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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bribes Hand Over Fist, Only a Handful Charged

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There has been a lot of talk lately about how Russia is finally coming to grips with its notorious corruption problem. People are saying that officials are now taking fewer bribes and are even afraid of prosecution.

Last December, the head of a local company that received a grant from City Hall told me in a private conversation that he hadn't paid a single kopek for his victory.

Nonetheless, Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov said in his recent annual report that the results of the recent anti-corruption drive are poor and that it is possible "to count on one's fingers" the number of officials charged with bribery.

But still the talk continues. An American businessman I know told me that "it looks like" officials are taking fewer bribes in the wake of President Vladimir Putin's statements against corruption.

"They still take bribes, but they don't do it openly anymore. You can't just give money like you used to. Instead, you have to do it secretly," he said. "This doesn't mean that Russia will become like Finland immediately, but it does seem like things are moving in the right direction."

Now, I'm no businessman, but I still can't help but think that my friend is engaging in a bit of wishful thinking. Other businessmen that I know have told me that in some regards corruption has become worse, especially in areas now controlled by the so-called allies of the president.

"I would distinguish between those [officials] who belong to the old team and those from the circle of people who have been brought to power by the new president. Those new ones have lost all sense of decency whatsoever," one Russian businessman told me.

Even City Hall officials admit that bribery is a problem and will continue to be one. "The government has existed for a long time with this social illness, which is impossible to combat. It existed before Putin and with Putin it looks the same," said Alexander Afanasyev, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's spokesman.

OK, if you want to take that attitude, let's look at the Chinese experience. If anyone can take a longer view of state corruption than the Russians it is the Chinese, right?

I read recently that in Beijing alone, more than 1,000 officials have been charged with corruption in the last three years. And $48 million has been returned to state coffers.

Meanwhile, Ustinov reports that the Russian budget loses as much as $15 billion annually because of official corruption. And according to the Higher Economics School, bribery amounts to 4 percent of the country's GDP, a figure comparable to economic growth over the last year.

And still, you can count the number of officials charged with bribery on your fingers.

Vladimir Kovalyev is a reporter for The St. Petersburg Times.