Police in Russia have long had a reputation for three things: bribery, cruelty and ineptitude. Now the government is determined to change that image by teaching police that taking drugs or bribes or befriending criminals are probably all bad ideas. At a time when protests are breaking out across the country over Moscow's handling of the financial crisis, the Ministry of Internal Affairs says it has drawn up a new code of conduct for the police and will distribute it to every officer by the end of 2009. The aim: to turn Russia's police into polished professionals.
The code goes into striking detail on how officers should behave both in public and private. Police, it says, should avoid casinos, "indiscriminate sex" and "questionable relationships with people with negative public reputations such as criminals." Drinking on duty, talking on cell phones on public transport, using drugs, offering or accepting bribes and engaging in "gross jokes and wicked irony" are also out. (See 10 things to do in Moscow.)
The new code was instituted after Rashid Nurgaliyev, head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, admitted that police have a "sometimes boorish attitude" toward citizens, and that the "moral education" of his officers "is far from ideal," Russian news agency Interfax reported.
Those who break the code will be "morally responsible to society, fellow officers and their conscience," reads the code, but they could also lose their job or face criminal charges a nod to the ongoing anticorruption campaign championed by President Dmitri Medvedev.
Russia is currently 147th in Transparency International's annual corruption survey, alongside Syria, Kenya and Bangladesh. A recent poll by the independent Levada Center, meanwhile, found that while 85% of respondents believe officers do their job satisfactorily or very well, the majority also see the police as part of "repressive structures." (See pictures of London's police on duty.)
"For us, the code is good support," says Viktor Sipailo, a department head in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, reported Interfax. "This is one of the preventative measures for dealing with personnel. It is a way to once again put employees in a framework."
But not all officers are as enthusiastic about the new rules. "The code was developed by people who know nothing about operations, the exposing of crimes and the identification and arrest of criminals," wrote one officer on UVO.su, an online police forum. "The code was written hastily and is unwise. Many are opposed to it."
Another officer, displaying some of that "wicked irony" in a forum on Police-Russia.ru, wrote that if police have to put up with all of the illegal things Russians do, then "we should create an analogous code for citizens."
But many outside the force think the code is a step in the right direction. "Right now there is no law saying that police officers have to be modest and respectful. The new code fulfills this need," says Yevgeny Vyshenkov, deputy head of the Agency of Journalistic Investigations and a former St. Petersburg police detective. "But with it, we are not talking about law; we are talking about ethics, so it still leaves much room for improvement." (See pictures of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's patriotic youth camp.)
And that room for improvement seems to encompass the entirety of Russian society, says Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Russia office. "They have realized that if the police force, the army and the judiciary are not reformed, then the whole country is going to collapse."
Some of the new rules are "obvious," Lokshina says, but it is "still important to have them laid out on paper. The code demonstrates that law enforcement and the state acknowledge that there are problems. At the same time, the new code won't mean anything unless it is effectively enforced. If there is a strong will, some very complicated changes could be introduced quickly and effectively."
The Russian media regularly publishes reports of incompetence, corruption and brutality stories of police following no code at all. On International Women's Day, the press reported a story of an officer getting drunk at a precinct house in western Moscow and chopping off the hand of a junior officer with an ax. It was reported that the officer was fired, though the matter was hushed up and it is unlikely he will face time in prison.
More seriously, the unsolved murders of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human-rights lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova as well as the recent shootings of Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev and Umar Israilov enemies of Kremlin-supported Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and the poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 point to a rule of lawlessness rather than the growing influence of a new code of professional behavior.