Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 1

Changes in Russia’s law enforcement agencies

By Stanislav Lunev

The crime wave that has hit Russia in recent years is threatening the structure of the state itself. This is the opinion of none other than President Boris Yeltsin, in his September 24, 1997, address to the upper house of the Russian parliament. Press reports on the situation in the Urals city of Leninsk-Kuznetsky showed, Yeltsin said, that organized criminal groups were striving to participate in the country’s political life in ways that would only benefit criminals. (1)

Yeltsin was referring to the series of investigative reports that had appeared in the newspaper Izvestia. (2) Izvestia’s reporters had established that the mayor of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, a city with a population of 140,000, was a convicted criminal who had organized contract killings, usurped power, and criminalized the city administration. According to the newspaper, "The fact that the Russian criminal class longs for power is no secret. The leaders of Russia’s criminal world are solidly entrenched as aides to deputies of the State Duma and in the entourages of top government officials. On the one hand, banditry is gradually turning into terrorism. On the other, organized crime is digging ever deeper into the political establishment."

This is made possible, Izvestia reported, by loopholes in Russian legislation that enable someone with a criminal record to hold any government office, up to the very highest. The situation is exacerbated by corruption at virtually every level of government, and by the helplessness of the law enforcement agencies, which are intimidated by the gangland bosses and have no hope of backing from the state.

President Yeltsin returned to the issue of crime in one of his weekly radio broadcasts. In his words, the country "faces a very dangerous phenomenon, when criminal elements are striving to worm their way into the government in search of easy money." Yeltsin said that, according to information from the Interior Ministry (MVD), "a criminal group was recently liquidated in the city of Zlatoust in Chelyabinsk Oblast, headed by a deputy of the Oblast Duma, which had been involved in kidnappings, extortion, robbery and even, the investigators believe, contract murders. The deputy who led the group had struck up friendships with Chechen terrorists who were being treated in one of the oblast’s rest homes, so that they could get their strength and health back for new ‘military exploits’ under the deputy’s protection. And, as they say, they lived to fight another day!" (3)

It is hard to disagree with the Russian president’s last statement, but his assertions that criminals are trying to worm themselves into relatively low (district) level of state and other posts are less persuasive. In fact, there are well-known cases in which representatives of the criminal world are present in the highest government posts, in the country’s highest legislative body, and in the upper echelons of the law enforcement agencies themselves, that is, in the very institutions that are called upon to fight crime. For example, former acting Prosecutor General Aleksei Ilyushenko and Chief Military Inspector General Konstantin Kobets — the people whose job it was to fight crime in the country and in the military — are both currently behind bars and under investigation on suspicion of involvement on criminal activity.

The low level of success in the activity of the Russian MVD and other Russian law enforcement agencies — or, to put it more simply, their inactivity — is no great surprise. These agencies, which have received privileges of which the USSR’s MVD and KGB could only dream, have issued strings of reports about how they have solved simple crimes of an individual character. But they have proved absolutely helpless in their attempts to curtail the activity of true mafia structures, which are already exerting a decisive influence on political and economic life in Russia.

Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov scared the public when he announced, at a press briefing at the MVD on June 17, 1997, that 9,000 organized criminal groups are active in Russia and that their ranks include about 100,000 criminals. Just last year, over 20,000 crimes, ranging from serious to extremely serious, were attributed to this criminal horde. Yet General Kulikov’s agency can boast of no special success in the fight against organized crime. Meanwhile, the crime rate in Russia continues to rise, spreading out of the country into other countries in virtually all continents. And this has taken place while the rights and privileges of the MVD apparatus have expanded.

As Ogonek magazine has reported, the Russian MVD has dozens of directorates which, in one way or another, are involved in the life of every citizen — from holders of passports and driving licenses to criminals and their victims. The MVD has its own army — the internal troops, which include everything from armor and aviation units to special forces, whose numbers approach and may even exceed those of the Defense Ministry’s Ground Troops. The MVD has its own line in the state budget, which envisions an increase in funding for the ministry, while the minister himself holds cabinet rank as deputy prime minister. (4)

Ogonek describes today’s MVD as a state within a state, which no one can apparently touch. Yet the number of reported crimes in Russia, just for last year, was 2.6 million, and, what is most striking, the MVD itself predicts that the crime rate will be the same in the year 2000. It is unclear, therefore, how the agency responsible for reducing the crime rate plans to fight against organized crime in coming years.

Ogonek reports moreover that the number of employees in Russia’s law enforcement agencies has inexorably increased throughout the 1990s, and is now roughly equal to the number of crimes committed in the country. In other words, for every crime committed in the country there is one law-enforcement official. Of course, no one will ever succeed in eradicating crime completely. It is nonetheless a strange army that does not even plan for victory over the enemy. But that is exactly what the case with Russia’s MVD.

