Mr. Putin is tackling corruption, whereas his predecessor embodied it. But you wouldn't know it from the Western press
I love Russia, but let’s not sugarcoat things.
After the widespread sociopathy of the 1990s—when people had to break all rules just to feed their families, and it was not unknown even for priests to steal from their flocks—a too-high proportion of the Russian population remains in a state of going through each day with little thought other than how to cheat and defraud its fellow man. Yet it is also a fact that you cannot lock up everyone (Всех не посадишь, as the Russians say) or you would have no country left.
The Kremlin’s solution has been to make conspicuous examples of some, while creating parallel structures to work around corrupt or incompetent state bodies and officials.
Probably the most prominent example of such a structure is the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, commonly known by its Russian initials, SK or SK RF, or less commonly by the acronym, Sledkom.
The SK traces its history to 2007—when authority to make criminal charges was taken away from Russia’s Prosecutor General—and has existed in its current form since early 2011.
Today, the Office of the Prosecutor General is responsible for prosecutions only. It is the SK that investigates crimes and decides whom to bring to trial and on what charges.
Since it was brought out from under the Prosecutor General and made into an independent body reporting only to the President, the SK has been at the very center of the Kremlin’s anticorruption drive.
But why was the authority to indict—representing the most fundamental procedure in the exercise of any state’s power—taken away from the Prosecutor General? What’s the use in a prosecutor who can't bring charges?
To illustrate the answers, we borrow from the renowned Russian opposition figure, Aleksei Naval’nyi (commonly spelled Navalny in the U.S.), and his Foundation for the Fight Against Corruption.
For those who recoil from Naval’nyi as some kind of “fifth column” taking orders from the U.S., keep in mind that despite efforts to clip his outsized ego and ambitions, the Russian state has allowed his organization considerable freedom to go about its investigations and to secure funding for its salaries, research/travel, website/multimedia, etc.
Moreover, it is indicative that few of Naval’nyi’s targets have been willing or able to go all the way in terms of suing him for slander (a typical method of silencing critics in many countries.)
To me, this suggests that Naval’nyi is recognized as having some value to society or even to the state. However, as I have indicated, the state is unable to follow up on every corruption allegation—then there would be no state at all.
And so, on December 1st, 2015, the Foundation released a 44-minute documentary film titled Chaika: A Criminal Drama in Five Parts.
The name Chaika refers to Yurii Chaika, current Prosecutor General of Russia.
The allegations are serious.
As often happens in Russia, they fall not so much on the official title holder, as on his family and connections as well as those of his underlings.
It turns out that Olga Lopatina, ex-wife of Deputy Prosecutor General Gennadii Lopatin (they divorced in 2011), co-owned—perhaps still co-owns—what seems to be a sugar mill or distributor with the wives of two leaders of the infamous Tsapok gang.
The Tsapok gang lorded over much of Krasnodar province from the late 1990s until its aforementioned leaders were jailed for their role in the 2010 Kushchevskaya massacre, in which twelve people including a baby were knifed to death in an act of delayed revenge for the husband and father of some of the victims having stood up to the gang after they harassed his sister some years prior.
The Lopatina-Tsapok connection may help explain why the gang was able to get away with so much for so long. Incidentally, the Kushchevskaya massacre was one of the first ultra-high-profile cases to be investigated by the SK in more or less its present form.
According to Naval’ny’s film, Ms. Lopatina also owns a splendid villa in Greece, which is located not far from a luxury hotel allegedly owned by Prosecutor General Chaika’s older son, Artem, who is said to have remodeled it recently at a cost of between 25 and 29 million Euro.
Reports of Artem Chaika’s business empire and alleged corrupt dealings are not new, having been made in Russian media on many previous occasions. It has been alleged that Artem’s holdings bring in $200 million per year in revenues. However, the claims of hotel ownership—as well as Lopatina's sugar business—seem to be new.
There are still more allegations in Naval’ny’s film, but you get the gist.
The practice of politicians and government officials using their pull and connections to enrich themselves or their families is not unique to Russia. And it may be hard to say what is legal and what is illegal in any given case.
But what is certain is that Prosecutor General Chaika was not the man to lead the Kremlin’s anticorruption drive. And it’s not just him, but his entire agency.
The Kremlin needed something non-entrenched and squeaky-clean, so it built up the SK, handing it over 20,000 employees, many if not most of them transferred from the Office of the Prosecutor General.
And in its roughly five years of existence in its current form, I am not aware of the SK having been caught up in any sort of dirt. It is doing its job, with few if any "conflicts of interest”, so to speak. It is also shockingly transparent, with its spokesman being a fixture in the Russian media.
Another structure built up by the Kremlin is the All-Russian Popular Front (known by its Russian initials, ONF.)
Founded in 2011, this is a sort of top-down civil society organization that, among other things, monitors state corruption, malfeasance, and incompetence in Russia’s regions. It is, in effect, a semi-official activist group with patronage from Moscow.
The intent is for Russia’s small-time government bosses to understand that, as the eye of the Kremlin cannot survey everything at once, someone else (besides weak and underfunded local media) is watching them.
Judging by the fact that its activists have been harassed by Russian provincial and local authorities, the ONF has had some success. However, the jury is still out as to whether it can make a big difference overall.
Of course, Americans would say that corruption should be fought from the bottom-up, by way of a well-funded independent media, a strong civil society, direct elections of all local and provincial chiefs, and more decision-making and fiscal power devolved to local authorities, who are simply closer to their own constituents and more responsive to their needs.
However, Russia’s experience with decentralization in the 1990s was catastrophic, and Mr. Putin has staked his entire political career on not repeating it.
One could also say that until Russia has built up a truly solid middle class, efforts to devolve power to local authorities will simply be co-opted by the oligarchs, leading to direct oligarchic rule as was the case in the 1990s, and is the case in Ukraine today. (Witness President Poroshenko and Governor Kolomoisky, for starters.)
Thus, while I am not saying that Mr. Putin is 100-percent right, we need to understand where he is coming from.
Despite all the limitations of his position and of the Russian state as a whole, he is truly a corruption-fighter, and in this regard, is a head-and-shoulders improvement over his predecessor, who simply drank himself under the table while outsourcing authority to the oligarchs with their bought-and-paid-for ministers and media outlets—a practice which the Western press referred to as "democracy."
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