The Good Kind of Corruption

I recently went to the veterinarian to get a health certificate for my dog, which was needed to take him with me on a trip overseas. As the veterinarian started to shuffle through some papers, he said: “You can take your dog for a walk. There are so many new forms to fill out now that the process might take 20 minutes.”
Instead of going for a walk, though, I spent that time quizzing the doctor as to why something that six months ago required only five minutes to accomplish now took four times as long. “The bureaucrats have to find some way to justify their salaries,” he said.
But I must have touched a raw nerve because he began swearing about the amount of money he had been compelled to bribe officials to get a gas line installed at his dacha. “You have to give bribes everywhere! How will Medvedev be able to solve the problem?” the doctor said with a sigh as I prepared to leave. “If the new president steps on too many toes, someone is bound to get him.”
Later I realized that he had “forgotten” to give me a receipt. This is standard practice, however. Having charged me more than the state-determined fee, he didn’t want any record of it floating around.
This example illustrates something that must be kept in mind in the fight against corruption, which President Dmitry Medvedev apparently understands, judging from his remarks. In Russia, corruption is an ingrained way of life. If you read classic 19th-century Russian literature — Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Leskov, Chekhov — you’ll find descriptions of all types of bribes, from the harmless “thank you” gift to a bureaucrat for simply doing his job to outright kickbacks that are so prevalent today.
During the elections in June 1991 for the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, businessmen from the Don and Kuban regions in southern Russia, who were also conservative Communists, voted for their nemesis, Boris Yeltsin. This is because Yeltsin was an established political figure by 1991. These businessmen-cum-Communists knew that a change of leadership is often accompanied by an increase in the cost of bribes charged by the victors and their supporters in the bureaucratic ranks. The businessmen still had to pay bribes during the Yeltsin years, but the expenses were considered to be a manageable cost of doing business. Therefore, it made sense from a business perspective for them to support the “devil they knew” rather than the Communists. This also explains why many small and mid-size entrepreneurs voted for United Russia in the last State Duma elections rather than the two parties that are clearly more pro-business in their party platforms — the Union of Right Forces and Yabloko.
Bribery is so pervasive in Russia that any attempt at a serious crackdown on it would necessarily require mass repression. Medvedev is, of course, not willing to take his fight against corruption that far. Therefore, he is not calling for the eradication but merely a decrease of corruption and red tape.
But my being overcharged by the veterinarian is, of course, small-time stuff in comparison with the large-scale corruption at the highest levels of government, where businessmen give bribes to bureaucrats and government officials demand kickbacks for access to budgetary funds and projects.
This same phenomenon is common in rapidly developing Southeast Asian countries, but one big difference there is that the money illegally earned in the black and gray markets is kept in the home countries and not siphoned off to overseas accounts, as wealthy Russians typically do.
I came up with a great slogan to help Medvedev carry out his anti-corruption program: “If you’re going to embezzle and extort, do it for the good of the country. Don’t send your money offshore!”

Alexei Pankin is the editor of IFRA-GIPP Magazine for publishing business professionals.