Throw Anti-Graft Plan in the Trash Heap
- By Georgy Satarov
- Oct. 15 2008 00:00
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At the first meeting of the Anti-Corruption Council on Sept. 30, President Dmitry Medvedev unveiled what he believes to be the key weapons in the battle against corruption. His "National Plan Against Corruption," which consists of a main anti-corruption bill and amendments to 25 laws, has been submitted to the State Duma for review and approval.
Unfortunately, the plan, which contains a collection of provisions randomly taken from the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, leaves a lot to be desired. The main problem is that the bill does not address the real sources of corruption in Russia. The document is like a travel route on a map in which the departure or destination points are not marked, with no compass or other means for orienting oneself on the way.
One of the biggest holes in the plan is that it does not address corruption where it is most rampant -- among elected officials and law enforcement officials. As it turns out, representatives from some of the country's most corrupt institutions have been charged with carrying out the battle against corruption. When the nation's foxes are guarding the chicken coops, it is clear that there will be little benefit from this plan.
The other problem with the anti-corruption plan is that it is just another internal bureaucratic method to try to fight this societywide contagion. These methods are useless when there are no external institutional checks and balances, such as a critical and independent media, independent courts, transparent government and fierce competition from political opponents.
In Russia, there is no separation of power to speak of, and the political opposition has been all but abolished. Independent media is limited to the Internet, a few small-circulation newspapers and perhaps one television station. There is no transparency in government. In a closed society like Russia, any battle against corruption a priori becomes a useless endeavor.
Even if top government officials were serious about fighting corruption, they would never undercut the current regime. This means that the bureaucracy will remain an uncontrollable Hydra. We already witnessed how this bureaucracy was "reformed" when former President Vladimir Putin initiated a different battle -- one against the growing bureaucratization of government, starting in 2005. Since then, however, the number of bureaucrats has only increased every year.
Thus, you can imagine how well this bloated bureaucracy will ruthlessly root out corruption in its own ranks.
Based loosely on the Ethics in Government Act, adopted in the United States after the Watergate scandal, Russia's anti-corruption legislation requires top bureaucrats to disclose their sources of income along with those of their immediate relatives. This would be effective except for one huge loophole -- unlike in the United States and most Western countries, these financial disclosures are considered "confidential and secret" and not subject to public release. This, of course, makes a mockery of financial disclosure. What is the use of disclosure if the information is never disclosed to the public? Moreover, the legislation leaves another gaping loophole for bureaucrats. The requirement to disclose income sources does not apply to a bureaucrat's adult children. Therefore, corrupt officials can simply shift their assets to their adult children and avoid disclosure, similar to what they did before with their wives.
The other key provision requires bureaucrats to wait two years after leaving office before they can work for a commercial organization with which they had ties while working for the government. In theory, this is a good idea, except that a bureaucrat can easily get around this provision by receiving special permission from an administrative commission. For anyone remotely familiar with the level of corruption in Russia, this can only evoke a bitter smirk. This means not only that another useless bureaucratic department has been created to fight corruption, but also that the "special permission" will be sold for yet another bribe.
This latest top-down bureaucratic "anti-corruption plan" can be added to the trash heap of all the other similar campaigns and legal initiatives that have piled up over the past 17 years. Russian bureaucrats and politicians are creating a big PR show, pulling the wool over the eyes of the people by trying to convince them that concrete measures are being taken to eradicate corruption.
But few, if anyone, will fall for this ruse. For one, civil society has not been involved in this -- or any other -- anti-corruption campaign. More important, the people know their bureaucrats far too well to believe that they will ever deprive themselves of what the 19th-century dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky called a dokhodnoye mesto, a government job that allows bureaucrats to make good money on the side.
Georgy Satarov is president of Indem, a Moscow-based think tank.