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Medvedev’s Anti-Corruption Crusade

By Dmitry Babich Russia Profile 08/07/2008

For Some, the Anti-Corruption Plan Revealed on Tuesday Is Just Too Good to Be True

President Dmitry Medvedev’s “National Plan on Fighting Corruption,” published on Tuesday by the official Rossyiskaya Gazeta newspaper, was eagerly anticipated by the three-million-strong Russian “political class” and the general public alike. But the recipes outlined in the document are of mostly legal and technical nature, while the problem appears to be rooted in the lack of fair elections and the absence of a free mass media.

Fighting corruption has been one of the main themes of Medvedev’s rhetoric since his inauguration in May. Just days ago, he lamented the fact that positions in the Russian state system are often distributed to high officials’ personal friends, or simply sold for money. So, what is Medvedev suggesting as a remedy for this evil?

Most of the measures suggested in the 20 page-long document have a legal or technical character; they are aimed at making punishment for corruption more severe within the framework of existing state institutions. For example, state and municipal officials who commit minor corruption offences now may face disqualification. Law-enforcement bodies (such as the police, the prosecutor’s office, and secret services) will no longer be able to employ persons who had been fired from state service “in discrediting circumstances.” Special investigator task forces, meant to uncover and confiscate the property of people found guilty of corruption, will be created. State and municipal officials will be obliged to report cases of corruption or other offenses which they discover as a result of their professional activity; failing to make such a report will be considered a disciplinary offense. New, tougher rules of behavior will be established for various categories of state officials, preventing them from accepting expensive gifts or indulging in other potential forms of “soft” corruption.

As a lawyer, Medvedev pays special attention to giving his plan some legislative backup. One of the plan’s first points is preparation and submittal to the State Duma of an anti-corruption draft law, which should legally enshrine the new punishments for wayward “servants of the people.” The other important element of the plan is technical innovation, including greater use of the Internet in state-organized tenders and auctions of bankrupt companies’ confiscated property.

Medvedev’s belief in the power of information technologies is widely known, especially in his requirement that state officials possess basic computer skills. “Learn or leave,” he said in one of his speeches in July, demonstrating his own computer proficiency at one of Russia’s numerous soft- and hardware fairs.    

But can the problem be solved by technical innovations alone?

“Corruption is a work of human hands and minds, it is not some natural disaster that can be modeled on a computer and prevented by the use of some smart machine,” said Sergei Guriev, the executive director of the Moscow-based Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR). “What you need for fighting corruption is a functioning free press and competitive politics. Without this, no technology will work, because criminal groups and corrupt officials can also use technology. The main problem is with the people, not with machines.”

Medvedev’s recent actions indicate that he understands the “human resources” problem he is faced with. His recent project of creating a “reserve of cadres,” i.e. the pool of educated, professional people capable of filling important positions in the state service, was obviously inspired by the dearth of honest people in state service, whom Medvedev could call “his” men.

“I don’t expect corruption to subside until substantial changes occur in the Russian elite as a whole, both among the bureaucrats and among elected officials,” said Olga Kryshtanovskaya, the director of the Center for Studies of the Elite at the Institute of Sociology, Russian Academy of Sciences. “Right now, 80 percent of the members of today’s elite got their posts under Putin and are connected to his team.”

Kryshtanovsksya, who recently presented her report on the state of the Russian elite during the period of transition of power from Putin to Medvedev, is, however, far from demonizing Putin’s team, presenting it as an assembly of corrupt, narrow-minded militocracy (former military and policemen in power, or siloviki in Russian), as Western media often does.

“Under Putin, the number of people with higher education in the presidential administration and the government reached 100 percent, the number of people with scientific degrees also grew to almost 42 percent,” Kryzhtanovskaya said while presenting her research at the RIA Novosti news agency. “The share of people from business in Putin’s elite by far exceeded the share of siloviki. In fact, under Medvedev the share of former businessmen in the government even shrank, and the average age of the members of the presidential administration grew a little.”

Thus, the problem is not in the individual qualities or biographies of the elite’s members, but in certain corrupt practices that have established themselves in the Russian state apparatus. Medvedev’s plan singles out some of the areas of state activity that can generate corruption. For example, helping “friends” at tenders among private companies for getting lucrative state orders; limiting competition and favoring monopolists; misusing the funds from the federal or local budgets. The plan calls for giving citizens more access to information about the state bodies’ operations, increasing the independence of mass media, and creating a system of control over state officials by the institutes of civil society.

In the opinion of Georgy Satarov, the president of the InDem Foundation and one of the former leaders of the anti-Putin “Other Russia” movement, these ideas do not jive well with some of the recent practices of the Russian elite, which made every effort to isolate itself from the media and the people, make elections formal, and make the independent civil society institutions powerless.

“Fighting corruption without having competitive elections and free media with authorized access to government information is like taking expensive pills without quitting drinking and smoking,” Satarov said. “Any doctor will tell you this won’t work.”

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