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Russia: Analysis From Washington--The Many Faces Of Corruption

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 11 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin has now acknowledged what many observers had long ago concluded: corruption in its various forms threatens to destroy all the progress countries emerging from communism have made up to now.

In a radio address to the Russian people on Thursday, Yeltsin said that corruption had become so pervasive in recent years that it has reduced the "prestige of state power," made it more difficult to maintain public order, and indeed "threatens the very security of Russia."

The Russian president suggested that many Russians still define corruption only in terms of "bribe-taking and embezzlement of public funds."

But in fact, he said, it includes a broader range of activities, such as "conspiracy, forgery, mutual protection and many other forms of abuse of office."

And because the forms of corruption are so varied, Yeltsin argued, the responses to it must be equally diverse. No one method will work, he said, not even the traditional application of "punitive measures."

Instead, the Russian government and the Russian people must fundamentally change the way they view and conduct public business. Yeltsin suggested five specific measures that he urged both the state and its population to take.

First, he called for the elimination of what he said were "unwarranted tax and customs privileges, which create conditions for an alliance between officials and business people."

Such arrangements inevitably corrupt both, Yeltsin said, adding that those involved "forget what it means to work properly."

Second, he urged greater media scrutiny of everything that government officials do. He noted that in most parts of Russia outside of Moscow, officials keep their doors closed.

And without the restraints of exposure, these officials inevitably "spend public funds for purposes other than those for which they were intended."

Yeltsin pointedly suggested that such waste, fraud and abuse was a primary reason why "pensions, allowances, and wages are not paid on time."

Third, Yeltsin said that as of May 1, he would order that all government purchases of goods and services be made through competitive bidding.

Such an arrangement, the Russian president said, would "eliminate a loophole for the overstatement of prices during the distribution of state orders."

Fourth, he called for a fundamental change in "the mentality of public servants." Such people "should set an example of honor and service to the fatherland for the public."

To that end, Yeltsin said that he had ordered the drafting of a code of ethics for government workers and would seek to reform the current system of training for the personnel of government agencies. And he said he would seek to cut the number of government employees as well.

Finally, he called on the Russian people to change their attitude toward corruption. The Russian people must no longer view corruption as the normal way of doing business; they must become actively hostile to it.

If they do, Yeltsin concluded, "people will be afraid to misappropriate public funds and take bribes." And as a result, they will achieve "our eventual victory over corruption."

Everything Yeltsin said about Russia could be said to a greater or lesser degree about all other post-communist countries.

And just like Russia, they face a hydra-headed challenge, one currently far beyond the capacity of their governments or their legal cultures to cope with.

To the extent Yeltsin actually tries to implement this speech -- and his record in actually fighting corruption is anything but distinguished -- he will discover what the leaders of the other post-communist regimes already have. There are powerful and often large groups of people who directly benefit from corruption, and they will not give up their privileges easily or quickly.

But unless the Russian government and others in the region recognize the nature of this evil and begin the fight on all the fronts Yeltsin has outlined, they risk everything that Yeltsin mentioned in his radio address.

Indeed, they risk three other things that Yeltsin did not say: First, they may be cut off by other governments and peoples fearful of the spread of corruption to their countries.

Second, they may find it difficult if not impossible to complete the transitions toward both democracy and a free market.

And third, they may discover that ever more people in such countries will decide that they would be better off under a repressive regime than in a more open one.

If that happens, everyone in these countries and elsewhere as well will be the loser.