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In Corruption Fight, Kremlin Declares 'Total War' Against Its Shadow

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

The war in the Caucasus and its foreign-policy consequences have put into doubt many of the ambitious plans laid out in the early days of President Dmitry Medvedev's term of office. Prominent among these plans was his high-profile program to combat corruption.

Nonetheless, on September 10, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" published a presidential decree on boosting efforts against corruption, economic crime, and extremism. The essence of this decree is that the Interior Ministry will create specialized units that will work exclusively in these areas. Until now, that work has been concentrated under one roof -- in the organized-crime department. However, the branches of this department themselves have become compromised to such an extent that it is no longer possible to pretend they are not. Now, under the new decree, this department will lose most of its functions.

The latest decree is just part of a detailed plan for "total war" against corruption that appeared on the presidential site in August. But before considering Medevedev's plan, it is important to understand why all the many previous anticorruption efforts failed. What are the particularities of corruption in Russia and why is it so intractable?

Rule Rather Than Exception

First, corruption in Russia is systemic -- it is the rule rather than the exception, unlike in the West or even the Orient, where incidents of corruption are commonplace but are usually fairly quickly exposed by an independent press or uncompromised law enforcement organs. While it is true that corruption stories appear constantly in the Russian press, the authorities, as a rule, do not react to them. There have been no cases in the last decade when a prime minister or even a cabinet minister resigned under public pressure because of corruption scandals, as has happened recently in, for example, Israel, France, Spain, Germany, South Korea, India, and Pakistan.

Some Third World countries -- with which the NGO that monitors corruption globally, Transparency International, often compares Russia -- also have endemic corruption. But in terms of magnitude, they lag far behind Russia. Recently Nikita Krichevsky, head researcher for the National Strategy Institute, cited data from the Investigative Committee in the Prosecutor-General's Office that said the annual corruption-based turnover (that is, the amount of bribes, skimming, and the like) in Russia amounts to some $480 billion. That is about one-third of Russia's gross domestic product.

Intertwining Of Power, Capital

Second, corruption in Russia -- as compared to other major countries -- is characterized by the intertwining of power and capital and the use of one for the sake of the other and vice versa. Of course, Russia has all types of corruption -- political, quotidian, professional, etc. But it political corruption, although it is not the most widespread, presents the greatest danger, because it co-opts the power and mechanisms of the state. Political corruption provides cover for all the other forms, distorting government functions to cater to personal interests.

There are many definitions of political corruption, the most encompassing of which is "the violation of the citizen's right to decent government." This definition sounds somewhat strange to the Russia ear, since it emphasizes not the interests of the state, but of society. But it is political corruption that has deprived Russians of the right of democratic representation and decent government. In Russia today corrupt bureaucrats in state offices not only trade access to state funds and resources, but also sell government positions. And those who buy those positions immediately begin playing the same game at their own level. Thus the system reproduces itself. This was an open secret in Russia until Medvedev, unveiling his anticorruption drive, admitted publicly that it is possible to buy government positions for money.

Almost as soon as these words left his lips, the newspapers were full of stories about how almost every post in Russia -- with the exception of the five or six highest ones, are available for sale to anyone in a position to buy them. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who is well known for anticipating how the wind is blowing in Moscow, gave some specific figures in an interview with Business FM radio. "A governorship costs about 5 million to 7 million euros," he said. "A spot in the Federation Council costs about the same. Slightly lower positions, such as a department head or the head of a federal agency costs a little less -- 3 million to 4 million euros."

There have been reports about the sale of Russian government positions in the Western press as well. The German newspaper "Die Welt" in July named a governor who had paid $15 million to secure an additional term. The article was reprinted in Russian, but there was no denial, no lawsuit, no investigation. Instead, the article disappeared both from the newspaper's website and the site on, which translates articles from the foreign press. Nonetheless, one republication of the piece remains accessible.

Some interesting data on political corruption appeared in February in "Russian reportyor," a magazine published by the pro-Kremlin Ekspert publishing house. According to that report, is costs about $2 million to $5 million to buy a place on a party's list of Duma candidates and about $250,000 to introduce a bill in the legislature.

All these examples are notable in that it is clear who is giving the money, but who is taking it remains shrouded in darkness. In cases where we are talking about the highest-level positions -- say, a cabinet minister -- one shudders to think who gets the cash.

In the wake of the December 2007 Duma elections, Russia has no fewer than five deputies who are billionaires in dollar terms. They join the five dollar billionaires already in the Federation Council. That's a world record. And clear evidence of the entangling of power and capital.

No One To Solve It

The third particularity of Russia's unsolvable corruption problem is that there is no one to solve it. The law enforcement organs and special services are themselves so corrupted that the whole country knows they cannot deal seriously with this issue. Their numbers keep growing, as do the resources allocated to them, but the problem just gets worse.

And the situation is even worse in the judicial system, which is on the verge of collapse. It has already become a cliche that judges rule not according to the law, but according to the price list. And, as for the law, Russian lawmakers have been toiling unsuccessfully since the 1990s to formulate a law on corruption and have so far failed to even define the problem.

All this makes it clear that Medvedev simply could not longer ignore the issue of combating corruption, since further inattention threatens the regime itself and makes the country increasingly unmanageable. Some of the measures included in his anticorruption plan are perfectly reasonable: increasing transparency in law enforcement and increasing the number of people who have to file property declarations to include military officers, secret-services officers, and their families, for instance. The plan also calls for the legalization of lobbying and the creation in all state enterprises of special anticorruption offices, similar to the People's Control Commissions of the Soviet era.

However, the main question remains unanswered: who is going to do this work? And until this is resolved, the battle against corruption will remain just a shadow-boxing contest.