. But at the same time you have to understand that Yakutia’s Interior Ministry has, for example, a Counter-Extremism Centre, which is under orders to uncover crimes, conduct preventive efforts, include people on the list of potential extremists, and various other indicators which the federal centre requires of them. There are no extremists in Yakutia, though, but there are supposed to be.
This is the approach on which human resources, financial resources, time resources, and political will are being spent — and it is a distortion of the real picture, and it is gigantic. Why? Because ultimately everything is honed for one specific individual: the interior minister.
But the theory of governance says that an organisation numbering half a million people, a million people, can be effective only in one instance: if it’s an army at war, where failure to execute an order results in immediate punishment on the spot. Only in that instance. That is, to put it crudely, the theory of organisation says that a structure like the Russian Interior Ministry cannot be effective in its current form. Consequently, it obviously needs to be reduced and divided up, both horizontally and vertically.
You can imagine a situation where the local law enforcement agencies receive their own budget and the director is appointed by the regional authorities. You also see a municipal police force in which the head of the department is appointed or voted for by the voters. Well, there is probably some federal level department, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the Investigative Committee, dealing with federal level crimes.
Yes, that’s roughly it, though it is a rather crude approach. My own conviction regarding this problem is that a large amount of authority should reside at the municipal level. Even better if there were to be elected offices. We can draw a parallel to the election of sheriffs in the USA. We have never tried this of course, generally we have a big problem within the institution of elections. But this reform cannot be conducted separately from other reforms. We also need political reforms, reforms to promote local self-determination, and various others. They will be effective and successful only when put together.
When we are talking about reforms, often people will say reforms are unpopular and even painful. The police unions are unlikely to be happy if we were to reduce the number of police threefold. But from the point of view of the average Russian, wouldn’t police form lead to a more accountable, competent, incorruptible police? Would this then be the most popular reform in Russia?
Absolutely, yes of course. There was a huge demand from the public for reforming the Internal Affairs Ministry in 2010. If you recall, the trigger for this was the Moscow shooting incident involving Major Dennis Yesyukov, which caused major public outrage. It was because of this that the then President Dmitry Medvedev announced online public hearings about the draft law ‘On the Police’. Over 25,000 suggestions were given in the online hearings. This fact itself and the widespread interest shows the extent to which society wants to change the Internal Affairs Ministry. The downside here is that there is less trust nowadays, it was undermined 10 years ago, and to generate the same level of support will be more difficult.
You say crimes should be investigated at the local level. Which remaining functions should be transferred to other departments, and which departments should be shut down? For example, what should be done with the Prosecutor’s Office and the Investigative Committee? Which powers should be taken from the FSB, which should remain, or should they be completely shut down? Should such departments as the General Administration for Combatting Extremism even exist? Do we need to close down the National Guard and transfer its assets to some other department? What should we do with the Internal Affairs Ministry services which deal with passports, residence registration and migration? How should this all come about?
That’s a lot of questions, Sergei. Obviously, there are a number of unnecessary functions which need to be removed. It is understandable that the roadmap should be laid out and a number of things done at once. As time goes on, we can change things. In the larger cities there can be a very large police force because we obviously need them – Moscow, St. Petersburg, and so on. But do we need a regional police force at the level of the federal regions? I still hesitate to answer this. Because I want a division of power on the federal, regional and municipal levels, conflicts will be unavoidable. There are hundreds of American films portraying the arguments between the FBI, the local police and other law enforcement agencies. We need to understand that this will be the price to pay, because its these conflicts which will provide a balance across the vertical power structures.
Of course, certain federal level functions should remain, above all, powers to deal with international and national level crime. This could include terrorism, large scale drug trafficking, corruption in the federal civil service, crimes committed by federal institutions and crimes relating to federal institutions. The system is very complicated, and therefore such simple solutions shouldn’t be taken seriously. I don’t want to appear to be someone who only puts forward simple solutions.
Do you know any complicated solutions? People say they don’t want a local sheriff to usurp power and create another mass murder like the one in Kushchevskaya [the murder of 12 people, including four children, by a criminal gang in the village of Kushchevskaya in Krasnodar region on 4 November 2010 – ed.] but they also don’t want Moscow to usurp power. If you needed to implement concrete solutions, what would be your approach?
All the things that you and I are talking about here are, and always have been, the classic functions of the state: maintaining public order and the system of justice. There is nothing here that needs to be invented. It is enough to look at the past, or at other countries, to see how these and other questions are dealt with. In addition, there is a gigantic amount practical experience. Plus, it is both negative and positive. Of course, there is more negative experience — we most probably already know, what isn’t needed. What is needed will depend on what model we are oriented toward.
The American model is often praised. But there are many objections to the American model. When it comes to prisons, for example, in no way should we model our prisons after America’s. We definitely should not organize our police on the American model, as it is inclined toward the use of force: the problem of American police officers freely using firearms is well-known, and because of it there are gigantic battles going on now in the USA between American politicians and human rights organisations.
