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Analysis: Putin's Secret Plan To Combat Corruption?

Vladimir Putin (file photo) This week, Russia wound up again at the top of another international ranking of corruption. Russia shared the 90th slot with India and Gambia in a ranking of 146 countries, with the countries perceived to be the least corrupt on top, according to a survey by Transparency International. Last week, Russia got another vote of no confidence, when it finished fifth in terms of corruption, according to a survey of business leaders in 104 countries conducted by the World Economic Forum. Only Madagascar, Ukraine, Macedonia, and Chad registered higher levels of corruption. That survey concluded that corruption is Russia's greatest economic weakness.

Help might be on the way, according to Jonathan Schiffer, vice president of Moody's Investors Service. In an interview with Interfax published on 15 October, Schiffer argued that President Vladimir Putin's recent proposal to abolish gubernatorial elections could reduce corruption. "It is possible that the new reforms for the appointment of governors could lead to a different situation in the regions and a more efficient economic situation with less close connections between regional governors, banks, and, local wealthy individuals; more room for competition; and more room for small business enterprises," he said.

"We all know that many regional administrations in the past even interfered with taxation legislation and things like this formally and informally through some pressure on local entrepreneurs," Schiffer continued. "I think it's possible that an unintended consequence of these reforms in the economic area will be a little more space for local and regional entrepreneurs and a little more competition."

In addition, Schiffer said the cancellation of the elections could have a positive impact on the judiciary. "Breaking up the power of the local public administrations can be seen as a 'necessary if not sufficient' condition for the possibility of a more independent judiciary operating in the regions in the future," he said.

Putin did not link his proposals with the fight against corruption when unveiling them on 13 September. However, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on 15 September that an unnamed administration official admitted that the proposals had been developed long ago and that the tragic school hostage taking in Beslan, North Ossetia, last month merely created an appropriate political atmosphere for bringing them forward. "Izvestiya" wrote on 16 September that an unnamed "upper-level" official divulged that "the point" of the president's proposals "is to remove regional leaders from the influence of regional circumstances and private businesses." In addition, Sergei Markov of the Institute of Political Studies told ORT on 14 September that "the promotion of executive-branch unity should become an instrument, a lever to significantly decrease corruption."

The optimism of analysts like Schiffer and Markov seems based on the assumption that when making his regional-executive appointments, Putin will clean house, removing corrupt or ineffective members of the current crew of governors.

Interestingly, the governors themselves do not seem to be worrying about this possibility. Almost without exception they have publicly embraced Putin's proposal, and according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 October, they have been meeting with Putin in droves seeking the renewal of their current "contracts." Center for Political Technologies Deputy General Director Aleksei Markarkin told the daily that "each [regional leader] wants a solid guarantee from the Kremlin that he will remain in power, or at the very least will be able to name his successor."
"When viewed as a whole, the measures proposed by the president indicate the intention to create a simulation of politics, a simulation of activity, a simulation of civic oversight."

Putin's track record in past gubernatorial elections undoubtedly contributes to the governors' sense of ease. In those gubernatorial races in which the presidential administration expressed a preference, loyalty -- often measured in terms of the ability to deliver local votes for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in the State Duma elections -- seems to have been the only requirement. In 2000, Putin showed some sign of wanting to install his own people in the regions. However, by the time the 2003 State Duma elections rolled around, pragmatism prevailed. The Kremlin backed for reelection, for example, the authoritarian president of Bashkortostan, Murtaza Rakhimov, head of a republic where there is little political or economic pluralism. Like former President Boris Yeltsin, Putin has placed the highest value on loyalty.

Perhaps for this reason, few of Russia's leading experts on both corruption and elections have rushed to embrace Putin's plan. Georgii Satarov, head of the INDEM Foundation and author of many studies of corruption, has condemned Putin's plan to cancel regional elections. In remarks published in "Izvestiya" on 16 September, Satarov said, "when viewed as a whole, the measures proposed by the president indicate the intention to create a simulation of politics, a simulation of activity, a simulation of civic oversight." Commenting on Putin's proposed Public Chamber, Saratov noted that "Putin has already created a body that was supposed to oversee lawmaking: the Anticorruption Council. And the only thing this council ever did was elect [then Prime Minister] Mikhail Kasyanov as its chairman. In my view, civic oversight is not a matter for state bodies created from the top down."

Putin's proposal also attracted criticism from the usually loyal Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov. While on a trip to Vologda last week, Veshnyakov said that among the possible negative consequences of appointing regional governors could be increased opportunities for corruption, "Novye izvestiya" reported on 15 October. He noted that once elections are abolished, the fate of each regional leader will be decided by an increasingly small number of people -- no more than 200 -- who work in the presidential administration and regional legislatures. "There might be a temptation," Veshnyakov said, "to make some incorrect decisions, in connection with personal or financial relations." And this was not Veshnyakov's first mention of corruption in connection with the election reforms. In an interview with "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 15 September, Veshnyakov recommended that "it would make sense to retain the four-year election cycle for regional leaders and introduce a number of measures to deter the spread of corruption during the process of electing regional leaders."

Schiffer and Markov apparently want to give Putin the benefit of the doubt. However, if the past is any guide to the future, there is little reason to expect that this set of reforms was intended to produce anything but greater centralization, the increased marginalization of regional political elites in the formation of national policy, and less economic and political pluralism at the regional level.