If it’s broke, rebrand it. Russia’s answer to everything?

Posted on 8 March 2011


Might we finally see the back of these horrendous militia caps?

On 1 March this year a new law came into force in Russia. It’s got bloggers and Twits there abuzz. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it.

Russia has started implementing the much-publicised change in legislation that will see the country’s law enforcement agency renamed as the “police” (полиция) instead of the “militia” (милиция).

The whole affair has been called a lot of things, from a “vacuous facelift” to a “waste of money”, and worse.

If you’ve been to Russia you’ll know that the militsionery there more often than not look like bored, snotty teenagers with oversized hats and far too much power for their own good.

It’s no secret that they are largely corrupt, and will take bribes for pretty much anything.

Дать на лапу (‘putting it in the paw’) is thoroughly engrained in the country’s militia culture, and not only there, of course.

That said, I find it difficult to judge them too harshly. Their salaries are less-than-measly and I think most of them could barely even imagine it a different way: it’s part of the system, a vicious cycle.

For all these reasons, they do not command the respect of the public – who either fear them or simply treat them with contempt.

So this new piece of legislation – changing just two little Russian letters – ми- (mi-) to по- (po-) – is being treated with a pretty healthy dose of scepticism. The other day I spoke to the former head of the Moscow militia – he said it had no chance of changing anything.

Others – mainly officials – are asking people to bear with them, as in their words, “if things go to plan, it’ll be more than just a rebranding exercise”, their point being that police forces around the world have to swear by and uphold far more rigorous human rights than any militia – and the Russians will have to sign up to this.

The main differences – as I understand it – have to do with the treatment of their ‘clients’ – the people who come to them for help, and the people they have to deal with as a consequence of that.

Every member of the serving, on-the-street militia will be rehired once they’ve successfully gone through “re-attestation”. There will be a new uniform, new branding on their cars and a new code of conduct.

But the management structure remains in place. So is it just a facelift at the sharp end of the force? As they say, “рыба гниет с головы” – a fish rots from the head.

Georgia got shiny new police-branded cars

Former Soviet neighbours Georgia and Armenia, for example, have already undergone this mi-to-po transformation.

In Georgia at least, it has been largely successful. The newly-formed police have apparently gained the respect of the public, thanks mainly to a closer relationship with them and by (allegedly) removing the culture of corruption from the system. You can even now be fined for offering a bribe.

In terms of what awaits the new police force in Russia, here’s what someone on the BBC Russian forum had to say:

Of course you can call the militia the police. Just as you can call a Tu-134 a Boeing, a Zhiguli a Porsche, etc. After all, they call Medvedev a president…

The last point the forumchanin makes is perhaps Russia’s biggest single rebranding exercise of the first decade of the 21st century: Putin to Medvedev.

Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has on countless occasions been referred to as a rebranding of then-President now-PM Vladimir Putin. His bedside manner is a little less scary; he has a slightly less vicious way with words, but is still very much on the ball – just as his mentor and predecessor (and quite possibly his successor, too).

But as with the new police force in Russia – he’s seen as the same-old with a new lick of paint.

Putin himself was probably meant to be a younger, more in-control rebranding of Yeltsin, but as we all know – this didn’t exactly go to plan.

But one of the most endlessly rebranded organisations in Russia is their counterintelligence service.

The infamous Soviet-era KGB (КГБ – Committee for State Security) was rebranded in 1991, when it became the FSK (ФСК – Federal Counterintelligence Service) and then later today’s FSB (ФСБ – Federal Security Service).

But they’d done it just a few times before.

Since 1917, when it was called Cheka (Чека – hence the slang term chekisty for the police today), the renaming, downgrading, re-upgrading and general rebranding of what’s now the FSB has happened no fewer than ten times – variously being called the OGPU, NKGB and MGB.

Between 1941 and 1951 it was rebranded five of those ten times. Nothing like a fresh start!

But what actually changed? It appears – to the outsider at least, and probably to those who end up on the wrong side of it – to be the same murky organisation, with the same unflinching exterior.

By the way, Belarus is still perfectly happy with its KGB. Nothing’s changed, and they don’t plan on forking out to cover that up.

Russia certainly seems to be vaguely obsessed with rebranding – ребрендинг (rebrending) – whether it be the national police force, the state savings bank Sberbank, Aeroflot (no new planes, just new paint), the nation’s railways, or – another classic – the country’s road patrols.

Russia doesn't want another unsuccessful rebranding fiasco, as with the country's road patrols

It’s enough just to utter the word “gaíshnik” (ГАИшник – from the old name for Russia’s traffic police ГАИ – GAIState Automobile Inspectorate) to make most Russians mutter unspeakables under their breath.

The traffic police were renamed the ГИБДД (GIBDD State Inspection for Road Traffic Safety) in the early 90s. Unsuccessfully.

They are still know unofficially and officially as the GAI, (although the GIBDD abbreviation still stands alongside it).

As the GAI touch people’s lives day-in day-out, it was easy to see that their behaviour remained exactly the same. A leopard can’t change its spots, etc.

The Russian authorities will doubtless be hoping this will not happen with the mi-to-po change, which itself will allegedly cost around 500 million roubles (over £10 million).

As a delightful tangent…

The expression “to brand someone a…” is likely, I think, to come from the mediæval Russian practice of literally branding – like with a cow, i.e. burning – someone’s neck if they were a regular alcoholic.

This is why in Russian you can flick your neck with your finger to euphemistically replace phrases like “drunk”, “booze-up”. For example, “Last night we got a bit *flick neck*”. Try it. It’s fun! And confuses non-Russians!

End of delightful tangent.

Russia clearly isn’t alone with this fix-all approach to rebranding failing institutions or figures, but while it employs the practice so widely, the idea of actually fixing the problem will be swept further under the carpet.

But the main thing that desperately needs rebranding is the image of the country as a whole. Otherwise Russia, with its one-trick-pony of an economy, is going to suffer greatly in the years to come.

Quite how this can be achieved is likely to start with replacing the head of that rotting fish.


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