The Russian Conundrum

In his last public speech before stepping down at the end of his second term as Russian president, Putin declared that the fight against corruption had been the most intractable problem of his 8 years in office (Putin 2008), while in the same month, soon-to-be president Dmitry Medvedev stated publicly that corruption constituted ‘the most serious disease affecting our society’ (Medvedev, 2008). Moreover, despite his extraordinary popularity among Russians, an August 2015 survey of Russians revealed that ordinary citizens continue to see Putin’s anti-corruption measures as his biggest failure, replicating findings of nine earlier surveys going back to 2004 (Levada-Tsentr 2015; see also RT 2008; Kim 2010). According to many analysts, and based primarily on Russia’s scores in the CPI, Russia is the most corrupt country in the world relative to its level of economic development. Clearly, there is a problem.

Almost as soon as he assumed the presidency in 2008, Medvedev declared war on corruption. However, towards the end of his presidency, in his final address as president to the Federal Assembly in December 2011, Medvedev had to acknowledge the widespread allegations of fraud, a form of corruption, in the December parliamentary elections; he did this even while claiming that his anti-corruption efforts constituted the eighth of his top ten achievements (Medvedev 2011).

But the various measurement techniques available make it clear that Medvedev’s anti-corruption crusade had at most limited impact. While the level of petty corruption in some parts of the police may have declined in recent years,14 the overall situation remains very disappointing. Much of this relates to Putin’s weak commitment. While he ‘talks the talk’ of anticorruption, he does not seriously ‘walk the walk’, almost certainly in part because he fears alienating his state bureaucracy and security agencies.

Putin continues to tinker with the anti-corruption legislation and to acknowledge that corruption is undermining the legitimacy of the system. In the case of the former, for instance, he signed into law a ‘Federal Law on Amendments to Certain Legislative Acts of the Russian Federation to Improve Measures to Fight Corruption’ (mainly regarding offshore money laundering) at the end of November 2015. Regarding the latter, in his address to the Federal Assembly in December 2015, Putin noted that corruption would be a major topic during the 2016 parliamentary election campaigns, and implicitly linked it to legitimacy:

The election campaign must be honest and transparent, conducted within the framework of the law and with respect for the electorate. Moreover, we need to gain unconditional public trust in the election results and their full legitimacy.

Respected colleagues! I believe that a lot of attention will be devoted in the parliamentary candidates’ election programmes to questions concerning the fight against corruption. These questions are really a major concern for society. Corruption is hindering Russia’s development. (Putin 2015)

This is all very well, but if it is accepted that Putin has been the de facto leader of Russia since 2000 (and de jure 2000-2008 and since 2012), the fact that he still had to make such statements in late-2015 supports the argument that his anti-corruption declarations and actions are little more than lip service.15

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