The international Corruption Perceptions Index puts Russia’s public sector at 143 (out of 183) in its world rankings (the UK is at 16). If you look at any opinion poll, you will find that more than half of all Russians have either encountered corruption themselves or believe it to be widespread.
Everyone knows that the country is sick with corruption, but no one can agree on a cure. Anti-corruption campaigners are ready to try anything, but are under no illusions that any given course of treatment can have more than a limited effect.
‘We need different people’
Aleksandr Fedotov heads the administration of a small district in the Vologda region. He is thirty – unusually young for such a responsible position. His previous job was in the regional administration, where he successfully sorted out the hot water supply problems of one of Vologda’s outlying areas. The regional governor suggested he stand for election to head a district council, the voters supported him and here he is.
Fedotov takes every opportunity to demonstrate that he is a thoroughly modern bureaucrat. He has a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and local residents can book an appointment with him on the council website. They can also use the site to report any instance of corruption in the district – this is not a purely local initiative, but the result of instructions from former president Dmitry Medvedev and new president Vladimir Putin. ‘We will fight corruption systematically, doggedly and rigorously’, said Putin, and the district head is following instructions.
‘We need to gradually convert our citizens to the idea that corruption will not be tolerated and that laws must be obeyed. I sometimes think that we need to settle a bunch of foreigners in Russia to show us how to live without bribes.’
It is no easy task. Under the previous administration a local senior police officer had a riverside hunting lodge built for himself. Situated right on the water, it is in contravention of Russia’s Water Code, and getting planning permission clearly involved a bribe. But there’s no proof, and Fedotov is wary of taking such an important figure to court.
Or take another case: in the autumn, a road construction firm enjoying the protection of the regional government repaired a section of road between the district centre and the federal highway. By spring the road surface was worse than ever. Fedotov doesn’t think there were any bribes involved; the local authority simply had no choice but to use that company.
The complaints he receives on the council website are usually anonymous. They report small scale, everyday corruption: bribes paid to doctors or schoolteachers, or to police officers in return for not bringing charges against drunk drivers. There is usually a PS: ‘I’m not giving my name because I’ll need to go to the doctor again, and my son has to go to school’.
‘That’s what people here are like’, says Fedotov with a sigh. ‘I sometimes drive in Finland and Sweden. Russian drivers will obey the Finnish rules of the road, but the moment they cross the border back into Russia they drive at twice the speed limit. One car will overtake another, then a third will overtake the second in the opposite lane! Drivers know that a bribe will sort things out in Russia, but won’t work in Finland. We need to gradually convert our citizens to the idea that corruption will not be tolerated and that laws must be obeyed. I sometimes think that we need to settle a bunch of foreigners in Russia to show us how to live without bribes. But where would you find them?’
On the walls of Fedotov’s office are portraits of Putin and Medvedev. The president and prime minister are both calling on people to fight corruption, but they don’t explain how.
‘Our new role model is China‘
‘The only possible sentence for large-scale corruption should be execution. And public execution at that!’
On his office wall Aleksandr Nikodimov, editor in chief of the ‘Popular Control’ newspaper, has a massively blown-up photo of a Chinese stadium. The stands are full of people watching bureaucrats being executed by firing squad.
‘Popular Control’ is based in Nizhny Novgorod, and Nikodimov, a member of the Russian communist party, is its editor, reporter, and often sells it as well. The only help he has is with layout, thanks to Andrey, a young volunteer who shares the editor’s communist views. The newspaper’s main theme is corruption of all kinds, both locally and in other parts of Russia. Nikodimov writes articles, publishes ‘letters from the workers’, as papers did in Soviet times, and reprints stories off the internet. One frequent source is investigative material from Aleksey Navalny’s site, although he regards Navalny as an agent of the foreign bourgeoisie.
'Nikodimov is disappointed that communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov has failed to support his idea of ‘Chinese-style’ punishment for both those who ‘plundered the people’s wealth’ in the 1990s and those who, he believes, are robbing Russia today.'
The latest edition carries an article about how land designated as agricultural was reclassified to allow it to be built on, and the appearance there of a new luxury ‘cottage’ development. A second article talks about the construction of a large new block of flats in the old town centre, which could not have happened without the collusion of corrupt officials. The paper also reprints an article by Aleksey Navalny about corruption at ‘Rosneft’, and there are editorials by Nikodimov about the privatisation of the early 1990s and about the fact that Anatoly Chubais should be brought to court and punished alongside other corrupt politicians and officials of the time.
