Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Beyond Corruption: An Assessment of Russian Law Enforcement's Fight against Human Trafficking

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Beyond Corruption: An Assessment of Russian Law Enforcement's Fight against Human Trafficking

Article excerpt

Abstract: In recent years, Russia has been dealing with a serious human trafficking issue. Russian law enforcement's perceived failure to effectively prosecute traffickers is often blamed on corruption and their efforts have been criticized by domestic and foreign actors alike. This article explores human trafficking in the context of the criminal justice system as a whole, examining the incentives and disincentives that Russian law enforcement agencies have for enforcing anti-trafficking laws. Analysis reveals that poor performance is not due solely to corruption or disinterest in human trafficking. Structural impediments combined with problems specific to the antitrafficking law have made it more likely that they will use other parts of the Criminal Code to prosecute traffickers instead of the laws specific to trafficking.

Keywords: corruption, criminal justice system, human trafficking, law enforcement, police, Russia


Over the past two decades, human trafficking has become an increasingly serious problem for Russia. Because it has been framed as a manifestation of transnational organized crime, law enforcement has the primary role in making sure that traffickers are found and punished. Russia's performance in dealing with the problem, however, has been roundly criticized by domestic and foreign actors alike. As of October 2007--despite the December 2003 passage of a law criminalizing human trafficking--of the over 350 cases of human trafficking registered under the new law, only 10 of them had been brought to court. (1)

Scholars and policymakers have identified a number of causes for Russia's poor performance, but corruption almost always appears near the top of the list. (2) Though corruption is certainly a contributing factor to the spread and persistence of human trafficking in Russia, it does not fully explain Russian law enforcement's behavior. It does not, for example, explain why a non-corrupt law enforcement agent might choose not to pursue a human trafficking case when the evidence seems to clearly indicate trafficking. To understand this situation, it is important to look at human trafficking in the context of the criminal justice system as a whole.

I argue that the basic structure of law enforcement creates a series of barriers that deters prosecution of many crimes in Russia. Investigative and prosecutorial functions are strictly separated, creating a situation in which no one can take "ownership" of a case and see it through to completion. The process is further complicated by a system of career advancement that relies heavily on the number of cases cleared, leading law enforcement agents to fear anything that is new and unfamiliar to them. As a new crime, human trafficking presents its own set of challenges. It requires law enforcement to learn new techniques for dealing with witnesses who are also victims. It also requires that they learn strategies for how to apply the new law effectively.

In this article, I examine how Russian law enforcement implemented the human trafficking law from its initial passage in December 2003 until an amendment was made in November 2008. The amendment was a relatively minor change to the wording of the law but was a response to law enforcement complaints about why they could not do more. (3) It therefore provides a convenient stopping point to analyze the first four years of law enforcement practice and a starting point for future analysis of improvements.

The data for this project come from eleven months of fieldwork in Russia as a Fulbright scholar (September 2007 to July 2008) and a trip for follow-up data collection in the summer of 2009. In-depth research into law enforcement practices in Russia is relatively rare since law enforcement agencies continue to operate in a non-transparent fashion and are reluctant to open up their practices to scrutiny by outsiders. This is especially true of an issue like human trafficking, which has garnered widespread international attention largely because of law enforcement's failure to act. …

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