Moscow Bombings Could Lead to Police Reform

In the wake of last week's suicide bombings in Moscow, many Russian liberals feared that the attacks would end up strengthening Russia's security services and bolstering Putin's strong-arm policies. Instead, the violence seems to be increasing pressure for reform. Angry bloggers and newspaper commentators have blasted police for being "too busy with corruption…to do their job," as Duma Deputy Alexander Khinshtein wrote. President Dmitry Medvedev's Kremlin blog has also been inundated with posts complaining of police incompetence.

The backlash against Russia's cops should give strength to Medvedev's liberal supporters, who were already calling for deep reforms of Russia's notoriously corrupt Interior Ministry. Popular resentment against law enforcement had been building for at least a year before the attacks, thanks to a series of scandals including a supermarket shooting spree by a drunken officer; a YouTube appeal by a police major in southern Russia complaining of "pure banditry" among his colleagues; and press revelations of how paramilitary cops regularly blackmail, terrorize, and even kidnap businessmen for profit. A poll just before the bombings showed that 81 percent of Russians consider the police to be "outlaws." The outbursts of indignation since the bombings suggests that people's opinion of the police has now sunk even lower.

So far Medvedev's reform program hasn't delivered many results, but the terror attacks should accelerate things: Mikhail Grishankov, a member of Putin's United Russia party and of the Duma's security committee, claims that "20 percent of the police will be fired" and "the attacks are a good reason" to continue reforms.

Just as important, Russian officials finally seem to be coming around to the idea that the brutal methods used to pacify the North Caucasus are fueling radicalism rather than curbing it. "Young people take Kalashnikovs and go to the woods because of police violence," says Grishankov. While Medvedev publicly vowed to "eliminate" the terrorists responsible for the attacks, he also said that social and economic conditions in the North Caucasus needed to be improved. The last time Russia was hit by major bombings, it responded with vicious reprisals. The result was more violence. If Medvedev uses popular outrage this time to actually make sweeping changes--instead of merely ordering more repression--he could break the cycle of bloodshed in the Caucasus, and help Russia to boot.