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Would Putin Have Done Better in Ferguson?

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The Russian state propaganda machine is full of schadenfreude about the Ferguson events. After all, it's a very post-Soviet kind of story: Cop kills underprivileged local, gets off scot free, people riot. Can the U.S., with all its raw power and all its pride in the fairness of public institutions, do a better job of handling the protests than President Vladimir Putin or ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych would? 

Ukraine's Ferguson test took place in June 2013 in the southern town of Vradievka. Two cops raped and nearly killed a local woman. Although citizens were convinced of their guilt, police and the local prosecutor's office attempted a cover-up, faking medical evidence and trying to silence witnesses. Only after locals stormed the Vradievka police station was the main suspect arrested and a few of his superiors fired. In late November 2013, Captain Yevhen Dryzhak was sentenced to 15 years in prison. It was too late. Ukrainians felt the entire law enforcement system was to blame for what had happened. Their anger helped fuel protests against President Yanukovych's corrupt regime, and they fought with police as though the latter were an occupying force.

Russia had a Ferguson moment at about the same time, in July 2013. In the town of Pugachev near the Volga River city of Saratov, a Chechen youth stabbed a local to death in a fight over a girl. The following day, locals unhappy with perceived police inaction descended on an area where Chechens lived. Residents took to the central square and blocked a major highway near Pugachev, demanding that all Chechens be sent out of town. Shaken out of their stupor, Saratov and Moscow officials went into action. They provided local rioters with free buses back to town, fired the police chief, halted alcohol sales, sent about 2,000 peacekeepers into the town of 41,000, isolated local nationalist leaders and sent out-of-town agitators home. They also co-opted Pugachev veterans' organizations -- which had stood up for the murder victim, an ex-paratrooper -- into patrolling the town alongside police. A number of top officials visited Pugachev to make promises and appeals for calm. Police arrested two alleged accomplices in addition to the suspected killer. Nine days later, even the shouting was over.

"Many, and not just nationalists, wrote on the social networks that Pugachev would be 'just the beginning' and 'a lesson to the authorities,'" Yevgeny Yershov wrote on Polit.ru. "It's not clear what that lesson might be: The authorities, as we can see, are doing pretty well. Half a dozen orders, a dozen trips by officials and a few hundred cops easily reduced a local riot to nothing in just a few days."

Russian authorities used both the stick -- the quickly increased police presence and the alcohol ban -- and the carrot. Removing the police chief (something the Ukrainian authorities also did in Vradievka) was only the beginning. Counterintelligence officers talked to the Chechen diaspora, persuading the elders to send the most defiant youths out of town for a while, and they worked with the local veterans, allowing them to feel included in resolving the conflict. The repressive Putin regime made sure the Pugachev situation would not turn into a case of "us versus them."

Both in Vradievka and Pugachev, a lot of the evidence that got locals so excited was as vague and contradictory as in the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Yet the authorities realized that reconciliation was, in a way, more important than establishing the truth. That's not how the U.S. handled Ferguson. Mayor James Knowles and Police Chief Thomas Jackson still have their jobs, and officer Darren Wilson, who shot Brown, was not indicted. That may be because the U.S. system is rule-based, creating a buffer against populist decisions. Still, the lack of compromise send the people of Ferguson a message that they're dealing with a hostile government, which doesn't want to recognize that black people face a disproportionately high risk of police brutality.

Not surprisingly, the Putin propaganda machine is celebrating the contrast between the U.S. and Russian approaches. "Almost four months ago there were pogroms in Ferguson, too -- the first wave of popular anger after the murder of Michael Brown," state-owned Channel One's Yevgeny Zavadsky reported. "Then, the authorities barely managed to get the situation under control. Rubber bullets, truncheons and tear gas helped. However, now it looks as though it won't be possible to pacify rioting America by force alone."

Putin's prescriptions did not work in Ukraine, and they may someday fail in Russia, too. Still, the Russian regime would not be as stable and popular as it is now if it did not combine brute force with successful attempts at co-option and inclusion. It's a side of things that the authorities in Ferguson have neglected, to the detriment of their entire nation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net