Generally speaking, you need a critical approach to the experience of others and, of course, to adopting their successful practices. And to speak very generally, there is the Scandinavian model of prisons which is considered the best in the world. Let’s take it and try to integrate the Scandinavian model of prisons in Russia.
There are the American courts which are a model for the world, and in general the Anglo-Saxon system of common law is recognized to be the best. It’s clear that we will have major conflicts, with theoreticians among others, because we have a traditional continental model, and we cannot simply scrap all our experience and traditions and introduce case law on the Anglo-American model here. Which means it’s necessary at least to sit down and think about this.
Returning to the problems of functions. I understand that you want, for example, the FSB to remain but to give it the functions of dealing with spies and perhaps foreign terrorists. Probably the economic functions of the FSB, which would be the function of some type of FBI, would come under the Investigative Committee of Russia or under some other title of such a bureau. What would in your opinion be a successful precedent for dividing out functions? For example, the Interior Ministry’s Vehicle Inspection Schemes, and would it be worthwhile distributing functions to other services?
Without a doubt, if we can privatise something, we should. Law Enforcement Agencies have several functions that are like this. Where we can introduce technology we should do so, putting anything in electronic form we can. We should praise the Russian state for their great success in the last 10 years; there is a huge number of services available in two or three clicks of a mouse, and all from the comfort of our homes.
If we are talking about the FSB, this is a difficult question, because to a great extent it will depend on the competencies, powers and jurisdiction, for example, of a certain Federal Investigative Agency, about which there is also talk. It is obvious that the FSB has excessive number of functions, including in areas that shouldn’t really concern it, such as the economy, drug enforcement, corruption. All these things shouldn’t be in their sphere of competence.
For me it’s obvious that in today’s situation one of the first things we need to do is decide the fate of the prosecutor’s office. Why? Because this is an army of hundreds of thousands of people who do absolutely nothing. All this so-called ‘supervision’ is a throwback to the Soviet era when for some reason the Prosecutor and not the courts decided what was legal and what wasn’t. We need to get rid of this idea as soon as possible with the first stroke of the pen. This function should be removed. The investigative function of the prosecutor’s office was given to the Investigative Committee 13 years ago. The one and only natural function that remains for the prosecutor is the public prosecution.
In America the Ministry of Justice fulfils this role. The Ministry is a prosecutor and yet is an elected position. Why don’t we do something similar, and at the least unite the Ministry of Justice with the prosecutor’s office and leave the joint department with the function of prosecution and make the head of the office an elected position? This alone will bring powerful change to the entire configuration.
We need to reduce the investigative role because the investigations they undertake are simply people gathering evidence and then laying the charges. Further, the prosecutor’s office, as an organisation, conducting the prosecution in court, must decide whether to take the case to court or not, whether it is likely to receive a guilty verdict or not, whether the accused is ready to make a pre-trial agreement to save taxpayer’s money or not. If this were an elected position, paid from the appropriate budget, this individual could save a great deal of public money.
Even now in Russia 75% of our crimes are dealt with by means of a ‘special procedure’ [the term used for the equivalent of a plea bargain – ed]. In other words, roughly speaking, this is the same simplified legal proceedings and the same deal with the justice system that we have adopted from the same America, by and large. And this is how cases are mostly handled there: 90% of criminal cases in the US don’t go to court. The court just records the agreement reached with the prosecutor.
Getting back to the subject of police. The main question people always ask is about police incentives. Everyone complains about the “quota” system. How can we make sure that the police, on the one hand, do their job, and on the other hand, do not strive to meet artificially imposed targets? How to change the incentives of police officers?
As a qualified manager, I will say that quantitative indicators cannot be avoided: you still have to count and compare. The only question is what is considered a quantitative indicator, what is considered a “quota”, and what impact the comparison has on current daily activities.
That is, the problem is not one of counting the number of recorded crimes, the number of solved crimes, the number of cases sent to court – there is actually no problem with this. The problem is that everything is disgustingly simplified – as a consequence, once again, of a gigantic structure. You see, when there are hundreds of thousands of employees in an organization, there is very little time, opportunity and resources to delve into details and manage each department. The numbers simplify the management process.
It is enough to ask: what numbers do we have from department A, department B and department C, and what were their numbers last year? So that the decision-maker can draw a straightforward conclusion: there used to be this much, but now it is this much. And, therefore, what follows is the wrong conclusion that they did a bad job. That is, by and large, the problem with the “quota” system lies from the very beginning in bad organisation of the entire Ministry of Internal Affairs and the entire police. This is the first part.
Secondly, counting the number of solved crimes and calculating the ratio of solved crimes to the recorded crimes is a wrong approach. Its consequence is an understatement of the number of recorded crimes and an overstatement of the number of solved crimes.
We see that the police refuse to record reports of crime, and if they cannot refuse to record a crime report, they try to solve the crime as soon as possible. The easiest way to solve a crime is a blow to the jaw or groin with an electric shocker, because if they found a person and got an admission of guilt – that means they solved the crime.
