The vicious bind: rights and corruption in Russia

An analysis of human rights violations in Russia reveals the extent to which they occur as the direct result of institutional corruption. However well intentioned, recent attempts at reform in the army and police have fallen short of tackling this fundamental connection, writes Andrey Kalikh.

The world did not need Wikileaks to understand how thoroughly the present Russian regime is associated with endemic corruption and human rights abuse. What is less clear, however, is the corrosive link that exists between the two disorders themselves. At the Centre for Democracy and Human rights, we have become convinced of the link: our work highlights individuals suffering at the hands of institutional corruption; and, no less frequently, noting how protection and extortion networks get in the way of the proper criminal investigation. 

The most obvious place to demonstrate our conviction is the military. Over the last seven years, our Centre has run a programme aimed at eradicating conscription in the Russian armed forces. Once inside the system, the young men are literally treated as slaves, frequently being “rented” by officers to unscrupulous contractors for heavy labour. In more serious cases, they are pushed to stealing, begging and even prostitution. Sometimes the soldiers only too readily agree to forego their rights in order to get fed and avoid torture back in the barracks.


Conscription feeds on corruption and a generation of
disenfranchised young Russians

Abuse of human rights in the armed forces is not, unfortunately, a phenomenon that is isolated in low-level divisions out in the country. In all forces and on all levels, young soldiers are serving against their will, and are suffering abuse at the hands of their superiors. We have recorded cases in “elite” divisions of the Kremlin guards and in the Strategic Rocket Forces. Protectionism, cronyism and cover-up are endemic throughout the system.

Take a recent case contained in our “Corruption and Human Rights” e-bulletin.

On 1 March, the miltary’s “educator-in-chief”, General Alexander Bashlakov, was found guilty on charges of corruption. It was not the first time the General had made the headlines. Prior to being appointed head of the Ministry of Defence’s Principal Directorate of Education (GUVR), Bashlakov had run the prestigious military cosmodrome in Plesetsk, North East Russia (Arkhangelsk oblast). On his watch, two officers quite horrifyingly assaulted a pair of young recruits, throwing one of them, who was already wounded, into an enclosure of hungry dogs. The soldier died a few days later from the injuries he sustained in the ordeal. There was a huge scandal at the time: the media got involved, and Bashlakov was moved from his post. Not fired, of course, but promoted to his teaching position in the Ministry of Defence in Moscow.

Bashlakov’s luck ran out last month, though it was not for this shocking abuse that he was eventually prosecuted. The successful charge related to a series of crimes committed while head of the cosmodrome: receiving bribes, accepting bribes and forging documents. He was sentenced to seven and a half years.

Every year the realities of conscription, endemic corruption and an appalling lack of human rights inside the barracks lead thousands of young men to try to dodge the bullet of conscription. 

Russian officials have long since given up denying the scale of the problem. In an interview given last month to the Russian weekly newspaper Argumenti i fakti [“Arguments and facts”], Russia’s Chief Military Prosecutor, Sergei Fridinsky, admitted that cases of officers abusing their official authority are costing the government more than 6.5 billion rubles annually. In the last year alone, some 153 officers were convicted of corruption, among them three senior generals.

Konstantin Belyayev, another official representative of the Military Prosecutor’s Office, admits the problem is actually getting worse. “Our figures show that, while the number of crimes in the military is on an overall downward trajectory, this isn’t the case with corruption: the 2,400 cases last year was a large increase on previous figures”. Belyayev went on to talk about the multiplier potential of corruption: “Corruption doesn’t exist on its own. It leads to a weakening of discipline, omissions in monitoring and inspection, imperfect compliance with the law and, occasionally, serious mistakes in recruitment and the allocation of staff”.

On 13 January, the head of Russia’s Investigation Committee, Alexander Bastyrkin, named the country’s power ministries as the most corrupt of all state institutions. Indeed, in his estimation, approximately 40% of all criminal cases of corruption involve either the police or the army. The INDEM Foundation comes to a slightly different conclusion, suggesting that health and education are the most corrupt spheres of public life; our experience certainly leads us to agree with Bastyrkin. Indeed, the prevalence of bribes in the health and education sectors hardly disproves the institutional criminality of the Russian army. Every year the realities of conscription, endemic corruption and the appalling lack of human rights inside the barracks lead thousands of young men to do their utmost to dodge the bullet of conscription. This is most frequently achieved by enrolling on a university course, which gives a temporary reprieve from conscription, or getting a medical exemption and has resulted in monstrous profiteering in these spheres.

