MOSCOW BLOG: Hard graft for Medvedev

By bne IntelliNews March 23, 2010

bne -

Russia has launched its first ever anti-corruption drive, but despite almost two decades of crying out for exactly these reforms, the overwhelming reaction of the media and public has been to write off the effort and complain about corruption more loudly than ever.

Take Newsweek's cover story in March entitled, "Moscow's Phony Liberal: how Medvedev's reforms are strengthening the authoritarian regime." The piece ridiculed the president's reforms and dismissed them as "skin deep."

The article is an exercise in cynicism. It reports never-seen-before changes, but immediately writes them off in asinine fashion, without offering any evidence that they are some sort of cosmetic cover-up without substance. For example, Newsweek writes: "[Medvedev] recently ordered the firing of 10,000 cops and 16 top police officials, and warned them to 'stop terrorising' private business... In reality, however, Medvedev's two years in office have seen much talk of radical change, but only skin-deep reforms."

So the sacking of 10,000 cops and 16 generals is not a step forward? Maybe this is insubstantial if it were not for the fact that a bill to reform the police force had not passed through the Duma in February. Or that over 140 policemen in Moscow were charged with corruption last year and 30 of them jailed. Or that both the Interior Ministry and the General Prosecutors office have both set up new anti-corruption units, both of which are talking openly about the size of the problem and brought over 170,000 cases against bureaucrats last year. Or that the Interior Ministry has recently been reshuffled and two new deputies ministers appointed to improve the accountability of the police. Or that Medvedev says a major reshuffle of the police will follow that of the Interior Ministry soon.

Indeed, over the last few months, there has been news of an arrest or sacking of some sort of policeman almost every week. Taking one example from the end of February, two top Moscow police officials were fired after officers under them were accused of kidnapping a Belarusian businessman and his son for ransom in what was clearly designed to be a public warning to the rest of the force.

Okay, none of this is going to end corruption in Russia anytime soon. The police force is rotten to the core. You can even question how effective these reforms are going to be; the Interior Ministry itself says that economic crime was up eightfold in 2009. But that's not the point. These measures are clearly not just window dressing to keep the Kremlin's detractors at bay (not that the Kremlin has ever cared much what its detractors say about it), but a real attempt to finally do something about corruption.

Creeping reform

There are plenty of points of attack if you want to take issue with how the Kremlin is dealing with tackling the corruption issue, the main one being that all these reforms are happening too slowly.

Russia has reached the point where it has to do something about graft if it is to keep growing. Most of the growth so far has come, first from using up spare Soviet-era capacity, then from building new factories. But to keep up the fast pace of growth, adding more production lines won't help: Russia will never be truly competitive unless it improves the efficiency of the economy and the Kremlin realises Russia is at that point now.

The irony of this Newsweek piece (unlike so many others) is that it points out why the reform is going slowly: Putin and Medvedev are terrified of losing control of the process in the way that Gorbachev lost control in the 1980s. The years that followed Gorbachev's departure were not exactly good to Russia.

The Kremlin has also made this fear explicit. Yevgeny Bazhanov, vice chancellor of research and international relations at the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, said in a recent oped in the Moscow Times: "Gorbachev focused on political reforms [in 1987], hoping to rally the people behind his reforms. But this backfired on him... Thus, the Soviet Union was caught in a vicious circle of political and economic instability. Gorbachev's political reforms led to a debilitating political conflict between liberals and conservatives within the Kremlin, which made it impossible to institute economic reforms."

Putin lived through this era (although Medvedev was still a student then) and doesn't want to make the same mistake again. You can argue about the rights and wrongs of Putin's approach, but more damaging is the disingenuous and deliberate misrepresentation of what is going on in Russia today by outsiders, who refuse to admit there has been any progress at all. There is a real debate to be had here, but most commentators limit themselves to slinging mud as it sells more papers.

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