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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Law, Same Old Corruption

During his frequent recent calls to step up efforts to fight government corruption, Russian security chief Alexander Lebed has driven home a central point: Russia has no developed law on -- or even definition of -- corruption.

Recent scandals in the Russian press would seem to provide clear grounds for corruption charges.

A senior official in the federal bankruptcy commission was arrested for accepting a "commission" allegedly in exchange for changing his decision on declaring a company bankrupt. Senior Russian generals are allegedly using state funds to build dachas for themselves and their relatives.

But establishing and prosecuting corruption cases is a more difficult matter. Under current and soon-to-be-introduced legislation, Russia's "corruption fighters" are waging their war with the juridical equivalent of a pop-gun.

"Corruption is blooming in Russia, and everyone including the president is talking about corrupt officials, but there is no legal understanding of the term," said Vladimir Bobrenyov, a senior prosecutor at the Prosecutor General's Office

"The idea of 'corruption,' specifically, doesn't exist in the Criminal Code," said Natalya Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general.

Both the current Russian Criminal Code and its successor -- set to come into effect Jan. 1, 1997 -- outline offenses for Bribetaking (Article 173 in the old code, 290 in the new); Misuse of Power or Public Office (Article 170 in the old code, 285 in the new) as well as offenses in Giving Bribes (Article 174 in the old, 291 in the new) and Acting as an Intermediary to Bribery.

This set of articles only goes a short distance in addressing the problem of official corruption, Bobrenyov said.

Although corruption takes many forms, the Criminal Code's statute on bribetaking is the main weapon that law-enforcement agencies can currently use, he said. But he pointed out a number of problems with the current law. An act of bribetaking, under both the current and new codes, is difficult to establish. The waters can be muddied in any number of ways: by passing money to a relative rather than the bribetaker, he said, or by presenting the money as a loan.

"To prove guilt and bring a suspect to the bench is extremely complex under our laws," said Bobrenyov.

State Duma Deputies, prosecutors and judges are also immune from prosecution. Even more strangely, while only government officials can be prosecuted for corruption, the new code gives only a selective list of which posts qualify.

Under the current Criminal Code, the punishments for bribetaking range from five to 15 years in prison, with the confiscation of property.

The new Criminal Code outlines a wider range of sanctions, including fines, garnishment of wages and imprisonment of up to 12 years.

"Unfortunately, closer familiarity with the contents of the new Criminal Code shows that not only does it not strengthen the mechanism for the fight against corruption," Bobrenyov said. "In actuality, in a number of instances [it] marks a weakening of position, including a backing off from different types of bribetaking, extortion, and other uses of public positions for private gain."

Meanwhile, at the insistence of President Boris Yeltsin and Lebed, Duma lawmakers -- who enjoy immunity from prosecution under the Criminal Code -- are working to put on the books a separate law titled, "On the Fight Against Corruption."

But Bobrenyov contends that the draft law On the Fight Against Corruption is more for show and will not bring cardinal changes in the way public officials can be charged.

"If the situation with the Criminal Code carries over into the law On the Fight Against Corruption," he said, "then one can expect the same half-for-show, half-working fate -- just like the articles in the Criminal Code."

If the situation for prosecuting state workers for various acts of corruption looks grim, it is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the legion of non-governmental corruption.

Bribery or "gift-giving" is endemic to all levels of Russian society, he said. Situations in which private citizens must pony up in order to grease the skids with bank clerks, doctors, teachers are legion -- and not covered anywhere by Russian law.

These people, he said, "don't belong to the category of state officials. They're unpunishable, and get off scott-free."