The biggest public corruption story on the planet may be Russia — the entire country, where red tape and bribery are scaring away foreign investors and wearing down ordinary citizens. Reform can’t come soon enough, so we’re glad that President Dmitry Medvedev is at least talking about the problem.
The numbers tell the story. Russia’s 2006 rank on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index was a lowly 121st — tied with Benin, Gambia, Guyana, Honduras, Nepal, the Philippines, Rwanda and Swaziland. Then things got even worse. In 2007, Russia fell to 143rd on the CPI — tied with Gambia (again), Indonesia and Togo.
A thoughtful correspondent in Russia sent us the following story from the Moscow Times (here). The article signals that public corruption is finally on the Kremlin’s agenda, which is good, but also that real reform may be a long way off. That may account for the gallows humor in the story — a great Russian trait. (A government translator in Moscow once told us that the saying, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” means in Russian, “We have plenty of vodka but we’re out of potatoes.”) Here’s the article:
Bill Floated to Ban Gifts to Bureaucrats as Bribes.
17 June 2008By Francesca Mereu / Staff Writer
Bureaucrats face a ban on accepting small gifts under a bill being floated by law enforcement officials.
President Dmitry Medvedev has said the fight against corruption is a priority, and the government is under pressure to find ways to root it out.
Under the Criminal Code, any money or gift given to a bureaucrat in the performance of his or her duties constitutes a bribe, but Article 575 of the Civil Code allows for the acceptance of gifts worth up to 11,500 rubles ($485).
An Investigative Committee official said Sunday that the “legal contradiction” created by the articles hindered investigators in their attempts to fight corruption, Interfax reported. The Investigative Committee is under the Prosecutor General’s Office.
“In legal practice, and in particular when you investigate a crime linked to corruption, you often run into problems linked to the interpretation of these,” the unidentified official said.
The lack of a clear legal definition of what constitutes corruption poses one of the most difficult obstacles when trying to battle the problem.
The initiative by the Investigative Committee, which is the main body responsible for battling corruption, is an attempt to downplay the magnitude of the problem, said Kirill Kabanov, director of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, an advocacy group.
“It seems that the $300 billion market for corruption in our country consists of gifts,” Kabanov said, sarcastically.
“This is to soften the problem in the eyes of the population,” he said. “It is like treating a very ill patient with iodine.”
Calls to the Investigative Committee went unanswered Monday.
A final note. Our correspondent wondered how the “legal contradiction” noted in the article between the Russian civil code and criminal law would fit into the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s affirmative defense that allows payments (or gifts) to foreign officials, if permitted under the written laws of the host country. Good question. For now, though, as Winston Churchill said about Russia itself, the answer remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Which means in Russian, don’t bet the lunch money on the defense just yet.