Russia’s new draft Public Security Policy says that corruption ought to be considered a serious national security threat—something I’ve long argued—and also suggests that it is a growing challenge. After all,
We are seeing stable tendencies towards the merging of the interests of businesses and officials and inclusion in corruption schemes of officials and foreign businessmen.
Now, I don’t read “stable” in this passage as being a compliment, but rather meaning a continuing one, given that it is in the context of a process that is taking place, and the document admits that
The state of public security in Russia is characterized as unstable.
And this has a distinct impact:
Being a systemic threat to public security, corruption considerably complicates normal functioning of state bodies and local self-government bodies, hinders social reform and modernization of the Russian economy, causes serious concerns in society and mistrust of state institutions, and creates a negative image of Russia on the international scene.
Investigative Committee (SK) chief Alexander Bastrykin, who has been relatively quiet of late, popped up to testify that corruption had cost the state more than 9 billion rubles (about $270M) over the last two years, of which less than half (some Rs 4B) had been recovered. One might think that this would be an embarrassment, but he adopted a contradictory position of touting his successes and begging for more powers.
His successes, interesting enough, included within the 22,000 prosecutions, more than 2,500 prosecutions of “individuals with a special legal status” such as local elected officials (some 1,600), officials of local courts and legislatures (53), judges (16), Ministry of Internal Affairs investigators (more than 200) and even SK investigators (42).
Of course, in part this is about trying to prove to the Russian masses that this latest anticorruption campaign is real and not just rhetorical (just don’t ask about Serdyukov), but inevitably in the process it also potentially contributes to a drip-drip-drip delegitimation of the system, precisely the opposite from what Bastrykin—and Putin—intend.
But Bastrykin was also hawking his usual political agenda, trying to show that the SK is at the forefront of trying to cleanse the system, but that it needs more powers, specifically a longer time to conduct pre-trial investigations of corruption cases and the formation of a special finance police (which, needless to say, he is angling to control).
Meanwhile, in contrast to Bastrykin’s efforts to portray a picture of success, Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman was sounding a warning, that too few major corruption crimes were being detected and brought to court. Indeed, his view is that there was actually a worsening trend: “the number of organized corruption crimes revealed over the first six months of the year has halved compared to the previous year.”
So fewer cases may be being spotted and brought to court, but what happens when they are? According to Bastrykin, “Since 2011, the Investigations Committee has instituted almost 57,000 criminal cases relating to crimes of corruption, 22,000 of which were sent to court.” Of those cases—as is the norm in Russia—there were practically no acquittals, some 1% of cases. That could say much about how well the SK prepares its cases, or much about the compliant nature of Russian courts; the truth is probably somewhere in between.
But even convictions aren’t the end of the story. Fewer people are going to prison: “If two years ago, 25% of those convicted of corruption crimes were sentenced to prison terms, now this figure is 8%.” As Bastrykin added, “Maybe this is good,” and he is probably right in that custodial sentences are rarely useful and always expensive to society, but not if this means that the corrupt are getting off scot free, or over-lightly. He added that only 1% of fines levied have actually been paid: of the Rs. 20 B ($600M) in fines, only Rs. 20M had actually been paid, leaving Rs. 19,980M outstanding.
Seriously? The Federal Bailiffs Service can’t collect 99% of fines? So fewer cases are being detected, and of those which are detected and prosecuted, a dwindling proportion go to prison and the fines levied as an alternative to prison don’t get paid.
Why not be corrupt, then? No wonder that the Kremlin is unhappy with the status quo, deciding to set up an anti-corruption directorate within the Presidential Administration. Now, “setting up a new government department” tends not to equal rapid and decisive action in any bureaucracy, but in this case there are some grounds for thinking it might actually mean something. Its new chief, Oleg Plokhoy, was once in the KGB and was previously in the PA’s personnel department; lest there be any ambiguity, in such a system that tends to mean “knows all the dirt and where the bodies are buried.” Perhaps more to the point, he is a client of Evgeny Shkolov, the long-time Putin associate, KGB veteran and Kremlin fixer (Brian Whitmore memorably dubbed him “Putin’s Little Helper”). According to PA chief of staff Sergei Ivanov—guess what, another KGB vet: beginning to see a pattern yet?—Plokhoy’s role will essentially be to encourage and ensure that other agencies actually do their job.
Even Alexei Kudrin, that enigmatic member of the loyal kinda-opposition, is advocating a change, even while sounding unusually complacent about the survival of corruption:
We always argue over how to fight corruption and we see things differently. Correct setup and systemic control, the system of work of organizations and monitoring of staff create less corruption. If one left everything as it is now, we will definitely not win against corruption. [However] Corruption will be generated all the time and we will be always lagging several steps behind.
Nevertheless, my suspicion is that even now Kudrin tends to speak the truths Putin wants, or at least is willing to have spoken, suggesting the boss is happy to be induced to increase the pressure. After all, for Putin, the anticorruption campaign is important for three reasons: to stop the hemorrhage of state resources at a time when they are going to be needed; to shore up what otherwise is a vulnerable flank open to exploitation by Navalny and the opposition; and as a weapon against less-than-wholly loyal elements of the elite. Just because he has a pragmatic angle doesn’t mean he is not willing to push it, at least up to a point. The Serdyukov case has proven that ultimately loyalty and utility trump all else.
Putin has asserted that “We shall continue our efforts, in earnest, to eradicate this evil, notwithstanding, I repeat, posts or party affiliation. Let everyone know this.” That’s great and every step forward in fighting corruption is to be encouraged. However, it looks as if we might be seeing a new front opening in the rolling, all-against-all silovik wars, as the KGB-heavy Presidential Administration starts parking its tanks on Bastrykin’s lawn. I, for one, am getting the popcorn and settling down to watch the show.