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Russia Profile
May 28, 2009
Tilting at the Windmills of Corruption
One Year into the War on Corruption, Medvedev’s Crusaders Have Few Victories
By Roland Oliphant

On Wednesday the Head of the Ministry of Justice and the Chairman of the Supreme Court delivered a report to the Federation Council on the results of the first year of President Dmitry Medvedev’s “war on corruption.” They could only admit what everybody already knows: that there are few successes to report, the police are amongst the most corrupt institutions, and that they are battling against a worryingly high level of “tolerance” for corruption amongst the public.

Dmitry Medvedev’s battle with the many-headed monster that is corruption in Russia is now one year old, and yesterday two of the generals in that crusade ­ the Chairman of the Supreme Court Vycheslav Lebedev and Ministry of Justice Chief Alexander Konovalov ­ presented their progress report to the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament.

But it was less a progress report than a weary roll call of familiar woes. After a year of work, admitted Konovalov, there was still no “fundamental shift” against corruption in the country. According to the Kommersant daily, the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for Russia’s notoriously ill-regarded police, was to no one’s surprise singled out for particular criticism, along with the tax-services, the Ministries of Health and Education, and the future inspection service. Imperfect legislation that leaves loopholes for corruption, poor quality of civil service personnel and an absence of civil society were identified as “factors contributing to the problem.”

But admitting the scourge and scale of corruption has always been the easy bit. President Medvedev has been declaiming on the issue since before he was in the office, and has even followed up on his rhetoric with headline-catching transparency initiatives. Earlier this year he published his and his own family’s details, and signed a decree ordering other officials to do the same. Civil servants will have to make their tax details available if journalists request them.

Those attempts to lead by example have not exactly been ignored - earlier this month 20 regional governors fell over themselves to declare their incomes, and yesterday the Interior Ministry announced that in the future, police officers will have to submit their tax declarations to their superiors and may face dismissal if their information is found to be incomplete or misleading. But if Lebedev and Konovalov are to be believed, they do rather miss the point. The vast majority of bribes paid in Russia, Lebedev noted before the Federation Council, are “small in size” ­ or around $200, according to Kirril Kabanov of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, an NGO. That kind of cash-in-hand bribe is unlikely to be discovered by even the most careful examination of a police officer’s tax return.

From the beginning Medvedev’s transparency drive suffered from a certain credibility deficit. A survey by the state-run VTsIOM pollster in October found that almost two-thirds of Russians (62 percent) believed that the mere “promotion and enhancement of justice” would not contribute to the fight against corruption, preferring concrete measures like harsher penalties and a better enforcement. The president’s subsequent string of decrees and an increase in the number of prosecutions (Lebedev claimed that the number of corruption cases going to court is up by 18 percent) may be meant to convince the public that he can back rhetoric with action. But critics say he is still fiddling at the edges of a much bigger problem.

Kabanov argues that singling out low-level corruption in the Interior Ministry and the other government agencies that Konovalov named is actually a red herring. “Low level corruption is only ten to 15 percent of the problem,” he said. “It is easy to prosecute some cop or teacher who has taken a small bribe. If the president was really serious about tackling corruption he would go to the high levels ­ governors, ministers and so on.”

Kabanov frankly admits that he finds it “hard to believe” that there is no corruption amongst members of the presidential administration, but also concedes that to try to tackle that level of corruption is beyond the president’s means ­ to even try would be political suicide.

If Kabanov is right, then minister Konovalov’s blaming of legal loopholes, sub-standard civil servants and the “absence of civil society” is a euphemistic evasion of the fact that the political system within which he works holds the president of Russia hostage. The shortcomings of legislation are irrelevant so long as the legal system lacks any independent power of its own (and a recent move to make the chairman of the Supreme Court appointed by the president, instead of being elected by his peers, is hardly likely to improve matters). That makes sensible moves like Konovalov’s suggestion to cut the number of civil servants, or promises of new laws - Lebedev announced that the Supreme Court had drafted a federal constitutional law on the Supreme Court and courts of general jurisdiction, as well as a on a code of judicial ethics ­ somewhat empty.