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Massive Corruption Threatens Russian State

There are now up to 2 million state bureaucrats in Russia
The numbers are staggering by any measure: Russians pay $300 billion in bribes each year, according to the government's own figures. Accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers says Russia hosts more "economic crime" than any other country; a new study by the firm shows that more than 70 percent of companies polled said they had experienced bribery, fraud, or other such crimes in the past year.

And it's getting worse -- fast. Despite the economic crisis, officials say the average bribe has tripled in size since last year.

That's a far cry from what Russians were told would happen when Vladimir Putin took office as president 10 years ago. The new leader promised to institute what he called a "dictatorship of the law," calling corruption one of the most serious problems threatening the country. But a decade later, Putin's handpicked successor is making the same promises.

President Dmitry Medvedev has put fighting corruption at the top of the list of his priorities. The Interior Ministry says it's investigated 40,000 cases this year, up 11 percent from last year, and Medvedev says more than 500 officials and 700 law-enforcement officers have been jailed in the first six months of this year on charges related to corruption.

But many question whether it's possible even to define corruption -- let alone stop its growth -- in a country where the problem is already so pervasive. Along with the exponential growth of bribes, the number of state bureaucrats receiving many of the illegal payments has doubled in size from 1 million to 2 million in the past 10 years.

Lev Gudkov, head of the Levada polling agency, which regularly asks people what they think about corruption, says young Russians have trouble simply articulating the scope of the problem. "For years we were constantly hearing about how much stability Putin had brought Russia," he says, "so we asked [young Russians] whether there really was stability here. They said yes, but that it wouldn’t last long. It's a typical Russian irony."

Gudkov says the pervasiveness of corruption leads many Russians to believe it's a normal part of everyday life, something that reinforces a cycle of growing lawlessness. "If people are ready to 'cooperate' with the authorities," he says, "the law is easily evaded." Still, Gudkov maintains it is possible to define the abuses of office that constitute corruption, even in Russia.

Among those drawing attention to the problem is Boris Nemtsov. A leading opposition figure who was first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, Nemtsov recently published a report about corruption by Moscow's longtime Mayor Yury Luzhkov. (Luzkhov is suing Nemtsov over the allegations in a case that began hearings this week.)

Nemtsov says Russia's highly centralized economy means the capital is seen as the country's corruption nexus, a place where bribe-taking and other crimes are seriously affecting many Muscovites' quality of life by driving up prices. To afford an average, 54-square-meter "economy class" apartment, Nemtsov says, a typical Russian family must "not eat or drink for 30 years."

State Budget Siphoned

But Kirill Kabanov, who heads the Anti-Corruption Committee, a private research group, says it's federal officials who make the most illegal profits, siphoning off huge amounts from the state budget, selling the country's vast energy and other natural resources, or simply from their control over the huge swaths of industry owned by the state. Most Russians don’t trust officialdom, he says, but almost everyone wants to be part of it. He says Russian society is guided by an "infantile, cynical consumer culture. That's why no one is outraged."

If there's any hope for reversing the trend, says pollster Gudkov, the state must cease interfering in business and other private activities. Armies of police and inspectors demanding bribes for invented violations must be stopped, he says, in favor of independent institutions. The most pressing need, he says, is for independent courts. "If you can’t protect your private property, if you can’t protect your business," he says, "everything Medvedev says is just empty words."

Entrepreneur and anticorruption activist Ilya Handrikov points a finger at the weakness of civil society and the media. "They aren't drawing public attention to corruption, as in other countries, because they're under heavy pressure from the authorities," he says. At the same time, he says, the authorities are hard at work maintaining an "imitation democracy." Rigged voting and propaganda on state-run television hide an authoritarian political system incapable of addressing serious problems threatening the political regime's own existence.

Nemtsov says that won't change until the nature of the political system changes. He says the Kremlin relies on corrupt officials to run the country. "They're far easier to control," he says, because they can be blackmailed into carrying out the Kremlin's orders.

Speaking of Prime Minister Putin -- who most Russians believe still controls the country -- Nemtsov says "corruption is the basis for Putinism." Until the first high-ranking official accused of corruption is arrested, he says, the government's anticorruption drive will be "no more than a public relations stunt."

With no end in sight to the growth of corruption in Russia, RFE/RL's Gregory Feifer reports about the issue in a three-part series on corruption in everyday life, among law enforcers, and at the top of the political system.