Russia’s New Old Anticorruption Campaign – “We’re serious this time!”

There’s an article on Bloomberg that caught my eye (h/t @agoodtreaty). The article claims that Pres. Putin approved the launch of a ‘new’ anticorruption campaign following a meeting at the Presidential residence in October. According to the article, this was ‘shocking’ news and represents a ‘win’ for the civiliki in their battle vs. the siloviki. Putin will apparently announce the anticorruption campaign during his Address to the Federal Assembly in December.

First, I am wondering whether the whole liberals vs. security types is a useful framework for understanding post-Medvedev Russia. My guess is not. And especially not after Ukraine and the sanctions. Indeed, even the most ‘liberal’ members of the Russian government and society have dug in and are ready for anything – 50 years of hard times, Cold War, even WWIII.

Second, since when is an anticorruption campaign in Russia a ‘new’ idea? The stated purpose of the campaign is to raise economic growth. The article quotes a number of breathless Russian elites who point out that reducing bribes will have an immediate effect and is like cutting taxes without straining the budget (but not if the ruble is worthless!). OK, accepting those arguments are valid in a vacuum, why didn’t they just do this earlier? Oh yeah, they did:

  • 2012 Address to Federal Assembly“We will certainly continue to combat corruption, which is a threat to national development prospects. I would like to stress that businesses must never enjoy any privileges based on their proximity to the executive, legislative or judicial government bodies at any level.”
  • 2013 Address to Federal Assembly“[P]ublic councils should … be active participants in anti-corruption efforts.” ; “there is a lot of corruption in … [the permitting procedures]. This is where the root of the problem lies.”

But as the Russians always say, “Где посадки?” (where are the convictions?). 2012 is an interesting year to check, because Putin’s speech followed a number of high-profile corruption scandals. I summarized these scandals here. It almost seemed like some high-level officials would go to jail, which would be a major development for Russia. So let’s check in with how the implicated officials from each scandal are doing:

  • Anatoly Serdyukov (former Minister of Defense) – pardoned in March of this year
  • Alexander Provotorov (former CEO of Rostelecom) – no charges, and a commercial court even approved his ‘golden parachute’ recently
  • Elena Skrynnik (former Minister of Agriculture) – no charges, and her deputy has still not faced a court
  • Yury Urlichich (former head of GLONASS) – no charges, and subsequently got a job as CEO of Sitronics, a subsidiary of the Sistema Group.
  • Roman Panov (former Deputy Head of Ministry of Regional Development) – a ray of sunshine: his trial is finally looking like it maaayyybeee will start. When the prosecutor read the charges last month, Panov replied, “I cannot really understand what I’m being accused of.” So he plead not guilty.

So two years and no convictions. And we all know, if Russia really wanted convictions, they would get them. Keep in mind the officials listed above stole around USD 1.75 billion.

Most likely, the upcoming anticorruption ‘push’ will result in firings and jail time for a bunch of low-level officials demanding small payments for routine stuff like a permit. Don’t get me wrong, these guys terrorize ordinary people every day and it is not a bad thing that they are punished.

But, treating corruption the same as air in a bike tire reveals the truly rotten character of the Russian state. They accept that corruption exists at all levels and even should exist. Putin has reportedly endorsed this view. It is just another tool to pursue certain ends, like eliminate adversaries or, in this case, promote ‘economic growth’. Really, the goal is to ease the pain of the sanctions, prop up Putin’s popularity, and thereby maintain Putin’s system. But Putin’s system relies on two pillars: popular support and bureaucratic support. Popular support comes from unflagging economic growth. Bureaucratic support comes from permitting officials to use their positions for ‘entrepreneurship’. Faced with low oil prices and the sanctions, how long before one of these pillars collapses?

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