Bureaucratic oligarchy

Corruption has become one of Russia's most profitable businesses. Some experts believe the corruption market is worth $300 billion annually. President Dmitry Medvedev understands that corruption has reached unacceptable, dangerous levels and that something must be done at the top echelons of government to control the situation.

As part of his anti-corruption program, Medvedev introduced a number of bills to the State Duma in late 2008. The law was supposed to come into force in 2009, but instead has been extended to 2010. Unfortunately, this extension shows the country's bureaucrats are very effective lobbyists.

In March, Medvedev submitted a public declaration of his personal income and property, as well as those of his family. Other top officials were bound to follow suit. Members of the government, the administration and regional governors also submitted declarations. This is an important first step in the anti-corruption campaign.

There is a large loophole, however, that needs to be closed. According to Medvedev's anti-corruption plan, officials only need to declare the income and property of themselves, their wives and their underage children. They don't have to declare the income or property of their adult children-to whom they can easily transfer ownership.

Another problem is that public officials clearly did not declare all of their wealth. After all, many of them are directors of leading state-owned companies and receive bonuses valued at millions of dollars. These officials, who earn salaries on a par with Russia's most successful businesspeople, are "oligarchs" in public perception. This is one reason why the public reacted to these declarations with skepticism.

For Medvedev's campaign to work, he needs to institute a strict audit system and impose punishments for false reporting. Of course, everyone understands that such a mechanism can work only when combined with political competition and active civil society.

An independent media is also very important to the anti-corruption battle. Decree No. 810, which President Boris Yeltsin signed in 1996, said that after a media outlet submitted a corruption allegation to the Prosecutor General, investigation had to be completed within 10 working days with a full written report returned to the media outlet that initiated the claim. Unfortunately, then-President Vladimir Putin annulled this decree in 2001. As a result, investigative journalists today can still largely write about corruption cases, but they have little power to pressure law enforcement agencies to prosecute corrupt officials. This is one reason there is no risk to the reputation of corrupt bureaucrats.

Many Russians believe there is no hope of ever curbing corruption, mistakenly attributing it to an incorrigible national character. I don't agree.

Look at Finland, which was part of the Russian Empire for nearly a century. If this explanation was correct, Russia's "culture of corruption" would have infected Finland as well.

But according to ratings by Transparency International, Finland has consistently been at the top of rankings of the least corrupt countries in the world.

Since 1991, small and mediumsize businesses have been complaining about how corruption suffocates their enterprises. Even the economic crisis has not decreased bureaucratic corruption. But this is not sufficient for small businesses to unite to promote their interests in a civilized way. Instead, they hope someone else will fight bureaucracy on their behalf.

Society needs to support Medvedev's anti-corruption initiatives regardless of initial imperfections. To his credit, the President made an important step when he declared his own income and property.

Russian society has no choice but to use the chance it has been given. If corruption continues to grow at the same pace as the past eight years, Russia's basic government institutions and civil society can soon be destroyed.

First published in the Moscow Times

Kirill Kabanov is chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, a Moscow-based non-governmental organization

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