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RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly
Vol. 3, No. 28, 16 July 2003
By Robert Coalson

The last temptation is the greatest treason; To do the right thing for the wrong reason. -- T.S. Eliot, "Murder In The Cathedral"

To judge by the last three weeks, the battle against corruption in Russia is, finally, well and truly under way. On 23 June, seven senior law enforcement officers were arrested on allegations of gross extortion and abuse of office, ranging all the way up to murder. On the surface, the case paid immediate dividends in the form of an apparent breakthrough and several arrests in connection with the 23 April slaying of Duma Deputy and Liberal Russia co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov. Almost lost in the hubbub was the 1 July arrest of three border guards from Moscow's Sheremetevo airport, who are accused of helping an undetermined number of wanted criminal suspects to flee the country.

However, even as Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov was making the first of many pronouncements about the cases, pundits were plumbing the political dimensions of the developments. In Russia, of course, as in any election-driven political system, everything becomes charged during the run-up to a major campaign. And the official start of campaigning for the 7 December Duma election is just weeks off. Gryzlov is the head of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party.

The opposition Communists and Yabloko unofficially launched their Duma campaigns with a vote of no confidence in the government in mid-June. Although the motion failed, the debate gave the opposition the opportunity -- one that could not be wholly ignored even by the state-controlled national television networks -- to air their grievances. And high among them was the government's inattention to corruption. Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii charged that the government is full of "temporary people" who are filling their bank accounts and preparing to leave the country. "Can you imagine what they are putting into their coffers in the meantime?" Yavlinskii asked rhetorically.

Of course, the latest anticorruption efforts are not a direct response to the no-confidence vote, but the way the arrests were stage-managed might have been. Analysts wondered why Gryzlov was making all the public pronouncements -- some of them made from Unified Russia's pressroom -- while the Federal Security Service and the Prosecutor-General's Office were doing all the work.

The politicized context of the anticorruption drive has certainly not been lost on average Russians either. Forty-eight percent of respondents in a survey released on 7 July by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) said they believe the effort is "just another propaganda campaign," while only half that amount see it as "the beginning of a real clean-up in the Interior Ministry."

However, the politicized context of the latest drive is far more firmly entrenched than merely the looming Duma campaign, which explains why the public's cynical reaction is kicking in so rapidly. Another element, for instance, is Gryzlov's dual role as interior minister and Unified Russia head. A group of Duma deputies on 1 July once again raised this issue, which has come up periodically since Gryzlov took the post just as it did when Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu held it before him. Russian law forbids senior government officials from being members of political parties or engaging in political-party activities. Gryzlov, who might be expected as the country's senior law enforcement officer to eschew even the appearance of illegality, responded as he has in the past by saying that he is not a Unified Russia member and that he does all his party work in his spare time. The increasingly cynical public can certainly be forgiven for thinking that its police chief is playing games with the law.

Even more broadly speaking, Russia's political context has been tainted by the practice of promoting officials who are widely believed to be corrupt. On 16 June, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, whose administration has been lambasted for corruption for years by former presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Viktor Cherkesov and who saw six of his deputy governors targeted for criminal investigations, was named deputy prime minister. He followed in the dubious footsteps of former Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, who was made head of the State Fisheries Committee; scandalous former Kremlin property chief Pavel Borodin, who was made secretary of the Russia-Belarus Union; and others. Such moves might have been made in order to ease these people out of posts in which they had become firmly entrenched, but an important consequence of these tactics is a sharp loss of public confidence in the government's motives.

The contemporary political context has also been shaped by openly antidemocratic Kremlin efforts to manipulate local elections. Observers of the just-beginning gubernatorial campaign in St. Petersburg are warning that events could unfold as they did in July 2000 in Ingushetia, or in October 2000 in Kursk Oblast, or in June 2001 in Primorskii Krai. In all those cases, leading candidates were eliminated from the ballot at the 11th hour in bids to pave the way for Kremlin-friendly contestants.

Finally, the Russian political environment is still reeling from the government's campaign in 2000 against the then-independent NTV. President Vladimir Putin, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin, and others uniformly ascribed that takeover as purely a business dispute. Few people believed this line then, and it has become considerably more threadbare in the light of the subsequent "business disputes" that shut down TV-6 and TVS, leaving the government with a total monopoly of national television -- by far the most influential source of national news and information -- on the eve of the elections.

Obviously, the list of such context-determining events is nearly endless. What has been created, however, by the accumulation of such events is an atmosphere in which the government is severely constrained by the justifiable public perception that it is usually or always insincere and manipulative. Even if the political will was found to address seriously any of Russia's most daunting problems -- such as administrative reform, energy-sector reform, banking-sector reform, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on -- the government's ability to do so is limited by the easily manipulated expectations of a public that is actively seeking a political subtext.

Putin took office in 2000 with a nebulous platform that could be boiled down to the two slogans "dictatorship of law" and "managed democracy." What his first term has shown is that these two concepts are mutually exclusive. He now faces a situation in which it is increasingly difficult for him to do the right thing -- such as curbing official corruption -- because any such effort is distorted by the lens of the Kremlin's political manipulations. The administration is now paying the price for the shortcuts it has taken to establish political stability and a reliable vertical power structure.

Robert Coalson is a Prague-based editor for "RFE/RL Newsline."

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