In January 2000, then-acting President Vladimir Putin used the term "legal nihilism" in a speech to Interior Ministry officials.
"Legal nihilism is growing," Putin said, "and the public's confidence in the authorities and in justice is falling. Among our priorities must be the struggle against organized crime and corruption. It is these forms of crime that are mercilessly consuming the economy of the country, discrediting the organs of government, and undermining the international authority of the Russian Federation."
Speaking to the Federation Council in July 2000, Putin again emphasized corruption.
"The opportunities for bureaucrats to act according to their own whims, to freely interpret the norms of the law, both in the center and in the regions, oppresses businesspeople and creates a fertile environment for corruption," Putin said.
In 2004, shortly after his reelection as president, Putin again made fighting corruption a priority, setting up a government Anticorruption Council and naming then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to head it. When Viktor Zubkov was confirmed as prime minister last September, he pledged redoubled efforts to combat corruption, which he told the Duma is "capable of sinking Russia." This week, President Dmitry Medvedev joined this illustrious parade, taking personal charge of the corruption fight and labeling it "one of the most serious problems facing our society and our country."
Despite the numerous public efforts and announcements, little has been done and no progress has been made. Commission after commission has been created and hardly a day goes by without some official being arrested. Last year, Medvedev said on May 19, there were 9,500 criminal corruption cases filed, but he conceded, "This is just the tip of the iceberg." Transparency International -- in its 2007 global corruption rankings -- agreed, giving Russia failing marks.
"The scores [for the post-Soviet countries] are disappointing and especially disappointing for countries like Russia, where a score of 2.3 puts Russia at the bottom of the global list of the index, which is really a great embarrassment for Russia," Transparency International official Miklos Marschall offered in an interview with RFE/RL. "It shows the downward trend despite all the pledges and the commitments. According to the opinion of the international business community, the Russian public sector is pretty corrupt. And what is even [more alarming], it is getting worse and worse, so there is no positive development."
There is no arguing that the scope of the problem is truly massive. A survey in late 2007 found that two-thirds of Russians believe corruption cannot be rooted out of the system and 28 percent reported that they had personally been affected by some form of official corruption within the previous year. They listed the police, the courts, customs officials, health-care workers, education workers, and prosecutors as highly corrupted.
And that, to use Medvedev's expression, is "just the tip of the iceberg." Former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov has written that although two-thirds of Russia's gross domestic product is produced by state companies, they accounted for only 1 percent of 2007 budget revenues. Why? According to Milov, because of "a badly regulated and highly corrupted system of state-property management." In the same article on gazeta.ru, Milov describes incidents from his tenure in government in which state companies retained virtually all of their profits, purportedly for infrastructure improvements that the government seemed to pay for every year but which never seemed to get built.
To take one more example, a 2007 study by the Russian NGO Against Corruption estimated that up to one-fourth of all the money Russia spends each year on state orders -- as must as 1 trillion rubles ($40 billion) -- is stolen. Former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin commented at the time that corruption was on the rise and "until the corruption fight becomes a basic priority for the state, decreasing the scale of corruption will not be possible."
Now, Medvedev has taken up the challenge, declaring on May 19 that fighting corruption "calls for a comprehensive series of measures and not piecemeal solutions." He laid out three broad components of what he described as his "national plan for fighting corruption," including "intensive modernization of our laws," making state contracts and tenders "transparent" while improving the business climate generally, and "introducing an anticorruption code of behavior" that will improve "the atmosphere in society in general."
"Corruption has become a systemic problem, and we therefore need a systemic response to deal with it," Medvedev concluded. The following day, Medvedev announced that he would begin his effort by trying to clean up the courts.
"It is hard to say why it was decided to do this; maybe it's just that this problem is ripe," former Constitutional Court Justice Tamara Morshchakova tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "You'll recall that President Putin named corruption as one of his unfinished tasks, and this relates to the courts as well. Corruption in this sense doesn't just mean the courts, the accepting of bribes. Corruption means the issuing of illegal rulings as the result of influence on the part of interested parties, often the representatives of the authorities. Therefore the importance of the subject is clear. It is another matter in which methods will be selected in order to resolve this problem."
