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Russia Profile
November 19, 2009
Grafting the Future
Despite the President’s Proclaimed War on Corruption, Over the Past Year Russia Gained a Mere Tenth of a Point in TI’s Corruption Index

By Tom Balmforth

Sponsors of President Dmitry Medvedev’s anti-corruption campaign have little to celebrate a year after its launch, since on November 17 Transparency International (TI) reported next to no improvement in Russia’s endemic corruption problem. TI’s Corruption Perception Index for 2009 ranked Russia in 146th place out of 180, placing the BRIC country on a par with Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone. Bribery in Russia currently costs the state an estimated $300 billion a year, almost a fifth of Russia’s 2008 gross domestic product, the corruption watchdog said on Tuesday.

At a time of economic crisis, when one of the hardest-hit countries is struggling to get back on its feet, Transparency International’s findings will be unwelcome even if they are unsurprising. “Honestly, I wouldn’t call Russia’s 0.1 score change any kind of ‘improvement.’ I would rather say that at least we did not slip down. This is the only good news, technically speaking. It means that the situation is stabilized and I believe there is a reason for that,” said Elena Panfilova, the director of Transparency International’s Moscow’s office. “Russia’s slim increase from 2.1 in 2008 to 2.2 in 2009 could be interpreted as a mildly positive response to the newly-adopted package of anti-corruption legislation initiated and promoted by president Medvedev and passed by the Duma in December of 2008,” TI said in its CPI 2009 Regional Highlights report.

Tackling “endemic” corruption was one of the main themes of Medvedev’s first year in office. He laid out his anti-corruption drive in the “National Plan on Fighting Corruption” published in August of 2008. The Russian president introduced four anti-corruption bills in October of the same year, including one that was enacted in December of last year, obliging high-level civil servants and public officials to declare all their sources of income and to list all assets belonging to them and their closest relatives. The latter in particular produced controversy after certain public officials made somewhat implausible declarations. Chechnya’s flamboyant President-cum-warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, who is said to be keeping a lion and an endangered species of tiger as pets, strained imagination when he declared that he lives in a modest apartment in Grozny and drives a Zhiguli, the cheap, reliable car of choice amongst Russian taxi drivers.

Nonetheless, Panfilova came to the defense of Medvedev’s anti-corruption plan, saying that it had only recently passed through the “embryonic stage of creating a legal framework” and that its “implementation” stage was just now beginning. “Until very recently there was no serious legislation against corruption in Russia. Basically, almost a year and a half was spent to create the basic laws against corruption, the national anti-corruption plan, the mechanism to regulate ‘conflict of interest,’ the mechanism to regulate the assets and income of public officials. It’s very difficult for anyone from the West to understand but, both conceptually and legislatively, these things are pretty new for Russia,” she said.

“The national plan is good. Of course it’s not excellent, but it’s good,” said Kirill Kabanov, the chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Council, an NGO. Having provided Russia with a working definition of corruption and a legal framework for it, Russia’s anti-corruption drive now faces the larger challenge of establishing an effective mechanism for implementing and enforcing anti-corruption laws. “I would say that from the perspective of developing the legal framework of anti-corruption measures, [Medvedev’s program] was relatively successful, but the much tougher task is now ahead of us and that is implementation,” said Panfilova. “Of course we will see a lot of nonsense and we have already seen a lot of nonsense with the declarations. That is why it is important to see who will be in charge of the procedure for controlling these declarations that have been established - is there going to be any public control over it, is there going to be the possibility for the media to have control over it?”

Implementation of new anti-corruption legislation will be a serious challenge because “we’ve never had this kind of norm,” said Panfilova. On the one hand she said it is significant that “finally in January this year, after 19 years of struggle, it was agreed that the Freedom of Information Act, the law which regulates informational exchange between citizens and public bodies, would start to work on January 1, 2010.” But, on the other hand, “we still don’t have people sufficiently trained in implementing it…it remains to be seen how it’s going to work, how it’s going to be implemented. Is there going to be any oversight from the central government? Will there be any public oversight? All these issues remain to be seen,” she said.

Corruption was one of the buzzwords in Medvedev’s recent State of the Nation Address, which stressed above all the need for Russia to modernize. In an interview to Radio Free Europe on November 18, Jana Mittermaier, the head of Transparency International’s Brussels office, said that corruption could well impede the recovery of some countries from the economic crisis. And Kabanov believes that this evaluation definitely applies to Russia. “Of course corruption is going to hinder Russia’s recovery from the economic crisis. Take a look at what is happening. People are even stealing from the Pension Fund. What more is there to say,” he said. Yulia Latynina, who hosts a political talk show on Echo of Moscow radio, argued in an article published in the Moscow Times that in the “‘power-vertical economy established by Vladimir Putin,” corruption costs Russia 50 percent of the GDP, and could account for as much as 70 to 80 percent.

Recovery from the economic crisis aside, corruption is still a major obstacle in Russia’s economic development and a thorn in the side of any plans to modernize the country. “Even if we manage to stabilize the situation financially and economically in Russia, if we never really tackle corruption on the broader scale we will always be slightly behind in our economic development because of it,” said Panfilova. Russia faired badly in the Corruption Perception Index in comparison with the other BRIC countries (Brazil, China, and India), which ranked 75th, 79th, and 84th respectively against Russia’s 146th. If Medvedev wants to make anything of his plans to modernize Russia, he must find an effective way to implement his anti-corruption laws.

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