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Experts Say U.S., West Should Push Back On Russian Corruption, 'Kleptocracy'

Daniel Fried, former U.S. Coordinator for Sanctions Policy
Daniel Fried, former U.S. Coordinator for Sanctions Policy

WASHINGTON -- Russian corruption is no longer a topic for just the country itself, it is a matter of concern for the United States and the West, says Ilya Zaslavskiy, a research expert at the Free Russia Foundation.

Zaslavskiy on July 20 also said that corruption will not be eradicated in Russia in the “foreseeable future” and that there remains a fear of repression facing those who protest the country’s “kleptocracy.”

Zaslavskiy was speaking in Washington at a conference on corruption in Russia -- called Kleptocrats of the Kremlin -- sponsored by the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), also known as the U.S. Helsinki Foundation.

“Kleptocracy” was described as the use of political power to steal the country's resources from the people.

Zaslavskiy warned that Russian corruption poses national security issues for the West, especially because Russian “kleptocrats are taking their corrosive practices and corruption to Europe and the U.S.”

He cited various "corrosive" Russian activities, including lobbying media organizations, manipulating information, and influencing the discourse at think tanks and universities.

“The West, and especially the U.S. as leader of the democratic world, has been so negligent and appeasing of post-Soviet Russia corruption and subversion of democratic values and institutions under (Russian President Vladimir) Putin over the last 18 years,” he said.

“Even under the best-case scenario, Russian kleptocracy will not be eradicated in the foreseeable future.”

The best the West can hope for, he said, is to contain the negative global impact of “rampant” corruption coming from the post-Soviet space and try “preserving its own democratic institutions and values.”

Corruption is no longer just about Russia, but it is “really about the U.S. and the West.”

He also said there are not any “systemic or really any kind of liberals” in the Russian government.

“It is a big myth, which is somehow spread in Europe,” especially in countries looking to do business with Moscow.

When asked about potential protests in Russia against corruption, Zaslavskiy pointed out that many young people in the country still have a fear of repression, especially in view of the country’s history.

Daniel Fried, the former coordinator of U.S. sanctions policy under the Obama administration, said U.S. efforts to fight Russian corruption must be part of a wider strategy and cannot be done without international help.

“A U.S. policy designed to push back against Russian kleptocracy and corruption needs to be integrated in a complete Russian policy," he said.

“There is nothing incompatible between pushing back on Russian aggression in various forms and seeking those areas of common ground where it may be possible,” said Fried, who also served under the administration of George W. Bush.

He pointed out that “Americans may have discovered” Russian corruption recently, but it has been an issue with other countries for decades.

“The Europeans have been dealing with it for a long time. The Baltic states, Poland, Bulgaria have been dealing with it since 1991,” he said.

“Therefore, the answer should not be ‘Made in the U.S.,“ it must be coordinated in Europe, he said.

He listed two methods to potentially contain the problem.

The first is “exposure,” he said. “We should not allow the corruption to take place in the shadows, in the darkness.”

He said that was a job for nongovernmental agencies, investigative journalists, and “tech-savvy, younger people adept at exposing maligning influencing,” including in Russia itself.

“Expose what the Russians are doing… Just as it was not popular in the United States to be associated with the Soviet Union as their agent or their useful idiot, there should be a price to pay for doing the Kremlin’s work for it,” he said.

The second option was “pressure,” which, he said, was more of a government function.

“There are both sanctions, and there is enforcement of financial regulations…going after financial crimes.”

He said Russian investment must be closely watched, as it is often used “strategically” to buy up key elements of a country’s infrastructure using “cutouts, Cypriot money, false fronts.”

Fried said that sanctions have a role and can be a "useful tool," but added that he did not want to overestimate the ability of sanctions to solve the problem.