STOLYPIN: Corruption is Putin’s Achilles’ heel – and golden opportunity

By bne IntelliNews November 20, 2014

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


So the latest Levada Center opinion poll has found that 39% of Russians think that corruption now is worse than it was 15 years ago, when Vladimir Putin was just coming into office for the first time, and only 20% think it has got better. Yet, ironically enough, the proportion who think Putin probably or definitely is implicated, while still a hefty 40%, is at its lowest for some years. In this seeming contradiction, there may be an opportunity for him – but only if he is willing to challenge the elite and repudiate the social contract he has maintained with them until now. That would be an undoubtedly bold step, but it may also prove to be the only way he can actually maintain his position, or at least secure his place in Russian history.

Putin has talked much about the need to fight corruption. However, it is harder to see that he has matched words with deeds. To be sure, there is a steady stream of cases and convictions, but these are almost inevitably either relatively petty offenders or else those who have lost their political utility or protection. Not only do the most serious offenders enjoy seeming impunity, if anything the flow into their pockets of federal funds – still the most lucrative racket in the country – may even have increased of late.

So it is possible to read suggestions of a new campaign against corruption with a degree of jaundiced familiarity. Nonetheless, according to some reports, Putin is preparing in December to announce a serious and systemic crackdown on corruption, especially the predatory use of government oversight and inspection roles to extort payment from individuals and businesses.

Getting away with murder

Facing the prospect of long-term economic pressure from international sanctions – adding pain to what in any case would have been a difficult time for Russia, not least in light of the slide in oil prices – then, the calculation goes, such a measure is necessary for both economic and political reasons. It lessens the invisible burden on business, one inevitably passed on to consumers, which disproportionately burdens and deters small business. As well as hopefully providing a little respite to ordinary Russians watching inflation outstrip wage increases, it would also provide a powerful symbol of the Kremlin’s allegiance to the masses rather than the elite. After all, the respondents in that Levada poll also pointed to the police and regional and local officials and politicians as the most corrupt.

So while we have heard it all before, there is a chance that this time Putin really means it. Of course only to an extent; the president’s inner circle and the grandees on which he genuinely depends would no doubt be exempt, while truly rolling back the culture of endemic corruption will be a generational challenge. But at the very least the implicit rules of the game may be rewritten. The permissible scale of abuse of office could be made much more manageable, the level of impunity granted officials, especially at the local level, diluted.

Up to now, after all, local leaders could get away with murder – in some cases quite literally – so long as they did not embarrass or seem to challenge the state. Then, the state demonstrated its ability to respond in no uncertain terms: consider the commando raid, backed by armored vehicles, which saw Makhachkala’s hitherto-untouchable mayor Said Amirov arrested. But Amirov was just too obvious in his local empire-building ambitions, and made too many enemies in Moscow (not least, the Investigatory Committee, on officer of whom he is accused of having murdered). Others tend to be rather more circumspect, and thus safer.

Given that the Amirovs are the exceptions rather than the norm, a campaign against corruption will mean attacking the generalized bribe-taking and extortion that remains endemic within the country. To put it another way, this means a war against the elite.

Putin has long capitalized on his ability to appear to be the “good tsar” siding with the people against the “greedy boyars,” the new aristocracy everyone loves to hate. However, moving from occasional stage-managed dressings down of local officials and fixing carefully-chosen problems to a systemic campaign to change the very basis of officialdom’s relationship with the state is something very different. On whom could Putin rely given that the monitoring and policing agencies appear to be amongst the worst offenders? And does Putin – for all his macho image a cautious and risk-averse leader in the main – have the courage and will to turn on the people who made him what he is and through whom he rules the country?

Of course if he does not, then Russians will continue to pay this invisible tax and resentment at the effects will likely mount. Although so far there is no widespread sentiment that connects the effects of corruption in people’s lives with policies decided in the Kremlin, 40% of respondents in the Levada poll felt that Putin was definitely or probably aware of, or even complicit in these abuses. Navalny may well have failed to strike a chord outside the metropolitan set with his campaigns, but where there have been local setbacks for United Russia, largely in mayoral elections, it is because the insurgent candidates managed to play the anti-corruption card. The risk is that there is a vast potential political energy present, which could rapidly and unpredictably manifest itself if some catalytic individual or event emerged.

Siding with the people against the elite is a dangerous populist move, though. Putin has to date not looked like a potential Juan Peron and in domestic policy at least has tended to shy away from dramatic moves. The odds are that any new anti-corruption campaign will be another compromise, with a few more sacrificial goats, some tough rhetoric, but little real change – and as a result, the hopes of a cheap boost for the economy and a chance to re-legitimize the Kremlin on a new basis will again be dashed. Some 38% of the Russians polled by Levada felt that while the authorities would continue to the campaign, “corruption is indestructible.” Sadly, they are probably right.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs, School of Professional Studies, New York University, who writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows.

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