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Russia: Global Convention Unlikely To Help Stem Corruption

Experts say government efforts to reduce corruption have largely failed (AFP) The United Nations Convention Against Corruption comes into force today. By ratifying the treaty, the 140 signatory countries -- which include Russia -- pledge to pool their efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish corruption. Will this pave the way for the Russian government to take action against the country's rampant corruption? Experts are skeptical. According to a global corruption study released last week, corruption in Russia appears to be entrenching itself deeper into all government structures.

Moscow, 14 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In a declaration marking its adoption in October 2003, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the convention as a vital step forward in tackling corruption at the global level.

The pact obligates all countries that have ratified the convention to assist each other in preventing and fighting corruption, pursuing corrupt companies and individuals, and retrieving stolen assets.

In Russia, however, experts are casting doubts over the government's commitment to stamping out corruption even at home, and blame the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin for dragging its feet in submitting the convention to parliament for ratification.

Yelena Panfilova, the head of the Russian office of Transparency International, a global anticorruption organization, says the convention, even if ratified, is unlikely to bring much progress in stemming corruption in Russia.

"[Corruption] is very endemic. It is possible to set such goals, but the convention should not be idealized. Even if the convention is ratified in Russia, the corresponding changes will need to be ushered into the Russian legislation," Panfilova said. "And most significantly, the convention demands that it be applied in a compulsory and non-selective manner. If our authorities are able guarantee this, then everything will function. But in this respect, I am so far not very optimistic."

Government Efforts

Putin has been vocal in denouncing corruption and bribery. In his state-of-the-nation address on 25 April, he lashed out at government and police officials for all too often abusing power to extort bribes.

But experts charge that the government's efforts to eliminate corruption have failed to translate into concrete measures.

Kirill Kabanov, the head of the National Anticorruption Committee, says state corruption has on the contrary exploded over the past few years.

He says officials have to pay increasingly large bribes to land governmental jobs. And those who accept to pay the price, Kabanov says, are usually quick to bribe others in return.

"I have the impression that the president and the rest of the bureaucratic machine are totally disconnected. The president makes declarations, and the bureaucratic machine continues to work exactly in the same way, even gaining pace," Kabanov said. "Everyone, after receiving his administrative post, tries to use it as fast and as efficiently as possible, or, in other words, to gain material profit."

A global corruption study released by Transparency International on 9 December also suggests that corruption and bribery are thriving unhindered in Russia.

Corruption Endemic

The study, based on a nationwide opinion poll, shows that systematic corruption continues to permeates government structures, with police topping the list of institutions perceived as the most corrupt.

It is followed closely by the parliament, political parties, and courts.

Nearly 30 percent of Russians polled said either they or their close relatives have had to pay a bribe in the past 12 months, with bribes averaging $129 a year per household.

Most worryingly, the study found that in the majority of cases, Russians had to pay bribes not to obtain a special favor but simply to be able to benefit from services to which they are entitled by law.

In a separate corruption index issued in July, Indem Foundation, another anticorruption watchdog, said between 20 and 30 million Russians had to relinquish free medical services because they were unable to afford the bribes.

As a result of the endemic nature of bribery in Russia and the government's failure to take tough action, Russians seem to have only bleak hopes for a corruption-free society.

Panfilova says Russians were by far the most pessimistic respondents in Transparency International's poll.

"The highest pessimism was displayed in Russia. A majority of citizens said that the situation concerning corruption had grown worse over the past three years and that it will remain the same or worsen further over the next three years. We haven't found such pessimism in many countries," Panfilova said.

Indem expects the volume of bribes to reach a staggering $320 billion in 2005. The bulk of this sum is forked out by entrepreneurs, who are forced to pay an average bribe of $135,000 to officials in order to run their businesses.

According to Indem, the size of bribes paid by businesses has increased 13-fold since the previous survey in 2001.