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Russia: Political Environment Dooms Bid To Fight Corruption

  • Robert Coalson

http://gdb.rferl.org/38F1940F-1576-4900-A3F0-88A689B7F61A_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/38F1940F-1576-4900-A3F0-88A689B7F61A_mw800_mh600.jpg Zubkov says unprofessionalism and corruption "are capable of sinking Russia." (AFP) September 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- When Viktor Zubkov appeared before the Duma during hearings to confirm him as prime minister last week, he spoke forcefully about the need to come to grips with corruption, identifying it as an existential threat to the state.


"Unprofessionalism and corruption are capable of sinking Russia," Zubkov told deputies. He pledged redoubled efforts to combat corruption and, as the former director of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (which tracks money laundering), Zubkov seems particularly well-suited to deliver on that promise.


The public and many observers, though, remain skeptical -- and for good reason. The history of anticorruption drives stretching back deep into the Soviet era gives little cause for optimism. A poll by the Public Opinion Foundation released this week found that two-thirds of Russians believe that it is "impossible" to root out corruption in the political system. Four-fifths think that even substantial raises for public-sector workers and officials will not solve the corruption problem, while 28 percent said they had personally been affected by some form of corruption within the past year. The public, as usual, identified the police, customs officials, hospitals, prosecutors, and judges as the main loci of corruption in Russia.


The Cost Of A Ministers' Portfolio


But corruption extends to the very pinnacles of the political system. "It is known that a minister's portfolio costs as much as 10 million euros; a governor's chair, about the same; a deputy's mandate runs about 5 million," Duma Deputy Speaker and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky told "Ekspert" (No. 33). Duma Deputy Viktor Cherepkov told Regnum in May that a good place on a political party's list of candidates for the December 2 legislative elections costs $7 million, up from $3 million in the 2003 elections. Cherepkov has firsthand experience with the seamy side of Russian politics. During the 2004 mayoral campaign, he was nearly assassinated by a grenade booby trap outside his headquarters and he was later disqualified from the race by a local court, in a move that then Central Election Commission head Aleksandr Veshnyakov described as "an abuse of justice."


The Russian political system is ill-equipped for fighting corruption. The NGO Transparency International, which monitors and combats corruption around the world, notes that " corruption thrives...where institutional checks on power are missing, where decision making remains obscure, where civil society is thin on the ground." Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service this week, sociologist Georgy Satarov, director of the INDEM research group, stressed the systemic nature of the problem. "The key problem connected with the growth of corruption in Russia is the lack of control over the bureaucracy," Satarov said. He bemoaned the lack of "external mechanisms of control" over the government, the lack of "political competition, the lack of [a political] opposition, the lack of a free press, [the lack of] freely working public organizations."


Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Political Council member Boris Nemtsov also offered systemic solutions when asked by "Ekspert" how his party would attack the corruption problem, specifically proposing to roll back some of the key political innovations President Vladimir Putin has introduced in recent years while building the so-called vertical of power. Specifically, Nemtsov's recipe includes "ending censorship so people would be afraid to take bribes," "term limitations for governors -- no more than two terms," "the restoration of gubernatorial elections," and "the restoration of political competition."


'Out Of The Swamp By Its Hair'


Inasmuch as such reasonable and globally acknowledged remedies are impossible in Putin's Russia, the Kremlin is reduced to trying to contain the problem within the framework of the strictly managed system it has created. Satarov describes this colorfully as "the bureaucracy trying to pull itself out of a swamp by its hair." All the solutions on offer from Unified Russia and the government itself involve new laws, new commissions, new investigative structures -- none of which are ultimately really new.

The Russian political system is ill-equipped for fighting corruption.

The problem is further complicated because there is no line between corruption and politics in Putin's Russia. Putin himself, when accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, said the change of government -- and presumably the anticorruption bent of the new prime minister -- was driven by a need "to build a structure of power and governance that better corresponds to the preelection period." The use of law-enforcement agencies to carry out political tasks is a permanent, everyday feature of the Russian political landscape, from sending in the environmental-monitoring arm of the Natural Resources Ministry to push foreign companies out of energy projects to the mundane practice of turning off the electricity at venues where Kremlin-unfriendly organizations are meeting. In recent weeks, the Moscow city government decreed that the municipal culture commission must give permission for any demonstrations, citing the need to protect the city's thousands of historical monuments, while independent NGOs, political organizations, and media outlets in Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, and Tula have reported raids from police who have targeted them for allegedly using pirated software. Asked by "The Moscow Times" to comment on the raids, a police spokesman in Nizhny Novgorod said perhaps more than he intended: "It's standard practice."


As the current political season heats up, barely concealed efforts to shore up the power vertical have been carried out around the country under the guise of local corruption investigations. It surprised few observers that of all the mayors in Russia, the new corruption crackdown first hit Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi, who has endured various unpleasant attentions from the authorities since he declared a quixotic bid for the presidency last year. Putin launched an anticorruption campaign in 1999, shortly before his own initial presidential bid. Another campaign preceded the December 2003 Duma elections. No one will be surprised when the current focus on the corruption problem quietly fades away over the next six months, even as the problem continues to grow and to consume more and more of the country's wealth and the public's confidence.

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Russia's Battle Against Corruption

Citizens of Russia's Urals region protest against alleged corruption in connection with a proposed smelting plant on Lake Shartash (TASS)

'A NATIONAL THREAT': Russian President Vladimir Putin highlighted the crippling problem of corruption during his annual address to the Federal Assembly in May. He emphasized the damaging impact of corruption on the country's economy and pledged to rid Russia once and for all of a "serious obstacle" ...(more)


RELATED ARTICLES

Corruption And The Kondopoga Riots

Anticorruption Drive Touches The 'Untouchable' FSB

Corruption Crackdowns A Sign Of Things To Come

Prosecutor-General Steps Down

Fight Against Corruption Starts With Interior Ministry

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Putin's Secret Plan To Combat Corruption?

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ARCHIVE

RFE/RL's complete coverage of Russia.



SUBSCRIBE

For news and analysis on Russia by e-mail, subscribe to "RFE/RL Russia Report."

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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