Putin's State-Building Project: The Case of Law Enforcement
"When Vladimir Putin came to office, his central priority was strengthening the state," said Brian Taylor, assistant professor, Department of Political Science, Syracuse University at a 23 April 2007 talk at the Kennan Institute. "In 1999-2000, the concern about the strength of the state was a real issue," he said. Taylor analyzed the relationship between the Russian state and the Russian law enforcement structures under both Yeltsin and Putin as a measure of state capacity, which he defined as "the ability of the state to ensure the reliable implementation of its decisions by its own personnel and staff." He asserted that while President Putin has succeeded in recentralizing control over law enforcement agencies, this effort has not necessarily strengthened Russia as a state.
When Putin initially came to office, Taylor said, law enforcement structures were not reliable in implementing state decisions. During the Yeltsin administration, there was a significant weakening of state control over legitimate coercion, as evidenced by the rise of the Russian mafia. According to one estimate from Russia, up to 70 percent of private enterprise in the early 1990s was protected by mafia protection rackets. Yet as the mafia's influence declined, it was not replaced by law and order. "The mafia was gradually pushed out by state coercive organizations," observed Taylor, "[which] provided protective services not as a part of their lawful job, but on the side for payment." By the late 1990s, 70 percent of private enterprise received protection from "commercialized" state coercive bodies, such as police or the FSB.
Another challenge that confronted Putin was gaining control over law enforcement structures nationwide, according to Taylor: "What happened in the 1990s is that both police and prosecutors worked largely for the interests of the local governors, and not the central ministries." Local governors would provide resources to local police and prosecutors that were supposed to come from the central government. As a result, Taylor noted, local police were "captured" by the governors.
After becoming president, Putin pledged to reverse both processes by recentralizing control over law enforcement agencies and fighting corruption. Putin's first step in reasserting central control over law enforcement was the establishment of seven federal districts, each headed by a presidential representative. This created a strong vertical structure that could monitor the compliance of regional laws to federal decrees, Taylor said. Putin employed various staffing strategies that further weakened entrenched or "captured" officials. This included bringing in federal staff from the "power ministries" to run regional organizations, rotating law enforcement administrators to different regions of Russia, and even waging public battles over staff, including a successful one against Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to select the city's chief of police. The culmination of these efforts came after the Beslan terror attack in 2004, Taylor stated, with a reform that replaced the direct election of governors with a system in which governors are appointed by the president.
The highly centralized system Putin has put into place has improved the state's ability to conduct certain actions, according to Taylor: "It is clear that the central government can mobilize large numbers of police to deal with opposition protests, or to bring criminal cases against political and economic adversaries." The police can function as a tool of foreign policy, Taylor observed, in cases such as Russia's recent dispute with Georgia. During the height of tensions, police harassment of Georgians in Moscow ranged from document checks to tax police raids. "Whether that came from the Kremlin, I don't know," said Taylor, "but certainly the police felt that they were able to engage in such an operation during this foreign policy dispute."
In terms of enforcing society's laws, Taylor continued, Russia's law enforcement structures are still very weak, both in specific and general terms. Specifically, in cases of high-profile assassinations or terrorist attacks, there are doubts about police capacity to solve or prevent such incidents. In general terms, such as fighting overall crime, the police are not sufficiently effective, as evidenced by consistently high murder rates under both Yeltsin and Putin.
Taylor questioned why law enforcement structures have not done better, given the centralization reforms that were designed to improve their effectiveness, and given the growing economy that is providing significantly greater resources to those structures. The key, he emphasized, is the "commercialization" of the enforcement structures, which was not undone by Putin's reforms. In fact, Taylor said, there is little evidence that Russia's law enforcement structures are getting any cleaner—the police remain one of most distrusted institutions in Russia.
There are both internal and external methods of monitoring law enforcement structures that can help reduce corruption, Taylor noted. External monitors—such as the media, non-governmental organizations, and opposition parties—have been consistently weakened in Russia over the last seven years, he noted. Taylor cautioned that exclusive reliance on internal monitoring and self-policing by the Russian state will make it more difficult to weed out corruption. So long as state officials are able to exploit state institutions for personal gain, he predicted, Russia will have persistent corruption and weak rule of law. "Recentralizing coercion does not reduce illegal state activity, and thus does not strengthen the state," Taylor concluded.