The entangled nature of the corruption issue that Morshchakova emphasized made headlines earlier this month in a fascinating court case involving a presidential-administration official, a journalist, and a judge. Valery Boyev -- who served in Putin's presidential administration as an official responsible for human resources and for state awards and was also a member of Putin's presidential commission on state management and justice -- filed a defamation suit against popular broadcast journalist Vladimir Solovyov, who reported in several stories that Boyev had contacted judges to influence certain cases. "There are no independent judges in Russia," Solovyov said, "only judges dependent on Boyev." Solovyov also said Boyev "commands the Arbitration Court."
The case would have been just another example of a senior official slapping down an unruly journalist except that on May 13, Yelena Valyavina, deputy chairwoman of the Arbitration Court, testified in the case, saying that Boyev had indeed tried to influence her ruling in at least one case. She testified that the office of state awards -- the work of which is "completely opaque," according to "Novaya gazeta" -- exercises enormous influence over judges at all levels through the processes of hiring, promotion, and awarding bonuses.
"[Boyev], as the representative of the presidential administration, is present at all meetings of the Higher Qualifications Collegium of Judges, where he can make certain announcements," Valyavina testified. "The speed of the appointment of judges also depends on him." Therefore, she concluded, judges know that awards, bonuses, and promotions are in the hands of Boyev and his office. "Kommersant" noted that the plaintiff's lawyers had no cross-examination questions for Valyavina after her testimony.
Back Into The Shadows
Vadim Vinogradov, a professor of international law at the State Legal University in Moscow, starkly laid out the significance of the Boyev-Solovyov case for Russia, as opposed to other countries. "Having a figure of such a rank testify in court is a unique case [for Russia]," Vinogradov told "Kommersant." "Although for a law-based state, it is nothing extraordinary."
According to "Kommersant," the case was expected to bring further revelations, as the defendant had also called Moscow Arbitration Court Chairman Yevgeny Ilin, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast Court Chairman Boris Kanevsky, and 10th Arbitration-Appeals Court Chairman Artur Absalyamov to testify when the case was scheduled to resume on May 26. However, on May 23, Boyev suddenly and without explanation withdrew his complaint, a move that was widely seen as an effort by the Kremlin to prevent the judges from bringing their stories to the public.
Valyavina's remarks cast some light into the long-dark arena of relations between the Kremlin and judges. Since it came just one week before Medvedev's drive to stamp out corruption in the legal sphere began, it is unsettling that Medvedev himself did not refer to it or denounce the kinds of influence that she described. The Kremlin office where Boyev worked (or works?) is so opaque, indeed, that it is impossible to know if he still works there or if he left the administration when his patron, former deputy presidential-administration head Viktor Ivanov, was transferred to the Federal Antinarcotics Committee last week. Medvedev's failure to address this case and its implications specifically casts doubt on his pledge to find "systemic solutions" to the corruption problem.
Kremlin critics argue that fighting corruption is not that difficult. The INDEM think tank has been studying corruption for most of the post-Soviet period and INDEM Director Georgy Satarov is blunt in his prescription. "The key problem connected with the growth of corruption in Russia is the lack of control over the bureaucracy," he has said. The problem is caused by the lack of "political competition, the lack of [a political] opposition, the lack of a free press, [the lack of] freely working public organizations."
Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has echoed this view, telling "Ekspert" magazine last fall that fighting corruption entails "ending censorship so people will be afraid to take bribes," "term limitations for governors," "the restoration of gubernatorial elections," and "the restoration of political competition."
These views conform to those of Transparency International, which asserts that "corruption thrives...where institutional checks on power are missing, where decision making remains obscure, where civil society is thin on the ground."
In the light of the compelling logic of such arguments, Medvedev's call for "an anticorruption code of behavior" seems unconvincing. Still more so when, rather than calling for a protected free press and civil-society organizations, he merely notes that "the mass media and public organizations should all have the chance to have their say and get involved in this area." Medvedev has also avoided commenting publicly on the case of investigative journalist Natalya Morar, who has been barred from Russia as a "security threat" by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in response to her aggressive reporting on corruption in Putin's presidential administration.
In short, Medvedev -- himself a product of a corrupted electoral system and the Kremlin-controlled mass media -- has not demonstrated the will or the authority to make the "systemic" changes needed to end corruption. It seems unlikely that another government commission or another "code of behavior" is going to be able to make up for the opaque, monopolized, clan-based political system that has evolved in Russia over the last eight years. It is hard to believe that the so-called liberal lawyer Medvedev cannot see that.