20 years under Putin: a timeline

Every year Transparency International issues the Corruption Perceptions Index, which currently ranks Russia 133rd out of 176 countries in terms of how corrupt its public sector is perceived to be. To complement this portrait of world corruption, the organization also develops a study entitled The Global Corruption Barometer. IMR Advisor Boris Bruk discusses the latest report.



This month, the international nongovernmental organization Transparency International presented the findings of the largest-ever survey of worldwide public opinion on corruption, which it has titled the “Global Corruption Barometer 2013.” In total, 114,000 people from 107 countries participated in the study. The survey showed that more than half of the respondents believe that within the last two years, overall corruption has worsened. Only a few countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Cambodia, reported declining levels of corruption. A perceived increase in corruption was accompanied by decreased trust in political parties, as well as increased concerns about the work of the authorities.

In 51 countries, political parties were considered the most corrupt institutions; in 36 countries first place was “achieved” by the police, while citizens of 20 countries perceive the judicial institutions to be the most corrupt. At the same time, the good news is that a significant number of citizens believe that they can make a difference and can play an integral role in the war on corruption. Approximately nine out of ten respondents expressed their willingness to take action, and two-third of respondents say they have refused to give a bribe in one situation or another.

The Global Corruption Barometer demonstrates that 92 percent of Russian citizens consider corruption a problem (79 percent believe it is a “serious problem”). Over 80 percent of respondents pointed out that in the public sector, an individual needs personal connections to achieve certain goals. Eighty-five percent of Russians believe that power is concentrated in the hands of particular interest groups that exclusively pursue their own objectives. And in general, Russian citizens do not trust the institutions immediately engaged in the fight against corruption.

Only 5 percent of Russians positively assess the authorities’ anticorruption measures, while 77 percent consider them ineffective.

According to the report, Russia is one of seven countries in which citizens consider public officials and civil servants to be the most corrupt members of society, a view held by 92 percent of respondents in Russia. Corrupt officials and civil servants are followed by the police. Despite the recent police reform, which has involved significant expense (just changing the name from “militia” to “police,” which necessitated new signage, uniforms, and rubber stamps, was estimated to have cost over $30 million), 89 percent of Russians consider the police corrupt or very corrupt. According to Anton Pominov, deputy director of Transparency International-Russia, “Signs were changed, the uniform was changed, but corruption indicators worsened.” Third place is held by the judicial institutions, which are considered corrupt by 84 percent of Russians, followed by the legislature at 83 percent. Corruption was least frequently mentioned in reference to religious organizations (40 percent) and NGOs (45 percent).

The study showed that only a small number of Russian citizens believe that the official anticorruption campaign (spearheaded by Dmitri Medvedev in 2008) and related activities have brought positive changes. Estimates offered by Transparency International demonstrate that only 5 percent of Russians positively assess the authorities’ anticorruption measures, while 77 percent consider them ineffective.

It is well known that Russia’s corruption problem is not new; one might recall the famous words writer and historian Nikolai Karamzin used to describe the situation in Russia over two hundred years ago: “They Steal!” As several commentators have noted, corruption has become a kind of “norm in politics, economy, and social life.” Now that corruption levels have exceeded all thinkable limits, the problem has been acknowledged even by those who tried to deny it in the past. According to Elena Panfilova, head of Transparency International-Russia, at some point, Russian authorities “intercepted” the opposition’s anticorruption initiatives, “realizing that the only way to get rid of the slogan of ‘crooks and thieves’ was by showing that it is not only this [ruling] party that has crooks and thieves, which triggered procedures targeted at the opposition leaders, including Alexei Navalny. By intercepting the agenda, they are saying: we are trying to get these crooks and thieves.”

As part of the official agenda, exposures of corruption continue. One of the most recent official reports discusses cases of corruption in the army. According to the estimates of the Military Prosecutor’s Office, damage from military corruption has “increased by 5.5 times and exceeded 4.4 billion rubles” (over $133 million) this year alone. The same source reports that every third corruption case involves public servants and/or civil personnel.



