Putin gambles on Russia's corruption crackdown
MOSCOW is in the grip of a major campaign against corruption. According to an anonymous source from the interior ministry, investigators have received an ‘unequivocal message from the Kremlin’ that they can pursue investigations without political interference.
The crackdown came to a head in November 2012, when a whole slew of scandals suddenly surfaced in the media.
The first and so far most spectacular scandal had surfaced towards the end of October, when Oboronservis, a defence ministry contractor, was implicated in a major embezzlement scam.
The chief suspect was Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, a 33-year-old senior defence ministry official in charge of procurement. She was also an alleged lover of Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.
On November 6, 2012, Mr Serdyukov was sacked.
Next in line was Russian Space Systems, a contractor hired to draft technical specifications for GLONASS, the Russian rival to the American GPS satellite navigation system. According to interior ministry investigators, unnamed officials had embezzled US$217 million, equivalent to one-third of the programme’s funding.
The scandal involving the Ministry of Regional Development concerned the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting hosted by Russia in Vladivostok in 2012.
Some US$3 million earmarked for construction projects had allegedly been paid out to fictitious construction and insurance firms. This led to the arrest of Roman Panov, a former deputy regional development minister.
Why is all of this happening? It is true that Vladimir Putin chose to kick off his 2012 presidential election campaign on a programme to combat dishonesty.
This had already been official policy during the tenure of President Dmitry Medvedev. But when his tenure drew to a close, malpractice at the highest levels had reached such proportions that it provided a major part of the impetus for the massive protest rallies that shook Moscow during the winter of 2012.
It has been suggested that Mr Putin’s sudden commitment to fighting corruption is little more than an ambition to seize the opposition’s main weapon. But far more serious is the fact that corruption has emerged as the linchpin of the Russian system.
The result has been a ‘culture of impunity’ where those who commit even outrageous forms of fraud may rest assured that they will not be held accountable, at least not in public.
The case of Mr Serdyukov is striking in that he was taken to task in public and under humiliating circumstances. Although he will probably not be charged with any crime, and the punishment so far for Ms Vasileva has been limited to house arrest in her luxurious 13-room apartment in central Moscow, the corruption crackdown is still a major development, one that seemed to have come out of nowhere.
A rational explanation might be that this is little more than a way of preparing for an expected worsening of the Russian economy. By instilling a sense of fear in bureaucrats who have become a little too sure of their own impunity, the Kremlin may hope for restraint, and for government funds to be put to more constructive use.
But it is a game for high stakes.
The inherent danger derives from the fact that President Putin no longer possesses the authority he held only a year ago, before returning to the Kremlin.
The main source of power for President Putin has been his ability to maintain a rough balance between the country’s perennially warring clans, simply by regulating access to corrupt revenue flows.
If the leaders of these clans sense that Mr Putin is weak, they may not only turn against him but begin settling old scores with other clans.
So it seems likely that the campaign against corruption will soon enough run out of steam and be conveniently forgotten.