May 4, 2009
Anti-Graft Measure Fails to Impress the Public
By Anna Malpas / The Moscow Times
When senior officials declared their incomes and those of their wives and children last month, some claimed that they owned tiny apartments and ancient cars -- while others said they earned as much as $11 million and owned snazzy Porsches and Lexuses.
Ordinary Russians merely shrugged; they expected nothing less.
"The declarations didn't make any real impact," said Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, a think tank. "There's no challenge to society. The public didn't expect anything different."
But President Dmitry Medvedev did succeed in ruffling feathers by forcing top officials to reveal their incomes as part of an anti-corruption drive, a flagship program of his administration. Many mid-level bureaucrats have good reason to worry; they will be next, analysts said.
Officials had to include property and earnings by their wives and underage children for the first time in their income declarations.
Several officials claimed to own no cars, or only a 10-year-old car, like Medvedev's wife, Svetlana, who is often photographed in designer outfits. Several officials said they owned no property at all, like Vladislav Surkov, the powerful first deputy head of the presidential administration.
On the other hand, some officials declared extreme wealth, such as Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, who put his earnings at about 370 million rubles ($11 million) and listed among his property a Porsche Cayenne and a Porsche 911.
The staff at the Prosecutor General's Office also published their declarations, revealing that Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, could vacation in the Czech Republic in an apartment owned by his wife. This inflamed United Russia Deputy Alexander Khinshtein, who told Kommersant that it was "nonsense" for a senior official's family to own property in a NATO country. Bastrykin also declared earnings of 5,255,800 rubles ($156,702), more than Medvedev (4.13 million rubles, or $123,900) or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (4.6 million rubles, or $138,350).
Opinion polls on the declarations have shown mixed results. A VTsIOM poll found that 31 percent of Russians rated the idea of the declarations as an "excellent, long-overdue anti-corruption measure."
Meanwhile, an informal poll conducted on the web site of Vedomosti asked if the publication of the declarations was an effective anti-corruption measure. Eighty percent of respondents said "no."
"The average Russian understands very well that a bureaucrat can't be poor," said Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information. "Medvedev practically took no risk" in requiring the declarations. "There was never going to be any public outrage. That would be nonsensical."
Public interest in the declarations is rather selective, Mukhin said. People were interested to read about Medvedev and Putin but felt "indifference" to the rest. They would rather see oligarchs' earnings, he said.
Medvedev, however, is thinking beyond immediate popularity, said Tatyana Stanovaya, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.
"This is a personal, historic project of Medvedev that is not linked to short-time aims of raising public faith in officials right now," she said, pointing to a speech that Medvedev gave to a group of human rights activists late last month.
Medvedev told the activists that many people had told him not to get involved in fighting corruption, saying, "Why bother, because you won't solve it quickly all the same?" The president also described his anti-corruption campaign so far as "modest steps."
"Medvedev is thinking like a lawyer," Stanovaya said. "It's the beginning of a very long journey."
Medvedev was unable to push through legislation forcing lower-ranking officials to declare their families' income and property this year. Instead, State Duma deputies postponed those declarations to 2010.
Deputies "turned the bill into a damp squib," Mukhin said. "Medvedev was clearly not happy."
"There's a standoff between the bureaucracy and what the president wants," Kabanov said.
Things promise to get interesting next year when the legislation takes effect for lower-level bureaucrats, Mukhin said. The declarations will be used to remove the "most-hated figures" and the "unjustifiably rich" from among lower-ranking officials, he said. "Bureaucrats are about to have a mass inventory."
The legislation, however, lacks a clear explanation of who should check the declarations and concrete punishments for providing false information.
It would be more effective for officials to declare not only income but their families' business interests as well, said Vladimir Yuzhakov, an analyst at the Center for Strategic Research. "It often happens that an official makes decisions on an enterprise where he has shares or his wife is on the board," he said.
The recently released declarations are a source of some real information, but they need to be taken with a pinch of salt, said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who tracks Kremlin politics and recently joined United Russia.
"In fact, their earnings are more," she said.
She said the high earnings or property attributed to wives and children raise red flags about possible corruption.
Nevertheless, there are numerous ways that officials gain material benefits without having to declare them. Many officials drive cars that belong to their organizations or register their chauffeurs as owners of their cars, Mukhin said.
Officials enjoy perks ranging from free vacations at state resorts to the free use of state apartments that they can privatize after only one year, Stanovaya said. "There should be monetization of officials' privileges," she said.