(Article changed on February 14, 2013 at 21:17)In Russia "corruption" is just another term for business as usual.
Someone who slips the right person some rubles could jump ahead of you in the line at the doctor's office. Or a neighbor's kid might get ahead of yours in school because of a little well-placed monetary consideration. Even the news you read may have been distorted by someone paying the media outlet to have a story favor his business or political interests. One finance minister during the Yeltsin years was known as Misha 2 Percent for his purported propensity to want a cut of anything that crossed his desk.
Things are so bad that even president Vladimir Putin recently said, "Corruption is without exaggeration the biggest threat to our development."
Four years ago then-president Dmitry Medvedev put forth a National Anti-Corruption Plan. It was a bold step and one that is needed. Unfortunately, time has shown that it is only a half-way measure. The focus is on the transgressions of individuals. But it is doing little to alter a pervasive culture of corruption. Toughening laws and prosecuting bad behavior can go only so far. If the culture of corruption isn't changed, the enforcement-and-legalistic approach will never achieve much success.
There is an interactive relationship between behavior and culture. Behavior contributes to culture, and culture influences behavior. To have any real impact, the government is going to have to address both with equal seriousness.
By the term "culture" I'm not talking about art, music, and poetry. In the context of social organization, culture refers to the basic assumptions, norms, and values that are shared by members of the society.
Ten years ago I was involved in a private-sector anti-corruption initiative focused on Russia's media sector. Ever since the Russian Federation was founded in the early 1990s, there has been a wide-spread practice by media companies and journalists of accepting money from businessmen or politicians to distort the news in favor of the payers. In the process, of course, the media consumers get cheated out of accurate and reliable news.
I had become convinced that the development of the sector was being retarded by this practice. But Yeltsin-era laws seemed to be standing in the way of change. They practically precluded the profitability of media organizations that wanted to function legitimately. It left them with little alternative but to operate corruptly.
I led a successful advocacy campaign that resulted in the repeal of most of those laws. At that point a concomitant change in the media sector's business culture became necessary. New profit opportunities made available by the legislative changes were not impetus enough for media managers to venture into new territory and make their businesses become truly consumer-centric. The old ways were too comfortable. The culture of corruption had become entrenched.
A project called The Russian Media Fund (http://www.russianmediamarket.com/RussianMediaFund) was conceived to pursue changing the media business culture. A comprehensive plan for accomplishing the change was developed.
Multinational companies doing business in Russia saw that they had a stake in the normalization of the media sector, and seemed willing to provide funds for a program to change the business culture. The administration was willing to condone the initiative. Indeed, Putin himself had spoken out about the need for change.
But the funds for the project were never forthcoming. The multinational companies were dissuaded from anteing up by the prevalence of malicious news stories about Putin. They accused Putin of clamping down on Russia's free press. It was a false claim. The truth is that there wasn't a free press for him to suppress. Media outlets were conscripted by financial overlords all along. But those sensationalistic news stories led the multinationals to believe Putin would never allow the media sector to normalize. So there was no further progress toward media-sector normalization.
Now, Russia's media sector still stands out as perhaps Russia's most conspicuously corrupt sector. What better place would there be to start a comprehensive anti-corruption program, one that would involve both prosecution of individual transgressors and promoting cultural change? The media sector impacts practically every citizen of Russia every day. A de-corrupted media sector would send everyone a clear message about the sincerity and competency of the anti-corruption push, and would serve as a model for extending the initiative into other sectors of the economy and for society in general.
The legislative component of the program has already been accomplished. Now if the already-developed program for cultural change were to be implemented, Russia would be well on its way to accomplishing something concrete, visible, and confidence-inspiring for the cause of anti-corruption.