Medvedev To Head Council On Graft

In one of his first major steps as president, Dmitry Medvedev on Monday said he would head a council to battle corruption, which he singled out as one of the country's worst woes.

Corruption experts praised Medvedev's willingness to assume personal responsibility, saying it showed that he was serious about this latest effort to clean up what one called a "national shame."

"Something needs to be done," Medvedev said at a Kremlin meeting in televised comments. "Enough of waiting."

Medvedev gave a group of senior Kremlin, government and law enforcement officials at the meeting a month to draw up a "national plan" to reduce graft, said Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, one of the participants. The plan could introduce tougher punishment for this offense, he said.

Current penalties for taking a bribe range from a fine to 12 years in prison.

In addition to Medvedev's council, the Kremlin's chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, said he would head up a new working group that will coordinate government agencies in the anti-corruption effort.

Frank Schauff, chief executive of the Association of European Businesses in Russia, said it was "pretty practical" to have the council as a political body and let the working group do the actual job.

Medvedev will add weight to the effort by heading the council, Schauff said. "I think it's a good sign that it's going to be taken seriously," he said.

Boris Titov, chairman of Delovaya Rossia, a lobby group for small- and medium-sized businesses, agreed that Medvedev's show of personal responsibility was remarkable. "It shows that the work is important and is doable," he said.

Then-President Vladimir Putin set up a council to combat corruption in late 2003 but stayed away from direct involvement in its work. The group met just once and yielded little, experts said. It was disbanded early last year.

Instead, Putin ordered then-Kremlin aide Viktor Ivanov to put together legislation to improve the situation. A bill that would place officials' finances under more control was scheduled to be ready last fall. Medvedev said Monday, however, that the bill required more work.

At the Kremlin meeting, Medvedev listed approaches to fighting corruption that included passing more bills to fill the legal gaps in the area and creating more transparency in government spending.

Courts should become more independent, but citizens should have a chance to appeal decisions by officials outside of the courtroom, Medvedev said. Those taking bribes should face the risk of destroying their careers, he said.

Those at the Kremlin meeting included Federal Security Service director Alexander Bortnikov, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev, chairman of the Supreme Arbitration Court Anton Ivanov and Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina. Another participant was Dmitry Afanasyev, a managing partner of law firm Yegorov, Puginsky, Afanasyev and Partners. His firm is a frequent government adviser on legal issues and he is a member of Delovaya Rossia's governing council, Titov said.

In one of the previous attempts to combat corruption in the judiciary, Anton Ivanov, a key Medvedev ally, submitted a bill to the State Duma in late 2006 that would require judges to report their incomes, cars, apartments and other property annually to the courts they serve. The bill did not make it through the Duma, however.

Such efforts could be more successful under Medvedev as president, said Vladimir Yuzhakov, an expert at the Center for Strategic Research, a think tank. He also called for a speedy passage of the Viktor Ivanov-sponsored bill. If enacted, the legislation would allow control not only over officials' incomes but also over their expenses and would extend that oversight to members of their families, he said.

The government should also regulate the activity of heads of state corporations that have sprung up recently to boost the development of capital-intensive industries, such as shipbuilding and airplane manufacturing, Yuzhakov said. These directors are not public officials, but they receive state funding to use at their discretion, he noted.

Titov said businesses needed a law on lobbying that brought interaction between them and lawmakers out from under the table. The government should raise officials' salaries and assure them of decent retirement terms so they lose an incentive to seek bribes, he said.

Law enforcement agencies should create departments for fighting corruption, he said.

Russia's low scores in world corruption rankings shows that it is in deep trouble, said Yelena Panfilova, director of the Russian chapter of global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. Last year, Russia scored just 2.3 out of 10 in an annual TI Corruption Perception Index, where 10 is the highest transparency ranking and 0 is the most corrupt.

"Anything under three is a national shame," she said. "It means … the situation has gotten totally out of hand."