Despite cases of corruption exposure and the rhetoric of political leaders, public perception of the current situation is not changing for the better. According to Georgy Satarov, president of INDEM (“Informatics for Democracy”) Foundation, “In Russia, there cannot exist a consistent anticorruption policy, because in that case, it would have to be aimed at the system itself—a system that is based on corruption. This is not in the interest of the political leadership, since it would undermine its foundation, which has been formed by the corrupt bureaucracy.”

Within the context of the official fight against corruption, which demonstrates the lack of uniform application of law, Russian society has become increasingly permeated with cynicism and distrust. For example, citizens hear about Evgenia Vasilyeva (who was charged with large-scale fraud in the Oboronservis case) freely shopping in boutiques, taking advantage of her privilege of three-hour strolls, or of Iosif Reikhanov, the former deputy prefect of Moscow’s North-Eastern Administrative District, on whom a five-year conditional sentence was imposed when he was found guilty of embezzling 376 million rubles ($11 million). As Panfilova points out, “When people learn about such cases, which involve people close to power, and, by contrast, other cases, in which people go to jail for stealing a wallet or for being in opposition to the power holders, they do not get the impression that the legal system works.”

This application of weapons of selective destruction is accompanied by attacks on those who, as international practice shows, should be the allies of the state anticorruption machine. Here we are talking about civil society, which performs the task of independent oversight. In the fight against corruption, in addition to having the political will aligned with the cause, the participation of civil society is a prerequisite for success. It is especially important for countries in which endemic corruption prevails and public trust in official anticorruption efforts is low. Russian authorities, however, though they often declare that “the state considers civil society an important partner and ally in the fight against corruption,” in reality prefer to work with only a particular “pool of organizations of civil society, approved and empowered by the state.” Transparency International, a candidate for the status of “foreign agent,” does not have the privilege of overseeing the authorities, and the same is true for a number of other organizations of civil society.

Within the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of Russian citizens willing to undertake efforts against corruption.

It may sound like a matter of common sense, but to achieve progress in the fight against Russian corruption, a change of mentality and, as a consequence, a change in problem-solving methods, is needed. While the authorities have been trying out partial remedies (which are presented to the public as a demonstration of the “real” political will), and working on cases against their “potential” allies in civil society, a noticeable shift is occurring elsewhere in society. Russian society has been maturing, and new ways of thinking are becoming more apparent. These ways of thinking reveal a substantial demand for change.

In this context, the observations presented by Transparency International are not surprising. Russians, who have traditionally been considered “voiceless,” currently expect changes and want to advance them. Within the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of citizens willing to undertake efforts against corruption. Today, 45 percent of Russians believe that the average citizen’s contribution to the fight against corruption is important. The study showed that 86 percent of Russians say they are currently willing to report cases of corruption (by comparison, three years ago, this number was only 50 percent).

Interestingly enough, the country’s very perception of corruption has been changing. Corruption used to elicit a certain degree of irritation from the Russian people, but in general it was tolerated. Things have changed, however; corruption is now considered to be one of the major problems facing Russian society, putting it on level with problems of employment, access to medical services, and education. According to a spring 2013 survey by the Levada Center, corruption and bribery are among the key issues of concern in Russia: 39 percent of respondents indicated “corruption and bribery” as their key issue of concern (an increase of 16 percent compared with 2006). The Levada Center survey showed that the problem of corruption trailed only two categories: “increase in prices” and “poverty/impoverishment of a major part of population.”

Today, Russians consider corruption to be “the highest level of social injustice.” According to Yuli Nisnevich, a Transparency International-Russia board member and professor of the Higher School of Economics, corruption in Russia “goes off the scale. The authorities should pay attention to this, but they are acting in the opposite direction.” Within the context of the issue of social justice, tension in society has been increasing, with accompanying high levels of aggression and anxiety (the Center for Strategic Research estimates the current anxiety level in Russia to be at 65 percent, and at 84 percent in Moscow). These high levels match closely the high “readings” of the 2013 Corruption Barometer, and make us—again—reflect on what we are seeing.