Russia's New Police State

Russian police arrest an activist protesting restrictions on freedom of assembly. Sergey Konkov / AFP-Getty Images

Over the past year the Kremlin's biggest political headache hasn't come from the anemic political opposition; it has come instead from a groundswell of resentment against Russia's spectacularly corrupt, inept, and brutal police. A series of revelations of just how corrupt—from a police major's YouTube video about the corruption of his colleagues, to the confessions of paramilitary police officers about arrest quotas and police protection rackets—have sparked protests from a wide cross section of ordinary people. Public trust in the police has cratered; according to a recent survey by the Moscow-based Levada Center, more than 70 percent of Russians distrust all branches of law enforcement. "Russia is now one of those countries where citizens expect more unpleasantness, problems, and even criminality from the police than from actual criminals," says independent political analyst Nikolai Zlobin.

Now we have the Kremlin's response: to give the police and the Federal Security Service, or FSB, many more powers. Last month President Dmitry Medvedev made a point of publicly backing a sweeping new law that gives the FSB powers to arrest people on suspicion of planning an act "contrary to the country's security" before they have actually done anything illegal. The law also establishes fines and detentions of up to 15 days for people seen as "hindering the work of an FSB employee." The new powers given to the secret police under the new law was one of the reasons cited by presidential human-rights adviser Ella Pamfilova for her resignation last month.

On Aug. 8, the Kremlin rolled out another planned new law redefining police powers. The bill's presentation was very much in the style of the technophile Medvedev, with the proposed text posted on the Web and a commentary penned by Medvedev himself, complete with an invitation for users to comment on the details of the law before it is submitted to the Duma. Medvedev promised that the bill would "clearly define the police force's sphere of activities" and "prevent potential abuse of power."

In reality, the law would do just the opposite. Despite some clauses included at the behest of the Presidential Human Rights Commission—such as an explicit ban on torture—much of the new law would extend the police's already extensive authority. They would have almost unlimited power to stop and search people and to detain them for up to an hour just to check their documents, a reversal of the presumption of innocence enshrined in the Russian Constitution. Police can also now enter private homes without a warrant.

So instead of reforms promised by Medvedev in the wake of the scandals of the last year, the Kremlin has actually made the police and secret police stronger. The signal has already been heard loud and clear by police all over Russia: on July 31, more protesters than ever were detained in Moscow and St. Petersburg during unsanctioned "31" protests named after Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which supposedly guarantees freedom of assembly. Videos of police beating demonstrators, pulling their hair, and punching women in the face have caused an uproar on the Russian Web and the most strongly worded protest from the White House in years—all roundly ignored by the Kremlin. Instead, it is systematically (and with the full support of Medvedev, apparently) rebuilding the foundations of a police state.

With Anna Nemtsova in Moscow