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Russia Profile
April 9, 2009
What Hath the President?
A True Battle against Corruption Presupposes a Smaller Number of Bureaucrats
By Roland Oliphant

This week, Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin published declarations of their assets and earnings. It was, said Medvedev, a hint to other public servants to follow suit in disclosing not only their own earnings, but those of their spouses and children. Was this a welcome move to openness, or just window dressing? And can public moves like this come anywhere near to tackling the leviathan that is corruption in Russia?

The declarations made a few juicy headlines for gossip magazines Putin apparently earns more than his boss, with 4,622,000 rubles a year (plus a modest military pension) to Medvedevs 4,139,726 rubles. The Medvedevs own a single, roomy apartment of 367.8 square meters, the Putinsa more modest 72 square meters, and both own large plots of land. Little could be said about the unremarkable handful of cars listed. Lyudmila Putina apparently has no income or assets, and her husband did not list his savings, leaving plenty of room for speculation about the billions of dollars various newspapers in Russia and abroad speculate that he has accumulated.

Corrupt bureaucrats cost Russia billions every year. An exact figure is understandably difficult to come by. One of the most alarming ones was the one put forward in November 2006 by Alexander Buksman, the deputy chief prosecutor, who said corrupt bureaucrats were pocketing $120 billion a year almost the same as the states entire annual revenues.

Everyone acknowledges the scale of the problem, and it is universally condemned. When he was president Putin routinely lamented the scourge of corruption in Russia. In 2007 United Russia launched what it called a full scale offensive against corruption, and promised that under new legislation no one would be untouchable. Putins successor, Medvedev, has made the fight against corruption one of his trademark causes. But none of these initiatives have made any significant headway.

Nonetheless, Medvedev appears determined to at least make a show of taking the fight to the enemy. Medvedevs hint refers to his Federal Plan for the Reform of the Civil Service, which he signed on March 10. On March 15, in an interview to Channel One, he promised to lead by example. This weeks declaration is a delivery on that promise.

The key change is not the declaration of earnings; civil servants have long been obliged to submit such declarations, and Medvedev himself had to declare his earnings before running for president in 2008. But the new declaration broadens the types of assets that must be listed, and also obliges members of a civil servants immediate family to make similar declarations. That is meant to stop corrupt officials from hiding their ill-gotten gains by simply handing them over to a wife or child.

That, of course, will not stop bureaucrats from handing corrupt earnings to a second cousin or an in-law, which Medvedev, to his credit, acknowledges. Of course that could happen. Nevertheless, we have significantly expanded the state's powers in this area. And everyone will have to decide for himself: tell the truth about the income and property he or she owns, or hide it. And this, as you know, is finally a moral question, Medvedev told Channel One.

That reliance on the conscience of individual bureaucrats strikes many as nave, but it may actually reflect the truth that there is little else that can be done. Even the disclosures made by the president and the prime minister this week highlight the weaknesses of Medvedevs initiatives. The declarations are short on details (one might expect some declaration of gifts or a breakdown of income by source). Both mens relatively modest listed earnings and assets do not seem to fit with the expensive clothes they are often seen wearing; and most significantly, Putins savings are not listed.

That does not mean that Putin presides over a $40 billion fortune squirreled away in accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (as the political expert Stanislav Belkovsky claimed in a series of interviews to foreign media outlets in 2007), but it means that if he did, we wouldnt know. Declarations only work if people declare everything. And people tend only to declare everything if there are penalties for not doing so.

Maybe it will work, but we will only know in a while, when and if it is discovered that this or that official did not report openly, said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on society and the regions at the Moscow Carnegie center. But I cant see it causing any problems or struggle if, say Igor Sechin, did not report in full about his personal property. And it is not exactly defined what the punishment will be if his declaration is not full enough. Certainly, little outrage seems to have been provoked by Putins failure to report in full. So maybe it will come down to officials making their own moral decision.

Medvedev is the first to admit to the shortcomings of the campaign. In a speech to the Anti Corruption Council on March 10, he called the successes so far modest in the extreme. He called corruption a systemic problem that is especially difficult to fight in Russia, and acknowledges that it must be done over years. But he remains upbeat, and points to prosecutions in the regions as a sign of his determination.

Forty thousand criminal cases brought against those who violate state rules while in public service or local government. I am not even commenting on whether this is a big number or a small one, although it is more than in 2007, he said in his Channel One interview.

But he may be underestimating both the scale of the problem and the strength of the required remedy. A survey in 2006 of 40 Russian regions by Transparency International found a strong correlation between the level of corruption and the number of bureaucrats. That implies that anyone really serious about corruption would not only set out to punish offending officials, but to reduce their numbers. Unfortunately the authorities so far have proved either unwilling, or unable, to do any such thing. Indeed, outside observers have noted that while corruption dipped in Putins early period in office, it increased in the second half in correlation with his extension of the role of the state. Rolling back corruption might mean dismantling many of the structures that the current regime has built.

Petrov believes that fighting corruption will require systemic and radical change. The main feature of the nomenclatorial system is having a lot of different extra-salary perks and benefits, and thus being independent of your boss. So the system can punish anyone at anytime by cutting off these extras. If anything, this is a matter of giving leaders more leverage to control that system, said Petrov. The symbolism, he said, is quite correct - the only way to fight corruption is to throw open the system to scrutiny. The problem is that actually doing this would involve much more serious changes. The problem is absolutely huge, and these responses are by comparison cosmetic, Petrov said.