Tackling Corruption in Russia: Economic gain or Presidential Paranoia?

In June of this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed in a press conference that his aim was to make Russia the world’s fifth largest economy. In 11th place, this is quite an extravagant aim, especially considering his country’s deeply entrenched culture of political corruption. This may have attributed to Putin’s own decision to purge the top tier of Russian political life of many of its serial embezzlers. Russia’s rich resources and its place among the world’s fastest-growing economies have been stifled by the men at the top for decades and there remains a general feeling that the country is underachieving and falling far short of its potential. For Angus Roxburgh, former BBC Moscow correspondent and later a public-relations adviser to the Kremlin, corruption is the one overriding reason why Russia is failing to achieve its economic potential and failing to attract international investors. ”It is something the government acknowledges but seems powerless to combat, despite a regular stream of anti-corruption decrees and initiatives,” he says (BBC news).

The website Transparency International Russia has monitored the corruption culture in Russia and claims that is has significantly worsened since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which comes across to this writer as a paradox as the Communist Party was hardly efficient with state funds. Transparency International claims that the situation has worsened from 143rd worst in 1996 to 43rd in 2011. The Moscow Times reports that Putin has instigated a “massive anti-corruption drive”, in order to achieve his June aim of achieving economic revival. The campaign has been mostly reported on by investment banks, indicating that it is an economically driven purge rather than an initiative to restore faith in Putin’s leadership for the everyday Russian citizen (Moscow Times 2nd December 2012).

The international press has picked up on this anti-corruption campaign and debated its various motives, The Economist magazine highlighted several motives in a recent article. The article, entitled ‘Alone at the Top’ (December 1st 2012) pointed out that public concerns about corruption have risen steeply from tenth to third place in the concerns of ordinary citizens. These domestic factors don’t just end in citizen concern, as Putin has cleverly targeted an issue that all of his opponents are united on. Putin may not care much for democratic values, as shown by the imprisonment of the protest band Pussy Riot and his frequent abuse of the Russian constitution, but he cares about his image as a strong leader. By responding to what he sees as the national will, Putin can sustain the illusion of legitimacy. He has seemingly responded to his lowest approval ratings ever, knowing that his domestic and international reputation as well as Russia’s economic revival relies on the trappings of democracy.

This anti-corruption campaign could also mean something else for Putin’s rule other than just an attempt to quell political opposition. Many of the officials targeted have been some of Putin’s closest aides and cabinet members, for example Anatoly Serdyukov, former defence minister was dismissed in October after investigators linked a company with ties to the defence ministry with $100m of fraud. This dumping of a high level official so close to Putin was an unheard of recognition of Russia’s corruption problem and implies that Putin is beginning to distrust the establishment he built up around himself. Some have called Putin’s new lack of trust a “policy of inactivity”, owing much to the fact that Putin no longer trusts the advisors around him. It remains to be seen if this initiative will leave him stronger or weaker in the eyes of his domestic supporters, and on the international stage.