National Post (Canada)
June 14, 2003
Russians campaign to stamp out corruption
Bid to end bribery, graft as a way of life
By Matthew Fisher
SAMARA, Russia - In a country riddled with corruption, Russia's poorly paid police are a byword for graft and greed.
So it is odd the local police academy in Samara, a Volga River port about 1,000 kilometres east of Moscow, is one of the leading sponsors of anti-corruption week.
Odder still, they seem to be serious about trying to educate young officers and the public about the evils of corruption and the toll the scourge takes on the Russian economy.
About 10% of Russia's economic output is siphoned off by corrupt officials and businessmen. Many Russians reckon such calculations understate the problem.
But there are signs of change as Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, has made stamping out corruption one of the key aims of his government.
With some financial support from Moscow, the U.S. Agency for International Development and western-backed foundations, the Samara oblast, or region, recently organized its second annual anti-corruption week.
"This is not happening by accident," said Colonel Ivan Karpov, principal of the region's police academy, the Institute of Law.
"Our governor [Konstantin Titov] wants foreign businesses to invest here and knows that will be difficult if these businesses must cope with corruption. It is the governor's plan to free the region of corruption."
Col. Karpov knows Muscovites laugh at the notion of a police-backed anti-corruption drive. "But if we do not do this, who will do it?" said the 32-year police veteran.
"There are a lot of capable, moral people who want to change this. I looked into the eyes of the children last year and could see how interested they were in this subject."
As he spoke, some of the academy's 600 students crisscrossed a courtyard outside his office on their way to and from classes.
Their day begins with a daily run at 6:30. For the first of their five years of study, they have to live in barracks.
It is a Spartan existence in a quiet area far from the financial temptations to be found along the well-traveled Volga.
"It is not difficult to teach young policemen about corruption," the colonel said. "What is difficult is to get results."
A major reason for the difficulty is the abysmal pay levels of public employees. Even those in senior positions seldom make more than $200 a month, while hundreds of thousands get as little as $40 or $50 a month.
Pay in the private sector isn't much better.
Former communists who now own most of the businesses siphon off huge amounts of money for themselves, but pay most of their employees as little as those who work for the government.
So even in private business, many workers are looking for ways to augment their incomes.
Bureaucrats offer to perform routine services in return for money, vodka or airplane tickets. The lucky men who install telephones may ask for several thousand dollars to bypass the long wait to get connected.
Police can't change the pay levels but hope to make headway in the classroom.
The program's centrepiece is a series of seminars and round-table discussions with teachers.
Typical was the class on corruption taught by two law professors in a nearby town.
The 30 participants, all history teachers, were told corruption was a two-way street and could not exist if people were not willing to pay bribes. Citizens had a duty not to offer bribes and to report incidents when they were offered or accepted.
As part of the course materials, the teachers received brightly coloured flags and calendars emblazoned with the words, "korrupti nyet" (say no to corruption).
There was a surreal, naive quality to the gathering. The teachers, mostly in their 40s and 50s, were asked to define the word "corruption" and list professions known to take bribes.
They also had to describe situations they knew of where illicit payments had been given in exchange for favours.
The course participants set about this task with grim determination. Without a trace of irony or humour, they discussed whether an apple or a box of chocolates could be construed as a bribe.
But before long, they cut to the heart of the matter.
The police, in particular the GAI, or traffic police, were frequently mentioned as a group that demanded money for overlooking such "crimes" as having a dirty car or a bald tire.
Doctors and bureaucrats were also singled out.
In addition, the teachers were unanimous that their profession was cursed by corruption. Many took money from students or parents in return for good marks, they said.
"I've never accepted a bribe but it's hard not to if you want to have a better life," said Natalya Kuznetsova, a teacher and single mother who is paid $50 a month.
"My 18-year-old daughter wants to attend an institute where she can learn to design furniture this fall. But the school costs 30,000 to 40,000 rubles a year" (the equivalent of $1,330 to $1,775).
Karil Marsavin, a 22-year-old rookie teacher, said he had not taken a bribe, "but I know teachers who have and parents who are willing to pay money to teachers in order to secure a place for their children at university."
Added Alexander Gamin, 45, who oversees several local sports clubs, "There are lots of cases where there is bribery. It is difficult to change people and it is difficult to prove that a bribe has actually been offered or accepted."
But he believed the regional government's attempt to generate public discussion would make a difference.
"This is important, it is real and it can produce results," said the former Young Communist leader. "The people have to be shown that this is not just a show or a joke, but that this is something serious that hurts everyone."
Like the teachers, Mr. Gamin said corruption affected almost every sphere of life and the police were among the most susceptible.
"People say the police are very bad. Nobody defends us," said Denis Efimov, a garrulous 20-year-old and one of the top students at the police academy.
"Sure, there are police who are bad and impolite, but in general the bad reputation that police have is due to the behavior of the traffic police. There are many other branches of the police who do everything they can to help those who come to them with problems."
When Mr. Efimov graduates next summer, he will have to report to which ever branch of the police he is ordered to, including the infamous GAI.
After a few years, he will be able to switch to the branch of his choice. Detective work interested him a lot, he said, but he might also opt for the tax police, the transport police or a new unit that conducts most of its investigations using computers.
"I didn't join the police so that I could take bribes," Mr. Efimov said. "I signed up because I think that good police work will make Russia a better place."