Quantitative indicators can also be derived from population surveys.
Yes, there is a very good practice in the United States of America, for example, – annual household surveys. The selected household is interviewed, and its members are asked if they have been victims of any crime within the past year. If so, they are asked – which crimes, where, how and under what circumstances, and thus the interviewers collect information about the actual crime rate. This information is also useless without police statistics, because they must be compared with each other.
This is done, basically, to at least understand how many crimes are not recorded. At the same time, the reasons why these crimes are not recorded can be very different, because people may not contact the police at all: well, someone broke the car window – why wait for the police? – I have to go. And when asked, they will most likely tell about it. Then the actual crime rate turns out to be completely different.
This is a very important information for decision-makers and policymakers in a particular area. The surveys can be carried out on a certain territory and, accordingly, compared between different regions, different municipalities, they can be compared in a historical perspective – what the situation was like five years ago, and what it is now, and what types of new crimes, for example, have emerged. This gives an answer to where the shortcomings of police work lie. [Read more in Russian]
When we talk about reforms, there are obviously people who don’t like these reforms. The first category of people is those who lose out from police reform, at least the reform you are talking about – these are the people who will be discharged. We have huge subdivisions, including, for example, the National Guard, which apparently should be reduced in one way or another and restructured. It is likely that a lot of people at the Centre for Combating Extremism will lose their jobs. What is to be done with the people who lose their jobs? These are also our fellow citizens — how should we take care of them? What should we offer them?
A few words about the National Guard (Rosgvardiya). It predominantly consists of former Internal Troops, and these are conscripts. That is to say, these are eighteen-year-old boys who do a year of compulsory military service, and are nowadays simply assigned to the National Guard, not the Ministry of Defence.
The second category is those who serve in so-called non-departmental security. This is the kind of duty that should simply be eliminated and prohibited the very next day. It is, by and large, a way of funding the National Guard. It is billions and billions of roubles that you and I – as Russians – pay when we hand over the burglar alarm in our apartment to non-departmental security. In other words, this is definitely a business that should stay in the hands of businessmen, not something the police should meddle in. Consequently, if these two things are removed from the National Guard, then only the OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit [the ‘riot police’ – ed.] ), special forces and SOBR (Special Rapid Response Unit) remain, and this is not such a large number.
There is a general question of what we should do with those individuals who are being discharged. Well, of course, there must first of all be a well-thought-out programme, and as is almost always the case in Russia, throwing people out on the street who know how to handle weapons and break the arms of detainees is definitely not something we want. And they also have all sorts of operational skills and access to classified information. Of course, you need to think about where and how to place them. Here a possible link emerges, for example, to reforming the army. In the twenty-first century, Russia probably already needs to abandon the conscription method of recruiting for the army, and switch to one that is contract-based. And it would be a very good idea for a large array of former police officers to sign a contract with the army and continue serving there. There may be separate retraining programs based on labour market demand. These are things that, in my opinion, are completely affordable and can be implemented.
A large number of police officers have already reached – so to speak – retirement age based on their years of service, and they can retire right now with the stroke of a pen. This can be done to preserve their pension, with the possibility of finding a new future for them.
I completely agree with you that we will probably live to see a contract army, and furthermore, this will most likely happen sooner rather than later. And in this sense, once again, there are complementarities that come about through reform: if there is a contract army in Russia, it will immediately be clear where there are vacancies opening up for people who currently serve in a law enforcement agency. To conclude our conversation, I will ask you one simple question. How long do you think it will take to carry out reforms to such an extent that our police are of the same calibre as, say, those in Central European countries, or at least East-Central European countries?
One needs to keep in mind that the system is extremely adaptive. For this reason, the reforms should be dynamic – this is very important. That is to say, the system should not have time to adapt to a changing environment. Secondly, we need to look at how Mikheil Saakashvili managed to reform the [Georgian] Ministry of Internal Affairs in five years. It is clear that we have a million personnel, but he had only 50,000, and it involved a lot more than what we have distributed among other departments. But five years was enough for him, and it should be enough for us.
Thank you very much, Pavel, for such an optimistic assessment. I was in Georgia last year and saw the enormous popularity of the reforms carried out within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Regardless of who many citizens vote for – even if they work for the ruling party, which is a staunch critic of Saakashvili’s policies – no one speaks in favour of undoing these reforms. These were obviously the most popular reforms and it is clear that if you do the right things, then these reforms cannot be nixed or rolled back, because you have a public consensus that these reforms have been a success.
Media project VTimes is publishing “What (on earth) is to be done,” a series of interviews by economist Sergei Guriev on how to build a free and flourishing Russia and what needs to be done first when the possibility for changes does arise. Sergei Guriev talks to leading Russian economists, jurists, and political scientists. The video version of this interview can be viewed on Sergei Guriev’s YouTube channel and the Dozhd television channel.