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BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

Alexei Ulyukayev, the Russian minister of economics, was detained last week in the latest episode of a high-ranking official being apprehended on graft charges. The scale of President Vladimir Putin’s anticorruption drive is still a far cry from a full-blown campaign (like the one under way in China today) but it does represent a major change of climate for Russia’s many corrupt officials.

The impunity of the fat years is gone. The Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s main special service and successor to the feared KGB, is churning out economic crime cases faster than ever. The FSB initiated as many investigations of possible fraud, abuse of power, or corruption during the first half of this year as it did during all of 2014. Top-level corruption is the preserve of the FSB.

Investigations into the activities of Vyacheslav Geiser, former governor of Komi Republic Alexander Khoroshavin, former governor of Sakhalin oblast, and Nikita Belykh, former governor of Kirov oblast, are in various stages of completion. Two deputy governors of Kemerovo oblast were arrested last week on corruption charges. Some of the older officials with personal ties to Putin seem to avoid prosecution but lose their lucrative jobs. Andrei Belianinov, former chief of the Customs Service, was fired without subsequent prosecution but had to endure a humiliating televised search of his house, complete with the agents rummaging through his closets and producing shoeboxes filled with cash.

Three high-ranking officers of the Investigative Committee of Russia are currently awaiting trial for allegedly accepting bribes from a notorious mobster. In Russia’s most bizarre recent case an officer with the Ministry of the Interior was arrested in September for his failure to explain the possession of nearly 9 billion rubles ($140 million) in cash in his apartment and car. The officer, Col. Dmitry Zakharchenko, was one of the top men in the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Economic Security and Countering Corruption. The police had to use shopping carts and a mid-sized truck to move the mountains of rubles and euros, which weighed about 1.5 tons.

Whether this amounts to an anticorruption campaign is an important question. If yes, we are witnessing Moscow’s conscious attempt to clean up its act. If not, it would mean that the Kremlin does not consider Russia’s levels of corruption a matter of concern.

Most Russians see corruption as a major concern: graft is the third most urgent issue, after the state of the economy and the state of the health care system, according to a recent study by Transparency International (TI); 42 percent of those polled think that Russian society would not be able to deal with corruption on its own. According to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer 2016 series Russia is among the seven most corrupt countries in Europe and Central Asia, a list that also includes Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lithuania, Moldova, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Moscow’s anticorruption drive is slow at best. The three governors and a government minister recently put under investigation do qualify as “tigers,” to use the term from the Chinese anticorruption vocabulary. But it is a tiny haul when compared to a “real” purge. The series of high-profile arrests in Russia does not look like an orchestrated Soviet- or Chinese-style purge. It may be a consequence of infighting among several power groups within the Russian elites, as Novaya Gazeta reports suggest. Whatever it is, it is a natural consequence of how the Russian law enforcement system is designed.

The Soviet law enforcement system, of which the current Russian Interior Ministry and special services are direct descendants, was never meant to enforce laws and protect rights in general. The Cheka (the precursor to the KGB) was created to be an “armed squad of the party” dedicated to uncovering and punishing “sabotage, wantan destruction, and counterrevolution.” The future Russian police, the Soviet militia, created in 1917, was meant to be a force protecting the interests of the workers’ class, as exemplified by the ruling Communist Party.

The Soviet militia and the secret police were loyal servants to the party line. Wherever the party line went the militia and the Cheka would follow and punish anyone who insisted on the existence of any law or any stable principle. That line would zigzag like crazy, however, and only a select few at the very top would know which direction it might take a day hence (this is why the strange science of Kremlinology was born: a desperate attempt at learning to see through the black box of the Soviet Politburo, the place where the party line was defined).

The principle of having no stable principle was to infect the entire system. As every Russian driver knows, it’s no use trying to guess where and why a traffic policeman might stop you. Sometimes they will change a traffic sign without warning and catch you for a violation that was not a violation yesterday. That is what happened to the former economic minister Ulyukayev and most other corrupt officials who were arrested. They were doing something they thought was still tolerated, such as accepting informal gifts of cash for certain types of services they performed on a regular basis.

Sources familiar with the way this kind of business has been done say that after a major deal was concluded, a high-ranking official facilitating the deal would come and collect a trove of cash for distribution among his immediate team. But just as with the traffic police, something that was okay the day before was suddenly considered “corruption” on the unlucky day Minister Ulyukayev went to the state-owned oil company Rosneft to collect his bonus.

Keeping practices like this informal serves a very important purpose within the Russian administrative system. Top officials expect to be well paid—well beyond their official salaries—but a significant part of this generous compensation comes through informal channels, like the one that featured in the reports of the Ulyukayev arrest: large companies are ordered to put aside some cash for bonuses to officials. This is, strictly speaking, corruption, but it is legitimate corruption, something that is allowed and even encouraged by informal rules of conduct. This is the kind of reward that can easily be turned into penalty, a double-edged tool for keeping the top bureaucrats in check.

What happened is that this reward suddenly turned into a penalty right in the hands of the official involved. The situation might have been the result of a conflict, but the fact is that the Kremlin changed the party line: a reward became a punishment. The police installed a new traffic sign, and the official in question was caught for something he had done numerous times before.

Maxim Trudolyubov
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Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Fellow at Kennan Institute
Maxim Trudolyubov, Senior Fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti, has been following Russian economy and politics since the late 1990s. He has served as an opinion page editor for Vedomosti and editor and correspondent for the newspaper Kapital. He is the author of Me and My Country: A Common Cause (2011) and People Behind the Fence (2016). He won the Paul Klebnikov Fund’s prize for courageous Russian journalism in 2007, was a Yale World Fellow in 2009, and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 2010-11.
Maxim Trudolyubov
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Corruption As a Tool, Corruption As a Crime