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Fighting Corruption -- New Russian Initiatives

Message Nicolai Petro
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(Article changed on January 17, 2014 at 04:15)

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First published on June February 12, 2013 as part of the Voice of Russia's Expert's Panel, I have appended a brief comment regarding the "Magnitsky Bill," published November 27, 2013, which serves as a useful counterpoint to Russia's domestic initiatives.

Russia's problem with corruption is inseparable from its problem with the perception of corruption. The latter has so metastasized that it is no longer clear which is greater, the actual level of corruption or the perception of it.

If one actually wants to tackle the problem, the difference is important. Dmitry Mikhailovich Rogozin (not to be confused with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Olegovich Rogozin) is one of Russia's foremost experts on corruption. He notes that only one percent of corruption cases investigated in 2011 involved actual criminal conspiracies. The vast majority are local "crimes of opportunity" committed by individuals who saw the chance to profit from a transaction and took it.

The problem, of course, is that this sort of behavior is pervasive precisely in arenas where public servants have something to "sell." Several solutions suggest themselves. First, require that government transactions be publicly documented. Russia's new open government initiatives do just that by leaving a paper trail. Second, increase the salaries of civil servants. This diminishes the potential "profit margin" to be derived from corruption. The government has made steady progress here as well. At the same time, it is very important that the number of bureaucratic permissions that the state can grant be reduced to a minimum.

This last solution is problematic, but also potentially the most effective. Privatizing public services can be undemocratic and anti-egalitarian, but it does serve to reduce corruption in state institutions by driving the issue of the proper fee for services into the private sector.

Finally, one should not neglect the salutary impact that public shaming can have, especially on the most prevalent forms of corruption. Media, educational and religious institutions all have an important role to play in stigmatizing anti-social behavior.

Russia's struggle with corruption is nothing unusual for a modern society. Indeed, it is quite salutary. The issue has arisen now because the country has reached that point in its social development at which the issue becomes acute because it impedes further modernization.

The key to success is to stay the course, to approach the issue systematically, comprehensively and diligently. It is of great importance that government be seen as unswerving in its commitment to eradicate corruption, no matter how long it takes.

The Magnitsky Bill as a manifestation of Congressional politics
The passage of the Magnitsky Bill has nothing to do with human rights or Russia. It is a manifestation of Congressional politics, in all its naked glory. While as Congress congratulates itself on having "stood up" to Russia, this US administration (and future administrations) will quietly waive its application for national security reasons. And that, children, is how a bill becomes a law.

The bill's strong bipartisan support results from it being as close to a "perfect bill" as one can get out the US Congress these days. It is politically perfect because it gives Congress moral standing at no apparent cost, while shifting the burden of implementation elsewhere.

First, it does absolutely nothing to punish human rights violators in Russia, while giving the appearance of doing so. Any Russian official foolish enough to still have assets in the United States will have at least half a year to transfer them, while those who wanted to visit Disneyland with their kids (yes, they too share guilt under the House version of this bill), will now have to settle for Disneyland Paris.

Second, while ostensibly targeting those responsible for violating human rights, it shifts the actual responsibility for identifying them to the State Department, on the basis of "credible information." Since the State Department does not have staff to engage in this sort of inquisition, and already relies on human rights organizations to do so, this completes the privatization of the human rights aspect of U.S. foreign policy, which apparently suits everyone in Washington just fine.

In the future, we should expect human rights NGOs to apply for more funding, so that they can fulfil this congressional mandate. Individual congressmen to get the publicity they crave, by holding hearings at which they can, alternately, chastise human rights groups for not identifying enough human rights abusers, or castigate the White House for being too cozy with them. Meanwhile, and most importantly, responsibility for implementing the law will fall to the White House (perhaps along with State), neither of which has any incentive to act on the list, since it is nothing but a headache for implementing the broader U.S. foreign policy agenda.

Postscriptum: I was pleased to see one of America's senior diplomats, retired Ambassador Richard Burt, take public exception to this piece of legislation (see "Reagan Envoy Slams Lecturing Russia on Human Rights," Moscow Times, March 14, 2013). As he correctly notes: " We need more exchange in people and culture for overcoming the stereotypes (on both sides). And sometimes they are very, very prominent in decision-making."

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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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