Friday, May 23, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russian Corruption is ‘More than Corruption’ -- and So Too is Medvedev’s Campaign Against it

Paul Goble

Baku, May 23 – In Russia, as more than one observer has pointed out, “corruption is more than corruption,” and thus President Dmitry Medvedev’s campaign against it is about more than that as well. Indeed, it may prove to be a defining moment in his relationship with Vladimir Putin, hence in his own presidency, and even for Russia’s future.
On Monday, the Kremlin announced that it is creating a Council for the Struggle Against Corruption and that this body will be headed by President Dmitry Medvedev. While many people welcomed the new president’s commitment to fighting this scourge of Russian life, others pointedly asked what this council and especially Medvedev’s role in it might mean.
Elena Panfilova, the director of anti-corruption research at Transparency International, said that she welcomed this high-level commitment to doing something about the problem, but she suggested that the difficulties the regime will face in dealing with it are so great that this latest effort may fall short.
If that happens or if the campaign creates new enemies for the center, she argued, that could create real dangers for Medvedev. Indeed, she suggested, that he and others may come to see his decision to take personal charge rather than rely on a more junior official who could be sacrificed as a very “risky” step (
Other analysts have pointed to just what these risks entail. Most immediately, Vladimir Golyshev argues, these risks involve whether he “will be a real chief of state of state or not” because in Russia “the word ‘corruption’ is a synonym of the word ‘Putin.’” And consequently, any struggle against corruption will end by being a struggle against Putin and his entourage.
If that does not happen, Golyshev says, then the whole business will simply be a public relations effort that will leave Medvedev even weaker because everyone will recognize that he is not in a position to address the core of the problem or perhaps worse does not even want to do so (
According to Golyshev, “there exists the misconception that corruption is about bribes, in particular about bribes required by the traffic police. But this is not corruption [in the most serious sense]; this is a petty detail of daily life,” something unpleasant and of course illegal but nonetheless not something that anyone has to worry too much about.
“Real corruption is the theft of the state treasury, the stealing of entire branches of the economy, and the waste of billions on non-existing government projects,” like the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, for which no one knows how many billions will end up in the pockets of Putin cronies rather than go for planned construction.
Corruption in the Russian state is “broad-scale theft and not bribes and the first people involved in these schemes (directly, indirectly but in any case) are Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and his immediate associates. [And] therefore the struggle with corruption [if it is to be] genuine [must be] a struggle with Putin and the Putinists, a cleansing of the remnants of Putinism.”
If that doesn’t happen, Golyshev argues, then any “struggle with corruption will remain a mere decoration” and not something real.
The Moscow analyst concludes his essay with the observation that “of course, Dmitry Medvedev has his own ‘skeletons in the closet.’” But he suggests that he never had the access or the power to reach “the planetary level” that Putin achieved. And consequently, any war of compromat would ultimately favor the president rather than his predecessor.
And yet another analyst, Vladimir Karpets, explores the problems of corruption in Russia and of any fight against it still more broadly, pointing how each can represent a serious challenge to the country’s national security in ways that few have considered and in ones that may be especially important now (
Arguing explicitly that “corruption in Russia is more than corruption,” Karpets traces the root of these problems to the fact that “unlike the West which was built on the paradigm” where property came first and power second, “in Russia “everything has evolved in exactly the opposite way.”
That has been true of Russia since the beginning, Karpets says but “the idea of converting power into property” became “the basis of the formation of ‘the new Russia’ as part of the world political-economic – euro-Atlantic – system in place of the Eurasian Russian Empire and the USSR.” And that has meant the rise of what should be called “legal corruption.”
Karpets cites with approval the words of Tatyana Vorozheykina who observed in 2006 that “privatization in Russia was not accompanied by the establishment of the institution of private property which would function according to public, generally recognized and common for all rules.”
Instead, she argued, “the real law of property in Russia” was its dependence “in the first instance on the closeness to power and the relationship [of it and its owners] to power. And it is this “dependence of economic activity on closeness to power” which is in fact what corruption is in Russia.
This has a variety of consequences, Karpets continues, among which is the reality that many do not wish to recognize that the way in which one has to struggle against Russian corruption is very different than the way one fights it elsewhere. Transparency alone is “in the best sense a utopia” and at worst may simply make Russia more dependent on foreigners.
An INDEM study published in 1998 blamed corruption in Russia on the lack of rootedness of democratic political traditions and underdevelopment of legal consciousness among the population. But that observation, while significant, needs to be “qualified” if it is to be useful.
The problem is not in the “lack of development of legal consciousness but “in the lack of correspondence between the legal consciousness laid town for millennia of the domination of the common over the particular and the religious (and then the ideological) motivation of legal behavior” in Russia compared to legal consciousness in the West.
The failure of Western leaders and Russians as well to understand this difference means, in the words of Aleksandr Privalov on the website of the official National Anti-Corruption Council of the Russian Federation that “the copying of the law of the West gave birth [quite unintentionally] to corruption in Russia.”
And Karpets adds, again citing Privalov, that “recipes taken from abroad will not cure us either because corruption is something special in Russia, of a kind that for a long time has not existed in any other serious country: among us [Russians], people steal [not by violating the law] but according to it.”
That has made Russian corruption both far larger – involving not less than 40 percent of the country’s GDP – far more entrenched – involving most of the elite – and perversely, more acceptable – large percentages of Russians tell pollsters that there is nothing that can be done about it.
But the corruption of the bureaucracy combined with the criminalization of the economy is hurting everyone, driving down public health and well-being, putting the country’s territorial integrity at risk, and even opening the way for outsiders to achieve complete control over the country itself.
Russian-style corruption, Karpets argues, is “one of the main causes” for the “degradation” and “withering away” of the Russian population and for giving Russia the reputation as a place where anything goes and where any trash can be dumped if it is accompanied by enough money.
Even more, corruption threatens the territorial integrity and unity of the country. It provokes regional separatism because of the nature of the corrupt deals which political figures and business leaders make in different parts of the country. That is even truer in predominantly Russian areas than in non-Russian ones, Karpets continues.
And he says, corruption threatens to provoke an “orange revolution” at some point in the future, whatever anyone thinks. Indeed, the disintegration of the Russian Federation and that kind of political change could easily come together, an analogy not only to 1991 but to 1917.
All this makes the struggle against corruption more important – but also more difficult and dangerous, as Medvedev is certain to find out if he does more than just announce his intention to pursue it.

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