President Putin still has time to fight corruption properly

Opinion poll results and numerous letters to this newspaper indicate how citizens would like to see Putin in his final round. They want him wearing boxing gloves, as an implacable corruption-fighter. Citizens consistently identify corruption as Russia’s greatest evil.

Vladimir Putin’s eight-year period in the Kremlin, now drawing to a close, is almost universally recognized as successful.

Stability, economic growth, the gradual retreat of poverty, returning Russia to the international big league, and even Sochi’s winning bid for the Winter Olympics…

Only the most recalcitrant still doubt that President Putin will leave office strictly on schedule – gracefully, observing the spirit and the letter of the Constitution.

But there is still some scope for the masters of political solitaire: they can try to guess what kind of effective gesture or action Putin may choose for the finale to the Kremlin 2008 drama. In effect, the political brokers are already taking bets on Putin’s final move. Various options are being mentioned. Removing Lenin’s body from the Mausoleum. Boris Berezovsky – on trial in Moscow. Pardoning Mikhail Khodorkovsky, with an impressive celebration of “the triumph of the law-based state” in the style of Catherine the Great. There might be a few dramatic dismissals of formerly “invulnerable” senior officials. And Russia’s feminists, enviously watching the parade of female politicians in Europe, might receive an unexpected gift from Putin – the nomination of a woman as his designated successor. So far, we only have one suitable woman: Valentina Matviyenko.

But the people have different expectations. Non-trivial expectations. Opinion poll results and numerous letters to this newspaper indicate how citizens would like to see Putin in his final round. They want him wearing boxing gloves, as an implacable corruption-fighter. This isn’t surprising. Citizens consistently identify corruption as Russia’s greatest evil – a festering wound. According to the Levada Center’s polls, corruption is “the greatest obstacle to economic growth.” The government agencies identified as most corrupt include the Healthcare and Social Development Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and the Economic Development Ministry.

None of the anti-corruption measures, laws, or directives implemented to date have produced any noticeable results. The corruption scandals that shake Moscow and the regions from time to time still remain “isolated incidents.” The Clean Hands anti-corruption program, which enabled Italy to get rid of influential corrupt individuals within a few years, isn’t working in Russia.

Last year, Russia passed a law permitting confiscation of assets acquired by corrupt means. This law still hasn’t come into force. The latest arrests of some officials at the Economic Development Ministry indicate that corruption is spreading higher and higher. The sums involved are very large. Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the Duma’s security committee, admits that “decision-making frequently gives priority to narrow mercenary interests over the interests of the state.”

The reason why corruption is so hard to stamp out lies in the scale of the shadow economy, and the excessive opportunities available to public servants in the course of issuing permits and licenses. There is also the problem of almost complete impunity. In Europe, corruption is restrained by the fear of losing substantial public service pensions, and a strict system of asset and income declarations for officials and their families. But in Russia the sums involved in kickbacks and bribes are so large that the fear of losing pensions pales before the temptation to earn a fortune from two or three corrupt deals. In Russia, no one questions how state officials, senior police officers, or judges come to possess luxury mansions. There are no effective controls over stolen money being taken out of the country and invested in property abroad.

Law enforcement chiefs openly admit that the Interior Ministry has “a wealth of evidence” to launch a large-scale anti-corruption purge. Names and details are known. However, certain authoritative experts caution that a rapid “surgical strike” against corruption would be impossible, or even harmful. They argue that Russia’s economic mechanisms are so dependent on being greased by corruption that drastic intervention could lead to open sabotage, have the reverse effect, and even “threaten stability.” This amounts to admitting that given the vicious circle between senior officials and the law enforcement agencies, an anti-corruption campaign cannot be launched without a direct order from the president.

One of our readers has calculated that the president manages to make four or five major decisions every day: that means 12-15,000 decisions over eight years. The reader asks a simple question: “Among all the numerous matters brought to his attention, can the president identify the greatest evil? Can he take all the political might he has accumulated over eight years and unleash it against corruption?”

There is still time for an answer.