Change which is not change

No other organisation affects our lives so much as the police. Nearly 1.4 million men and women, many of them armed, stay between the government and people. On March 1, a new law on the police, or militia as it was called just a few weeks ago, came into effect. Dr Leonid Golovko, Professor of Law of Moscow State University, talks about the new law, how it is going to change this huge and ineffective organisation and whether a Pandora’s Box has been opened.

Dr Leonid Golovko
Professor of Law of Moscow State University

This police reform is like changing the name above the door without actually moving house. There is no doubt about this. The legacy of Soviet law is, inter alia, that the functions of the police were blurred. For certain historical reasons the police undertake some judicial functions.

There was no, for instance, judicial authorization of arrests. The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Security Service - de facto the police as well – borrowed the French concept of the examining magistrate, which is a less ostentatious flaw but still a flaw. All those things are embedded deeply in the contemporary Russian and, before that, Soviet criminal process.

There were hopes that the reform would remove powers the police ought not to have.

The police now do many things they should not: for instance, they give a legal qualification to what happened and apply the so-called ‘other preventive measures’ (in the U.K this is called ‘bail’). They do it, not a judge, and this is quite odd.

There was hope that the police would be stripped of powers they should not possess, and those functions should be returned to prosecutors and, above all, to courts.

There was hope too that there would be an understanding that the police are not only the Interior Ministry, but also the Federal Security Service, the Federal Drug Control Service and the Investigative Committee, which is now being created. That is, the police are primarily a function that could be distributed among various agencies, not just a single organisation. But this did not happen.

What happened is that the new law is based on the Soviet understanding of the police, militia, with some minor amendments. In fact, this was simply a change of name with a few positive but technical modifications. And this is presented as a fundamental reform. The main question, what the police actually are, was not answered. And so, in my opinion, this reform has not succeeded.

And it could not have succeeded because it had been prepared by the agency that was to be reformed. The Ministry of Internal Affairs prepared the new law and the last thing it wanted was to lose its power. In essence, the reform was an attempt to do something to appease the public demand for change, but in fact to do nothing.

Taking into account the personalities of the reformers, I do not think they consider this law as an intermediate phase which will be followed by second and third phases. Still, they opened this Pandora's Box and the reform will go ahead, even against the will of the reformers.

Even a simple renaming gives something. For example, a year ago I had a hard time explaining to my students what the police are because there was this notion does not exist. Now, as a representative of academia, I can build this theory, even against the will of the reformers. And a set of objective tendencies like that will push the system in the right direction.

Yet I have no reason to believe that there is a phased plan for reform and that plan lies on someone’s desk in some office.

In addition, in Russia police theory is essentially unknown. When a student approaches me and asks me to recommend a book on the theory of the police, there is nothing I can recommend. In this situation, the reformers might lack a sense of perspective.

And of course, any reform would mean a reduction in police powers, and they are not ready for this.