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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putting 'Civil' Into Civil Service

Four days had passed since a new law aimed at easing the bureaucratic burden on businesses took effect. But at the state tax office in Nizhny Novgorod, the hurdles to register a company were as high as ever.

Posted on the door of every room on Friday, July 5, was a sign: "We do not give out any information. Working days Tuesdays and Thursdays." No one answered a knock on the door of Room 10, the registration unit.

In the next room, a woman sat at a table piled with paper. "Didn't you see the sign on the door?" she demanded when a visitor approached. "We do not give out any information!"

The following Tuesday, a tax inspector was planted in the registration office. But for the 10 people seeking help in a waiting room full of broken chairs, she had but one direction. "Read the law."

President Vladimir Putin has shown his government can design comprehensive reforms and push them through parliament. Now his team is starting to implement them, but, paradoxically, their success rests on the support of an unreformed Soviet-style bureaucracy of hundreds of thousands of workers who staff offices like the tax inspection unit in Nizhny Novgorod.

Aides insist Putin intends to tackle the reform next year, and he took an initial step in June by raising the salaries of all civil servants by 50 percent. Architects of his plan say the Kremlin next year wants to crack down on conflicts of interest and open up more government deliberations to public scrutiny. Putin's hope, according to his aides, is to create something Russia has never had: a bureaucracy that helps citizens instead of thwarting them.

The designation "civil service" has always been something of a misnomer in Russia. Since the formation of a centralized state about 800 years ago, bureaucrats have mainly served the country's leaders, not its people. And they have been anything but civil.

Mikhail Dmitriyev, the first deputy economic development and trade minister who is fashioning Putin's plan for reforming the civil service, traces some traditions of today's system back to the Mongol invasion of the 13th century. It could take a generation to change that culture, he said.

"The administration was never accountable to the general public," he said. "It was never in fact responsible for delivering a high quality of service to society. Ordinary citizens were considered as subjects to be ruled, and who themselves should serve the state."

Unlike some of the changes Putin has championed so far, an overhaul of the civil service system is not a priority for the oligarchs. On the contrary, it could challenge their interests if, as Putin's aides predict, it limits the opportunity for making corrupt deals with government ministers and their underlings.

As it is, civil servants have little incentive to perform. In economic terms, the last decade has left them behind. Many of the most effective state workers left for better-paying jobs in the private sector. What remains is a cadre of 1.1 million people who independent analysts said are as corrupt as any bureaucracy in the world's poorest countries.

In a World Bank study of government wages in 17 industrialized nations, many of them in Europe, Russia came in second to last, after Hungary. China and Chile paid their civil servants more as a per capita percentage of the nation's wealth than Russia. Russia's average state salary is $113 a month. By presidential decree, Putin raised the wages of every state employee last month by 50 percent, according to Dmitry Kozak, deputy head of the presidential administration. Even so, Kozak will earn just $450 a month. Putin's own salary will be $2,004 a month.

"Here, we are in a kind of vicious circle: On one hand ... as long as there are ill-qualified state employees, the country's economic possibilities remain small," Kozak said. "And as long as the economy's possibilities remain small, we are not able to substantially raise state employees' salaries."

While pay is a huge problem, according to Dmitriyev, inefficiency is a bigger one. He cites an example from his own ministry: At any given moment two or three employees from subordinate offices are traveling around Moscow carrying documents that require a signature by an official from a different ministry. Electronic signatures are prohibited.

Aides said Putin's plan calls in part for stronger conflict-of-interest rules and new ethics commissions for every ministry, staffed in part by members of the public and governed by a central commission that will handle complaints about ministers themselves.

Civil service reform has a history of failure. An attempt in 1997 to overhaul the civil service under former President Boris Yeltsin went nowhere.

Still, Dmitriyev argues, creating a service-oriented bureaucracy is the one reform on Putin's list with solid popular appeal. "This is a novel concept in Russia, and many Russians I am sure will be pleased with the idea of a civil service that serves them," he said.

He would get no argument from accountants, lawyers and business owners who tried to comply over the last week with the new small-business law, which among other things is meant to simplify registration of new companies. At three different tax inspection offices visited by Russian researchers who gathered information for this article, people were frustrated and stymied.

In Murmansk, a city on the northern Barents Sea, a visitor politely asked a tax inspector how to register a company. "We are not an information service here," the inspector retorted. The inspector pointed to the corridor, where there were half-printed, half-handwritten instructions but no application forms.

The tax inspector at Moscow's office No. 7, was much friendlier, patiently answering every question. But he had no application forms either.

He told people they could either try the central tax inspection office, kilometers away, or find a computer and print the form from the Internet.

"You must be kidding," a businesswoman told him angrily. "Are you trying to say I am supposed to fill out forms that no one has?"

Only one person, a middle-aged woman, managed to secure a form. She got it by wheedling and pleading in a manner that smacked of long experience in Soviet-era lines.

"Hey, I am your client; you know me," she told the inspector with a big smile. "We met before, right? I know you. Please give me just one form, I really need it; I know you have those forms!"

"This is the last copy," he told her, handing one over. "The very last copy. Only for you."