Russian President Vladimir Putin this week signed a decree outlining a series of ethical principles for public officials. The decree says Russia's civil servants will be expected to observe the law, serve the public efficiently and courteously, avoid conflicts of interest, and remain politically neutral. Is Putin's decree a sign that he is serious about reforming Russia's much-maligned public administration, or does it amount to little more than a gesture?
Prague, 16 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Most Russians, at least according to surveys, believe their country's public officials are corrupt, have always been corrupt, and will resist any attempt to make them change their ways.
History would seem to bear them out. One and a half centuries ago, author Nikolai Gogol delighted readers and scandalized government censors with his depiction of venal civil servants in works such as "The Inspector General" and "Dead Souls."
In Soviet times, the Communist Party claimed it had largely overcome corruption, even going as far as to issue what it called the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism in 1961. The "Great Soviet Encyclopedia" wrote that the code reflected the "high moral nature of socialist society" and the creation of new individuals "free of the evils and vestiges of the past."
But in reality, Homo Sovieticus lived by stealing, bribing, and trading favors to an ever-increasing decree.
This week, President Vladimir Putin became the latest Russian leader to launch a much-publicized crusade against inefficiency and corruption in the state sector, signing a decree laying out 16 general principles for the conduct of civil servants.
Jeremy Pope, executive director of Transparency International, an independent organization dedicated to monitoring and combating corruption worldwide, told RFE/RL the initiative is an important move, but it is only a first step. "If you want to clean up a civil service, like cleaning up a company, you have to start with the top and you have to have very clear signals coming from the top. Putin is giving this very clear signal with his latest measure. The task now, of course, is to drive that right down through the civil service from the top to the bottom," Pope said.
Putin's decree, among other things, says government workers "must display courtesy and attentiveness in dealings with citizens." More important, civil servants "must not show any preference toward any professional or social groups and be independent of influence."
Sergei Mikhailov, deputy director of the Russian Public Policy Center in Moscow, told RFE/RL that the influencing and outright "buying" of public officials by various business and occasional criminal groups is one of the greatest problems plaguing all levels of Russia's state administration. "The issue of conflicts of interest is a constant, enormous problem. Public officials do not represent the interests of the state but rather the interests of different private groups, which are also in conflict with each other. In order to satisfy these interests, they make decisions that often run directly counter to state interests. Sometimes groups of highly placed officials are involved, sometimes one individual civil servant, but since there is a large number of these officials, it becomes a very complex and difficult problem," Mikhailov said.
The low salaries most civil servants receive in Russia do feed corruption, but according to Mikhailov, merely raising bureaucrats' wages will by itself do little to solve the problem. "I wouldn't blame it solely on salaries because even if salaries were raised five or 10 times, it wouldn't resolve much. Because the money they can receive outside their salaries is much higher than the benefits the state can provide, even in the best of circumstances," Mikhailov said.
Laws that still limit the public's access to information, the preservation of business monopolies, a lack of independent oversight, and the weakness of the judicial system, all these are factors that put public officials in a position to trade influence for large sums of money.
Mikhailov said the state administration must be reformed on many fronts. Otherwise, he said, little will change. "The fact is that this problem must be dealt with in a comprehensive manner: Salaries have to be looked at, as does the issue of strict criminal sanctions, and many other factors. Because focusing on a single issue will not yield anything," Mikhailov said.
According to the deputy head of the presidential administration, Dmitrii Medvedev, the Kremlin will present a package of laws on reforming the civil service to parliament in its fall session. Putin's decree is merely an opening salvo.
Pope said an independent civil service -- far from acting as an enemy of the average person -- can be one of the keys to curbing the excesses of the private sector and guaranteeing citizens' rights. But he noted that recent scandals in Western Europe and the United States involving big business and senior public officials show that corruption is hardly just an Eastern phenomenon. "Corruption is a problem everywhere. One of the great advances in the anticorruption fight over the last 10 years has been to attack and destroy the notion that the Western Europeans are somehow more moral and better than the rest," Pope said.
Pope noted some particularly egregious cases. "Look at the disgraceful conduct of the present Italian government, where they are passing laws to decriminalize actions that are criminal in any God-fearing country, simply to allow the prime minister off the hook. What's going on in Italy is scandalous and it's very important, I think, that people in Central and Eastern Europe understand that there's a good deal of anger in Western Europe about the corruption of their politicians. There have been huge corruption scandals in Belgium, in Austria, in Spain, as well as Italy. There have been sleaze scandals in the United Kingdom and so on. And that's not to mention the fact that the president of the Constitutional Court in France was sentenced to jail as a corrupt politician," Pope said.
The main difference, however, is that corruption in Western Europe is not crippling the economy. In Russia, unless something is done, corruption threatens to overwhelm it. According to the latest research by the INDEM Center for Applied Political Studies, another leading think tank in Moscow, Russians spend as much on bribes and kickbacks to officials annually as the government takes in as legal revenue, some $40 billion a year.
Mikhailov said: "I think this decree does not resolve many problems -- if it resolves anything at all. But it's a first, essential step in the long and difficult fight against corruption in the state administration. It is essential not to stop with this decree but to move forward on all fronts. In the final analysis, it's the basic condition for the country's minimal future development. If nothing is done, the country will come to a standstill and decay will set in because corruption in the state administration, according to our experts, exceeds all imaginable parameters."
If he intends to pursue it, Putin has set a tall agenda for himself in the months ahead.