Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

White House Penitentiary for Ministers

At the end of the 14th century, Chu Yuan-chang, first emperor of the Ming dynasty, decided to root out bribery in China. Guilty officials were beaten with sticks and put in stocks. Before long the entire civil service was locked up, leaving no one to run the country. This problem was solved by carting the officials back to their offices and forcing them to do their old jobs with thick, heavy boards around their necks.

You get the impression that we're going to see something similar in Russia soon. The White Swan prison camp will soon be joined by a new facility for crooked and bungling government officials. All the usual amenities will be provided on site. They'll just enclose the White House with barbed wire and start handing down sentences. For failure to implement reforms: five years. For embezzlement: four years. Sentence to be served in your office.

Judge for yourself. First Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov publicly castigated Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin for dragging his feet on tax reform. Next he laid into German Gref. Then Deputy Prosecutor General Vladimir Kolesnikov announced that Kasyanov was wanted for questioning in a crab-fishing scam.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Scandals. The war on corruption. Just like in developed democracies. Investigators' revelations, a storm in the press, millions in bribes. There's just one thing missing. No one was fired, no one stepped down. The dog barks and the thief carries on.

What's going on? Will Kasyanov get the axe?

To answer that question, you need to ask yourself another. Is it conceivable that Kasyanov would publicly and harshly criticize two Cabinet members -- both of them part of the St. Petersburg clan to boot -- entirely on his own initiative?

Somehow I don't think so. It's much more likely that Kasyanov was given the green light. Not in writing, not even in words. Just a wink and a nod. A sympathetic look. Kasyanov explains: "It's really not my fault, you know. Kudrin dropped the ball on economic reform." His listener nods, as if to say: "I hear you." Encouraged, Kasyanov hops up on his soapbox. And? And nothing. Did they sack Gref and Kudrin? No. Kasyanov's words fell flat, but he wasn't sacked, either. Why would he get the sack if he had already got a wink and a nod from on high?

Now ask yourself another question. Is it conceivable that the Prosecutor General's Office got the idea of trying to reel in Kasyanov on its own?

Somehow I don't think so. It's much more likely that Kolesnikov was given the green light. Not in writing, not even in words. Just a wink and a nod. A conversation in passing: "The prime minister has gone too far, dressing down ministers as though he were in charge." His listener nods, as if to say: "I hear you." Encouraged, Kolesnikov calls a press conference. And? And nothing. Did they interrogate Kasyanov? No. Kolesnikov's words fell flat, but he wasn't sacked either. Why would he get the sack if he already had a wink and a nod from on high?

The principle at work here is one that replaces the democratic separation of powers with authoritarian clan feuds. A similar atmosphere reigned within the KGB. Everyone spied on everyone else. Everyone ratted on everyone else. And the boss was neither here nor there. He just nodded, saying nothing. This is not a principle of governance, because governance implies forward motion, and you can't get far with all this backbiting going on.

It is a principle of exercising control. The ruler's potential rivals are dispatched without the ruler's involvement, far from the center of power. And theft is built into the system. There's simply no way to manage those who don't steal.

Which brings us back to our original question: Is Kasyanov's head on the block? No. That would mean that the prosecutor general is in charge. And in Russia, the president is in charge.

But something is bound to happen. In practice, scandals like these usually serve as diversions. A feint is made on one flank, and a breach is opened on the other. The last time rumors about top-level government resignations got everyone this worked up, the Gazprom board was overhauled instead.

Yulia Latynina is host of "Yest Mneniye" on TVS.