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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Red Tape Reaching Its Soviet Heights

From inside the Kremlin's walls to everyday lives with endless paperwork, bureaucracy rules.

Like the nation's economy, bureaucracy seems to be booming. Determining its exact size is difficult, much like navigating the mire of it. But by all accounts, the number of public servants today likely exceeds Soviet levels. And they are making substantially more money than their average compatriots.

Sociologists have detected a growing inclination among young people toward jobs like customs officers or tax inspectors, despite widespread allegations of corruption and inefficiency.

While attempts to remedy the sprawling and sluggish state sector have yet to bear fruit, experts are baffled by how much bureaucracy Russians are prepared to tolerate. The official figure has grown by almost 40 percent in the last five years. While in 2001 there were 1.14 million employees in federal and local government, the figure for 2006 is 1.57 million, according to the State Statistics Service.

In the last years of the Soviet Union, those numbers declined from almost 2 million in 1987 to 1.57 million in 1989, and the country then was much more populous than today.

Experts warn that Soviet and contemporary statistics are not necessarily comparable, for instance because functions today performed by the public service were in the past provided by functionaries in the then-sprawling Communist Party organization.

Many are convinced that bureaucracy has ballooned, however.

"The number of public servants has increased dramatically," said Yelena Panfilova, head of the Russian branch of Transparency International, a global corruption watchdog. The official figures, she added, probably understate the problem because they did not include employees at the municipal level. "I think that there are up to 3.5 million public servants in Russia today," she said.

The main reason for the expansion, Panfilova said, is the creation of seven federal districts in 2000, with which President Vladimir Putin brought in a "huge army of bureaucrats" working in a new middle tier of administration, sandwiched between the federal and regional level.

Also the creation of new federal agencies boosted numbers, such as the Federal Drug Control Service, the Federal Agency for Registering Real Estate, the Federal Financial Monitoring Service and Federal Service for Financial Markets, Panfilova said.

Vladimir Rimsky of the Indem Foundation, a Russian nongovernmental organization devoted to fighting corruption, said many more salaries depended directly or indirectly on the state. "If you include staff at companies owned or controlled by the government, you get a figure around 10 million," Rimsky said.

And pay is on the rise, too. On average, federal bureaucrats earned 21,300 rubles ($824) per month in the first quarter of 2007, well above the national average of roughly 12,000 rubles ($460) per month. In Moscow, federal employees are even making a monthly average of 27,700 rubles ($1,070), according to official statistics.

With this in mind, it might not come as a total surprise that a survey of the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences released in May found that the prestige of government jobs is climbing. Seventeen percent of 1,796 men and women between the ages of 17 and 26 said they rated a position in state service as prestigious -- much more than the 10 percent rating in a similar survey in 1997.

The state sector won much of the esteem lost by the legal and financial professions -- whose ratings dropped from overall 89 percent in 1997 to 60 percent 10 years later.

"Prestige is no longer associated exclusively with high salary potential, but more and more with notions of professionalism and power," the survey's authors said. Rimsky, who has conducted a nationwide survey, said careers in customs, tax and financial authorities came up most frequently when he questioned students about their future plans.

"There are big regional differences, but most young people seem to be driven by economic insecurity," Rimsky said.

On the other hand, many Russians still associate their public servants with the hallmarks of inefficiency -- corruption, inertia and negligence. In another poll by the Sociology Institute in 2005, 38 percent voted that bureaucracy in the present epoch is stronger than in any other in history. Twenty-two percent thought it was stronger under Yeltsin, 17 percent under Breshnev, 12 percent during perestroika, 6 percent under Stalin and 2 percent during tsarist times. The rest could not decide.

And 57 percent of those 1,800 polled said the bureaucracy exerted a negative influence on politics.

A recent World Bank research paper on government effectiveness bolsters the claim of poor administration. The survey, released in July, showed that Russia's performance in key areas like rule of law and control of corruption was in the lowest quartile of the 212 countries and territories surveyed. It also recorded significant setbacks in voice and accountability -- a measure of citizens' ability to participate in government -- and political stability.

And in a recent Levada Center poll, 29 percent blamed bureaucrats for economic stagnation, 28 percent said poor law enforcement was to blame, while 25 percent said the government was too weak.

The growth of bureaucracy has worried political analysts and independent experts both inside and outside the country. In November, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned that the trend of expanding the state into the private sector was slowing down the economy. Increasing state control over sectors like oil and aviation was "disturbing" and made the economy more prone to corruption, the OECD said in its sixth biennial report.

Some scholars have accepted big bureaucracy as a basic part of life.

"It is not just a post-Soviet phenomenon but has been typical of the Soviet and tsarist eras as well," said Marvin Kalb, a lecturer of public policy at Harvard University. He said big government administration would help offset insecurity in a country stretching from Europe to the Pacific, while at the same time there had always been "enormous amounts of corruption" in Russian bureaucracy.

Kalb also said staff numbers in public administration had risen substantially under George W. Bush's presidency in the United States, too. "Both presidents are increasing the number of government servants to increase their own power base," he said.

Yet experts on administrative reform said some things in Russia have been moving in the right direction. "The bureaucracy is not very service-oriented, but it is undoubtedly more efficient than in Soviet times," said David Fawkes, a British economist who leads an European Union-funded project aimed at reforming public service in Russia. "I think there is a strong understanding of the need to improve efficiency and to improve the quality of services to the public," he said.

Among the biggest obstacles is not so much bureaucrats' complacency but the people's apathy, he said. "It is difficult to convince the public to demand better service," Fawkes said. "It is actually difficult to get people to complain."

Fawkes also said Russia had a comparative disadvantage versus other East European states with regard to administrative reforms. "They were forced to adapt in order to qualify for EU membership -- Russia never had to do that," he said.

Real changes will not be achieved quickly, Fawkes said. "What you need is a mentality change and that is very difficult and takes a very long time," he said. The impetus, he stressed, had to come from the citizens and civil society.