Since August 7, Russians have been able to access zakonoproekt2010.ru, a website that enables them to post comments and criticism of the bill to reform the militia (militsiya in Russian), the country’s civilian law enforcement, which could soon be renamed the “police.” Even though the initiative is being billed as an exercise in transparency, the project still has the population and human rights defenders worried.
The Russian militsiya is actually two different bodies: the first (civil security militia) is tasked with protecting the population and property, while the second (criminal militia) has the job of finding criminals and fighting criminality. The objective of the reform bill, which will be debated until mid-September, is to replace the militia’s civil security branch with a professional and efficient police service.
That’s the vision laid out by Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, who said he hopes to “implant the protective function of the police in society,” noting that the new organization should “protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, fight criminality and defend order and property.”
The name change also has an important symbolic function that is meant to break with the country’s Soviet heritage: the police force created during the reign of Peter the Great in the 18th century was renamed the militsiya after the 1917 revolution.
Serious image problems
On April 27, 2009, police major Denis Yevsyukov shot the driver of a car with his service weapon before entering a Moscow supermarket and opening fire, killing one person and wounding seven others. The brutal crime shook the nation and Yevsyukov, the former head of the Tsaritsyno (Moscow) police division, was sentenced to life in prison in February 2010.
That killing spree only deepened the Russian public’s perception of the police force as a violent entity, increasingly inclined to taking vzyatki (bribes) instead of protecting citizens. According to an investigation in February of this year, 67% of Russians “fear” law enforcement and 77% do not feel protected in the face of the arbitrary nature of police power.
A champion of the fight against corruption, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev counter-attacked early in 2010 by ordering a wide-scale reform of the Interior Ministry to punish police officers committing crimes. One of Medvedev’s priorities was to make being an Interior Ministry employee an “aggravating criminal factor” in a crime.
Despite assurances from the government, the proposed reforms have raised concerns from human rights groups, especially over the “presumption of legality” guarantee that law enforcement would enjoy under the changes. According to Lev Ponomarev of NGO For Human Rights, “a notion such as this – the presumption of legality – exists neither in Russian law nor in international law. This sentence alone could wipe out every positive thing in this law.”
Visitors to zakonoproekt2010.ru have not wasted their new democratic tool to jump into the fray. “Why not organize elections for local police,” asked Internet user Konstantin Trunin in the website’s question forum. “We could elect the local police chief as they do in the United States,” added someone posting as sledak91. “That way, they would be motivated to stay and would work for the good of the people.”