One may ask whether the country needs a law enforcement agency that appears not even to be thinking about victory in the fight against crime: an agency that is unable to gather evidence against criminals that will stand up in court, but which has created a horde of "special" detachments whose agents cover their faces with masks and raid markets, cafes and offices, destroying everything in their path and beating guilty and innocent alike. Meanwhile, the press reports that twelve agents of the St. Petersburg Regional Anti-Organized Crime Directorate [RUOP], are constantly busy guarding the head of the local MVD chief, Mr. Ponidenko and his wife, who is the director of the city’s branch of Most-Bank.

The fact that Russia is already on its fifth anti-crime drive in five years suggests a certain absence of imagination on the part of the MVD leadership. The idea behind the latest plan is the same as that of earlier programs — increasing the number of law enforcement bodies, their staff and their powers.

There are already, however, a dozen such organizations, and their relation to each other is quite peculiar. For example, the Anti-Organized Crime Directorate is not subordinate to the Criminal Investigation Department. The Tax Police are not subordinate to the Tax Inspectorate. And the departments on economic crime are not linked to either the Anti-Organized Crime Directorate, or the Criminal Investigation Department, or the Tax Police. It is not unknown for several bodies to be working on the same criminal case without being aware of each other’s involvement. After all, these are complex crimes: when organized criminal groups sell narcotics and invest the profits in various shady deals, they do not scruple physically to eliminate their competitors and they certainly do not pay taxes on their ill-gotten gains. Such complexity is fertile ground for interdepartmental turf battles.

As for the MVD’s internal troops, which are roughly equal in number to the regular army, the situation is equally complicated. The history of the 101st MVD Brigade bears this out. The brigade was set up as an elite detachment of the internal troops especially for military operations in Chechnya. After the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya, the brigade was supposed to have stayed in Grozny as "the guarantor of constitutional order." (5)

At the whim of the politicians, the 101st Brigade was withdrawn in haste from Grozny to Stavropol, where, in February 1997, it was left to freeze in the snow in a tent city. Soldiers and officers were forced to beg to keep from freezing to death or dying of starvation. They survived last winter thanks only to the assistance of the local inhabitants, who brought the soldiers food and warm clothes. More than 500 soldiers went AWOL and returned home complaining not only of hunger and humiliation but also of punishments such as being thrown into a pit of water in the February cold and of regular beatings.

The State Duma’s Security Committee has recently drafted a blueprint for reforming Russia’s law enforcement agencies. This proceeds from three assumptions which have been proven by life: (a) that the practice of fighting crime by increasing the number of law enforcement bodies is not effective; (b) that chaos reigns within the MVD and (c) that the MVD is no more capable than any other agency of reforming itself and needs a push from outside. An upcoming interagency session of the Security Council is expected to discuss this draft, as is the Russian government. (6)

As Russian Public Television has commented, it is not surprising that the new stage of the fight against crime initiated by President Yeltsin has elicited a contradictory response. (7) There have been many anti-crime campaigns, but all have been hampered by the simple fact that no one knows how to fight organized crime. Instead of serious work, officials prod the president into making political decisions such as his notorious Decree on the Fight Against Banditry, which empowered the police to arrest citizens and hold them for 30 days without pressing charges. Cells in pre-trial detention centers were filled to overflowing until Yeltsin was finally shamed into revoking the unconstitutional decree.

Now, Russian Public Television asserts, Russia is in a new stage. Following Izvestia’s exposes of life in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, the MVD is determined to prove that it is earning its keep. According to Sergei Shashurin, a deputy from Tatarstan with three prior convictions of his own, the police should be looking for bandits not in the State Duma, but in the MVD itself. He claims he knew former interior minister Viktor Yerin back when, as a captain, he was selling narcotics and making his way up the ladder by arresting other people for doing the same. According to Shashurin, Yerin’s successor Kulikov did the same thing. If one takes Shashurin’s words seriously, ORT commented, his accusations should be investigated, since former interior minister Yerin is now deputy director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service and the interior minister holds the post of deputy premier. But, the television company went on, there is a serious danger that the fight against crime will take on a political character. If the MVD was given the power to decide not only who should hold mayoral office but who should be in the Duma, by the year 2000 the president will be elected, not by the people, but by the collegium of the MVD.

This last statement, made on Russian television, was meant as a joke. But the extent to which organized crime has already sunk its tentacles into the country’s political, economic and social life is no laughing matter.


1. Itar-Tass, September 24, 1997

2. Izvestia, September 17, 18 and 19, 1997. For further details on Yeltsin’s reaction to the Leninsk-Kuznetsky scandal, see Monitor, September 23, 1997

3. Radio Russia, September 26, 1997. For more details, see Monitor, December 24, 1997

4. Ogonek, No. 35, 1997

5. Ogonek, No. 47, 1997

6. Ogonek, No. 35, 1997

7. ORT, September 26, 1997

Translated by Mark Eckert

Stanislav Lunev was formerly a colonel in Soviet military intelligence [GRU].


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