The realities of corruption and abuse compel thousands 
of young men to seek exemptions from conscription. 
This has led to a very profitable black market for the
medical profession. 

The commercial opportunities offered by conscription are one of the main reasons why it has not yet been abolished. Georgii Satarov, a Russian expert in corruption, uses a term from electrical engineering — “regenerative generator” — to describe the phenomenon. As a system that recycles its own resources many times over, conscription generates high levels of corruption and this in turn becomes the reason for preserving conscription. Put simply, the consequences of corruption lead to its further growth. 

This powerful cycle of dependence cannot be broken by superficial changes. Yet the current reform of the Russian army is in danger of doing just that. It aims for “modernisation”, yet absolutely no thought has been given to transparency, public oversight or accountability. Nothing has been done to change the legal predicament of soldiers; indeed army officials have been put on record as saying that the system needs to get tougher and conscription numbers increased. Military prosecutors themselves admit it has had zero effect on abuse in the barracks.

Compare this to the law enforcement agencies reforms, which, at least in the short term, have produced some changes in behaviour. As of 1 March, a whole series of changes were introduced in: name (the Soviet-era “militsiya” became the modern “politsiya”); re-certfication (all employees of police forces are being reviewed as to their suitability for their posts); and restructuring (numbers are to be substantially reduced, with the most corrupt and needy weeded out). The result has been astonishing: policemen have ceased taking bribes, afraid of not making the cut for the new politsiya.

The new police regulations are poorly drafted, full of wriggle room and open to alternative “interpretations”. The much-heralded “principles” for police work - “transparency, openness, accountability” - remain simple declarations

Particularly striking was the testimony of a road traffic inspector, reported in the RBK daily newspaper. The troubled officer, responsible for a stretch of the Rublevskoye Highway that runs to and from the villas of Russia’s most moneyed, has been forced to rethink plans for his own three-storey house. Just as he was applying the finishing touches to his castle, he’s been forced to put the development on hold, lest people come to the wrong conclusion. “They’re setting traps, checks and provocations everywhere”, he complains. “And God help you if they trip you up: that would be it, no politsiya for you”. 

In the same report, an unnamed employee of the investigative department of the Ministry of the Interior confirmed that he too would be refusing dubious offers until he is a signed up member of the politsiya. Officers of the elite OMON special operations unit will also, it seems, be taking enforced holidays from their other jobs as VIP bodyguards.

Of course, experts and policemen themselves agree that it may only be a matter of time before such employees return to their former lifestyles and I would not want to leave readers with the impression that the new law is perfect. Indeed it is not. In respect of civic rights, for example, the reform is plainly contradictory. There are stronger guarantees in a few specific cases:

  • a person who has been arrested has the right to make a phone call,
  • custody periods are now to be calculated from the moment of detention,
  • a ban on torture has been declared,
  • police officers are now obliged to wear badges showing their name and station number,
  • a new “Miranda law” (including the right to remain silent) has appeared for the very first time in Russian legislation.

There are signs that police officers have responded to
the reform by becoming less eager to take bribes. Most 
believe the change in behaviour is temporary. proza.ru

Yet on the other hand, so very little changes substantially. Writing in our e-bulletin, the director of the Public Verdict NGO Natalia Taubina argues the law is at best a half-measure: “Take Miranda, for example. You have an obligation to adhere to the rules, which is all well and good. But what you don’t have is legal responsibility in the event of those rules being broken, or any indication of the consequences of such violations.”

Human rights activists also note that the new regulations are poorly drafted, full of wriggle room and open to alternative “interpretations”. The much-heralded “principles” for police work - “transparency, openness, accountability” - remain undeveloped past the stage of simple declaration. The principle of public oversight is given lip service, yet practically unregulated by the law (opening the door to imitation). The new law is also deficient in respect of corruption. According to Taubina, “none of the new regulations have themselves been reviewed as to their corruption potential”. At the very least, the results of such a review have not been published, as they should have been, on the Ministry of Justice website.

Every month, in our “Corruption and Human Rights” e-bulletin (link in Russian), we aim to record and highlight the destructive link between corruption and human rights. The word “Russia” is deliberately excluded from the name of our bulletin, since the issues of corruption and rights are global and do not stop at borders. But the sad reality is that Russia— a country where respect for human rights is as limited as the level of corruption is high — keeps us very busy. While “Corruption and Human Rights” is currently only published in Russian, with section titles and the most important features translated, we plan to publish a complete English version in the near future.

About the author

Andrei Kalikh is program coordinator at the Centre for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, an independent Russian NGO analytical centre monitoring civil society and human rights in Russia and in the CIS.