INTERVIEW: Russia's anti-graft campaign opens Pandora's box

By bne IntelliNews September 22, 2011

Ben Aris in Moscow -

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has opened Pandora's box by launching his anti-corruption drive, says Elena Panfilova, head of corruption watchdog Transparency International. But precisely because the Kremlin is losing control of the process, she is optimistic the government's efforts to stamp out graft will actually succeed.

Arrests and sackings of prominent officials have become mundane; every branch of government is being targeted and examples are made of the most egregious abusers. The most recent apparatchik to be hung out to dry was former Tula governor Vyzcheslav Dudka, who was charged with corruption on September 5 for accepting a $1.3m bribe and placed under house arrest.

More chilling is the rising number of reports of police officers committing suicide, which some have linked to the increased pressure that officers are under. A week before Dudka's arrest, Alexander Peshekhonov, a village police chief in the Krasnodar region, shot himself and accused his superiors in a suicide note. No information is available on the trend and the Interior Ministry is refusing to comment.

Panfilova, who has been at the forefront of researching and condemning corruption in Russia, says the police force have had the rugged pulled out from under them. "For 10 years, [then president Vladimir] Putin left the police to do what they wanted. The power vertical was designed to take out the bandits and the oligarchs and so Putin needed a loyal law enforcement," says Panfilova, sitting in her small office that stands in the shadow of one of Moscow's seven Stalin-era skyscrapers. "The police were an army for stabilisation. They fought against street crime, terrorists and oligarchs, but the government turned a blind eye to everything beyond this. There was a culture that they were entitled to the money they took. Then Medvedev came along and changed the rules - he said all corruption was a crime."

Presidential policy

When Medvedev took over as president in 2009, he was looking for issues to make his own. Putin had mentioned corruption in nearly every of his "State of the Nation" speeches during his two terms in the office, but little, if anything, was actually done about it.

It was an easy issue to pursue, as many of the tools needed to crack down on graft were already in place; as part of Russia's membership to many of the European and global institutions it aspired to join, the Duma had already put things like western style anti-corruption laws on the books - just no one had bothered to implement them. "Russia wanted to be part of the G8 and therefore had to join the international conventions like the Council of Europe, which have anti-corruption rules. They were reluctant, but [the Kremlin] had to do it if it wanted to join these international organisations," says Panfilova.

However, the biggest change was Medvedev's broadening of the definition of "bribe." Putin was referring to petty corruption in his speeches, the RUB1000 note paid to a traffic cop if you ran a light or the brown envelopes paid to a teacher to get a place in a good school. Medvedev began to talk about was the $10m kickbacks that state employees were taking when awarding state procurement contracts.

Many commentators have written off Medvedev's "clean hands" campaign as window dressing, but Panfilova says the Kremlin could find that the policy may end up being more successful than it bargained for.

In order to make the campaign work, Medvedev has been forced to break several taboos surrounding official corruption - the main one being it has become permissible to talk about corruption in public. Newspapers and TV shows had avoided the topic before, as it was bound to get them into trouble; now they are obliged to report with fanfare any and all high-profile arrests. The result is that if the Kremlin wanted to stop the campaign - or even limit it - now it can't. "eMedia is allowed to write about the issue, people discuss it and civil society has quickly moved beyond the political definition of corruption. You have to look to trends like the appearance of [outspoken critic of the Kremlin] blogger Alexei Navalny, which was unexpected and inevitable," says Panfilova. "The Kremlin has opened a Pandora's box, but now they have to deal with it."

Onwards and upwards

The difficulty is where to go from here. Russia is far too large to follow tiny Georgia's example of simply sacking the entire police force. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili appointed two of his staff to oversee the transition, whereas Russia's police force consists of hundreds of thousands of officers scattered over 10 time zones. And the Kremlin dare not launch a systematic campaign of arrests either, as everyone in government is tainted; bureaucrats would stop doing their jobs and spend their entire efforts protecting themselves. Government would collapse.

Panfilova sees the story unfolding in four stages. First is a growing sense of frustration as the people continue to suffer from corruption due to the limits of the campaign. In the next stage, Russians will go online and look for like-minded people, and this is already happening. It is a short step from chat-room outrage to membership of a pressure group, and that will lastly lead to questioning the political status quo.

The Kremlin controls the political process, but it has a adopted a system of "managed democracy", which means it still needs to persuade a large proportion of the population to vote for the party of power. It doesn't have to listen to the popular will as hard as countries in the West, but it does need to pay some attention and if those voices grow louder... "The corruption campaign will inevitably lead to a political force for change," says Panfilova. "Medvedev is going to leave a legacy of good laws - mandatory income disclosure, a freedom of information act and others. In the right hands these good laws could make an enormous difference. But he is only a lawyer fighting corruption and not a leader - and that makes a big difference."

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