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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Officials Resigned to a Lack of Responsibility

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I'm not going to resign, so don't hold your breath," State Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky told journalists after 221 pieces had disappeared from the museum's reserve collection. "We're going to have to figure out this situation together." To be fair, he did offer an apology on Monday. But his initial comments suggested that, essentially, we are all victims of circumstances that are beyond human control -- even if that human happens to be a museum director. Now we have to deal with the consequences.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, apparently, follows the same reasoning: "We are all victims of hazing, and we're all going to have to get out of this situation together." Those responsible for the alcohol crisis should simply say: "We're all victims of the label problems, and we're going to have to find a way out together."

If this really is a responsible approach, then Russia is a country of very responsible officials, where resigning from senior posts -- unless forced out -- is simply not done. Piotrovsky's comment came from a joke about death, which makes sense, as resigning in this country is tantamount to death.

But there is a different approach. If your competence is under question, you leave. CIA director George Tenet resigned in 2004 after it became clear that U.S. intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass were to unfounded. European Commission head Jacques Santer and 19 commission members resigned in 1999 after charges of corruption were leveled against two commissioners.

These cases demonstrate an entirely different approach to the issue than we find in Russia. In Russia, the tradition going back to time immemorial is one where state officials are responsible to those higher up and not to society. In countries where responsibility is understood as accountability to society, this forms the basis for ideas of the honor of the position. This understanding of ethical behavior requires that public servants avoid all behavior that might create even the appearance of abuse of office, as it reduces trust in the state and government. In these cases, resigning is a positive move. You recognize your mistake and pass the post along to someone else.

This code of official etiquette doesn't exist in Russia. Service here isn't public. Resigning here is a sign of weakness. The public can't be allowed to find out about everything, meaning that the officials aren't responsible to the public.

"Then everyone would have to resign, including me," said Federal Culture and Cinematography Agency head Mikhail Shvydkoi. In attempting a touch of irony, Shvydkoi hit on the truth. He would resign. But what then? Everybody quits?

This comment was published as an editorial in Vedomosti.