Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Concern at Kazak Police Reforms

Sweeping changes in the internal affairs ministry prompt worries over new police powers.
By Roman Sadanov

A restructuring of the Kazak internal affairs ministry has given the police force greater powers to prevent crimes and arrest offenders, to the dismay of many residents.

The ministry said that the main changes – which involve the current district inspectors being replaced by sheriffs – were necessary to improve the efficiency of the service and tighten security.

But residents fear that the new system could lead to abuses of power and fuel a climate of suspicion.

The sheriffs who replace the district policemen will be expected to concentrate on crime prevention, which will require them to gather information on local people – such as youngsters with drug problems and families affected by domestic violence.

They will also be expected to keep a sharp eye out for strangers on their patch, as Kazakstan is a major transit route for drugs and people traffickers and is on high alert for religious extremists.

Under the reforms, the sheriffs will keep their positions for life, unlike the district inspectors, who are obliged to retire at forty-five. In addition, they will be given a state apartment, which after ten years will become their own.

The sheriffs - who are to be chosen by the communities they serve - will have more powers than the district inspectors, allowing them to arrest people indiscriminately.

Many Kazaks fear that this expansion of police authority is almost certain to lead to a rise in police informants.

Astana resident Viktor Serikov believes the new system will only result in a culture of suspicion, with neighbours denouncing one another to the authorities.

“Neighbours often dislike each other,” he told IWPR. “Policemen may exploit this and encourage people to report to them if they see something. Residents may slander people who they simply don’t like.

“And if sheriffs can arrest anyone indiscriminately, then soon half the residents will end up behind the bars.”

District inspectors considered for the sheriff positions will undergo specialist training, however there are concerns that it won’t be sufficient.

“If we cannot get a proper training to carry out all the new responsibilities they want us to fulfil, then we are unlikely to cope with them,” said one inspector, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Pensioner Andrei Ivanovich feels that the idea of inspectors being elected by the people they will serve is a good one, but suspects the process will not turn out to be fair.

“We are used to always being told who must protect us, and I fear that if we were to elect the wrong person – not the candidate the authorities favour – that we would incur their wrath, “ he said.

“Such fears could well prevent us from choosing a person who really deserves to hold this post.”

Analysts and politicians alike have also voiced concern over the changes. Parliamentary deputy Sergei Diachenko warned against introducing reforms “for the sake of it”, and believes that steps have to be taken to limit corruption in the police force first.

“It is not a secret that we have high levels of corruption in the internal affairs agencies, from the central administration down,” he claimed.

Roman Sadanov is the pseudonym for a journalist in Astana.