Why you should care
Who wants to be stopped by the cops in Russia?
In Russia, surprising statistics aren’t too hard to come by. Take, for instance, this one: Josef Stalin, the murderous Soviet dictator who sent millions of his compatriots to labor camps, was recently voted the most “outstanding” figure in Russian history. That’s a long story. But here’s another somewhat startling figure that suggests the police state in Russia is alive and well:
Police searches have increased by more than 40 percent in the past decade.
That’s according to statistics from Russia’s Supreme Court. Russia’s famously corrupt cops have long used a variety of dubious ways to get what they need from suspects, whether it’s planting evidence or inventing other reasons to barge into homes. Now, though, they’re apparently starting to follow the rules. Mark Galeotti, a security expert and senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, says the uptick indicates police are relying more often on bureaucracy — rather than on corruption or strong-arming suspects — to wield their considerable powers. “In some ways,” Galeotti says, “it’s actually a step forward when they require paperwork to do it.”
That Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian country under Vladimir Putin would be the most logical explanation.
But why bother sticking to the rulebook in a country that ranks 131 out of 176 in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index? The answer might be deceptively simple: Because it’s become easier. Kirill Titaev, a senior researcher at the European University at St. Petersburg, says investigators have had more than a decade to adapt to new procedures for securing court orders to conduct searches. When those rules were first introduced, “investigators were cautious and preferred, wherever possible, not to make use of this instrument,” he says.
That Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian country under Vladimir Putin would be the most logical explanation for this seemingly disturbing trend. Especially since Putin’s return to the Kremlin for a third term in 2012, authorities have cracked down on virtually all forms of political and civic opposition. The Kremlin has also promoted a state-sanctioned version of patriotism that casts critics of government policy as “traitors.”
For any autocrat, deploying your law enforcement organs to help with your dirty work is always an obvious choice. Most recently, police have hassled a variety of opposition-minded activists and other public figures by conducting searches at their homes or offices. Among the victims have been prominent anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, as well as veteran human rights defender Zoya Svetova.
But those are high-profile targets that make headlines. In reality, Titaev adds, politically motivated cases actually represent a tiny portion of all registered crimes in Russia. Of the estimated 1 million cases that pass through Russian courts each year, he says, only around 500 are qualified as “nonviolent hate crimes” — that includes extremism, a charge often leveled against political opponents.
The changing nature of crime has also played an important role. Whereas a decade ago, robbery and other petty crimes were much more commonplace, today’s preferred criminal activities include white-collar crimes and other kinds of fraud. Narcotics is a booming industry too, thanks in no small part to Russia’s proximity to Central Asia. According to Titaev, these are all crimes in which police searches are more crucial to cracking the case. “The law enforcement system has reoriented itself to investigate crimes that more often require searches,” he says.
That’s not to say we should celebrate Russia’s police force, still a key instrument — however statistically minor — of repression. But next time they come knocking on your door, at least they’ll have a court order in hand.