Russia scraps Soviet name for despised police force

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Russia renamed its bloated and underpaid police force on Tuesday as part of a Kremlin drive to clean up the service, notorious for its rampant corruption and brutality.

Established by the Bolsheviks during the October 1917 revolution, the Russian police has until been known as the "militisya", or militia.

But President Dmitry Medvedev signed a flurry of decrees Tuesday formally renaming the service as the "politsiya", or police, and ordering a 20-percent reduction in the number of officers by the end of the year.

The measures are designed to improve both the image and morale of a service that is notorious in Russia for its penchant for bribe-taking and overseeing many of the mafia rackets it is supposed to fight.

"This is a solid package of documents," Medvedev said during a meeting with Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev.

"Now go to work," Medvedev ordered.

A bill introducing the changes was approved in the final reading by Russia's parliament last month.

But the changes have been pilloried as just cosmetic by Russian rights groups and opposition members who see the police as a little more than a state-sponsored criminal gang.

The force must cut its numbers to 1.1 million officers by next January and order some of its most senior commanders to undergo rigorous new assessment tests.

The slim-down is accompanied by pay increases that are meant to attract more qualified personnel who might otherwise find work in the private sector.

Russia is also designing a new police uniform that more resembles the one worn by the tsarist service and eliminating the word militia from all police cars and other insignia.

Perhaps surprisingly, the changes have proved remarkably unpopular with Russians, despite their fabled derision for the police force.

An opinion poll cited by Expert magazine showed that 65 percent of the respondents would prefer to see the police keep its old name, with only 18 percent backing the changes.

In a sceptical reaction, 85 percent said the name change would not make the police any more effective or less corrupt.

© 2011 AFP

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