His paper has a print run of less than 3000, but Nikodimov is in no doubt that more than half the population of Russia shares his views on the need for the harshest of penalties to deal with corruption. He even believes that if show trials were held where politicians of the 90s, especially the ministers responsible for privatisation, were brought to justice, levels of corruption would fall dramatically. Potentially corrupt officials would be scared off.
Nikodimov is disappointed that communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov has failed to support his idea of ‘Chinese-style’ punishment for both those who ‘plundered the people’s wealth’ in the 1990s and those who, he believes, are robbing Russia today. He feels that Putin only won on 4 March because Russia has no longer any politicians of the calibre of Stalin. ‘After the 2nd World War’, he says, ‘the USSR helped China get on its feet – the Chinese learned a lot from us. Today we need to learn from the Chinese how to deal with people who embezzle state property.’
An alternative to China
‘There’s a saying among apparatchiks: it’s a bad official who doesn’t know who is going to win before the results are announced. I am probably a bad official.’ Nikolay Voronenko knows what he is talking about. He worked for a time in the administration of the Kaliningrad region and is an expert in the ways of corruption. That is probably why he got tired of practising it and started working for one of the Russia’s largest sociological research companies. His specialist research area is gauging the mood of both the administrative elite and the Russian population at large.
'In some areas [ ] it is based on family connections. Luzhkov himself owned an old car and a one- bedroomed flat, his wife had a country villa and three cars, and their student son had three businesses with a combined annual turnover of 10 million euros registered in his name.'
According to Voronenko, Russia’s regions vary considerably in their attitudes to corruption. In some areas, corruption is a simple matter of bribery. In others it is based on family connections, as it was, for example, in Moscow during Luzhkov’s time as mayor. Luzhkov himself owned an old car and a one-bedroomed flat, his wife had a country villa and three cars, and their student son had three businesses with a combined annual turnover of 10 million euros registered in his name.
‘The nature and level of corruption in a given region’, says Voronenko, ‘depends entirely on the message coming from its governor. If his unofficial annual income is one million euros, then his deputy will use the same type of family business arrangement to earn 700,000-800,000 euros. And so on down the vertical. In a region like this, the police can make a big thing of arresting an official for taking a 100,000 rouble (2,600 euro) bribe, but it won’t change a thing. ‘
Voronenko is interested in the Chinese experience, but finds the approach of Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of the Singapore miracle, more to his taste. He believes that Singapore’s success in ridding itself of corruption was less a question of the severity of the penalties imposed on corrupt officials than of their inevitability. And the inevitability began when the leader of the young state showed no hesitation in getting rid of any of his friends and colleagues who were party to corruption.
'[Voronenko] believes that Singapore’s success in ridding itself of corruption was less a question of the severity of the penalties imposed on corrupt officials than of their inevitability.'
The message was the opposite of what we are used to in Russia: both bribe taking and family friendly business practices would be punished at every level.
‘In other words’, says Nikolay, ‘governors need to get the message that the time for close friends and relations is over, and that message has to come from Moscow, from the Kremlin itself.’ As he says this, he lowers his voice a little – it is, after all, the presidential administration that commissions his research. ‘And officials’ salaries shouldn’t be lowered,’ he adds, ‘in fact they should be raised. Otherwise they will all leave.’
Openness and transparency
Valery spent a week doing something rather odd: taking photos of Moscow’s pavements. He was one of the participants in the so called ‘paving slab raids’ initiated by Aleksey Navalny. In 2011 the new mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobyanin, decided to replace the asphalt on Moscow’s pavements with paving slabs. Muscovites suspected, with some justification, that the work had been carried out incompetently. And indeed the raids confirmed that the slabs had been laid badly and in places some were even missing. The data collected as a result of the raids will now be collated and posted on the internet, and the raiders will await the reaction of the city authorities and the public prosecutor’s office.
‘The paving situation is directly connected with the problem of corruption’, says Valery. ‘The construction companies worked so badly because they were sure that there would be no repercussions.’ Valery thinks that the most effective weapon against corruption is not harsher laws, but maximum openness about the work of any government body. If every official, whether at local or national level, is subject to public scrutiny, he or she can neither steal nor work badly.
Russia is bordered on the north west by Finland, the least corrupt country in Europe, where public sector employees are well paid and their actions are open to public scrutiny. On the south east it is bordered by China, where corruption is punished by death. In both the Kremlin and small towns, people wonder which of these alternatives would best suit Russia. But the answer still eludes them.