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Prisoner of the Siloviki

Thursday, August 5, 2010

By Ed Hancox

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has crafted an ambitious agenda; two key planks of which are fighting Russia’s endemic problem with corruption and moving the national economy away from its reliance on extraction-based industries (primarily oil and natural gas production) towards more value-added pursuits-Medvedev’s current pet project is the construction of a Russian “Silicon Valley” outside of Moscow.  It all sounds like a well-reasoned plan for the future, yet it’s worth noting that his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, made many of the same pledges, but his eight years in office ended without any notable successes either in tackling corruption or in establishing a modern, production-based economy. 

Much has been written about the relationship between these two men - like Putin, Medvedev’s rise to the presidency from relative political obscurity could be described as “meteoric”; he emerged as Putin’s hand-picked successor when Putin ran up against the “two-term limit” provision of the Russian constitution.  For this reason, Medvedev is often seen as little more than a placeholder for Putin, who is eligible to run for the presidency again in 2012 (the constitution merely stipulates that one cannot serve more than two consecutive terms).  I happen to think their relationship is somewhat more complex; since Putin could have easily had a compliant legislature pass a waiver to the two-term limit law (see New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg for an example of this in action). They themselves refer to their hold on the reins of power in Russia as a “tandem” rule.  I’ve speculated on the nature of their political relationship several times, wondering even if Medvedev is the Taft to Putin’s Teddy Roosevelt – the hand-picked puppet who turns out to have a mind of his own. 

But while Medvedev has said a lot of the right things, his own record of actual accomplishment has been about as thin as Putin’s.  Corruption is a staple of life in modern Russia.  Not only are citizens at constant risk of shakedowns from the police – the choice between paying a modest “fine” or hours wasted at the local station to sort out a transgression against some non-existent law; but they’re also compelled to bestow “gifts” to bureaucrats for benign tasks like applying for a business permit or registering for school.  A high-profile effect of corruption in modern Russia was the poor performance of the nation’s teams in this past February’s Vancouver Olympic Games.  Russia, traditionally a Winter Olympics powerhouse, finished a distant sixth in the medal standings; this qualified as a national embarrassment.  There was a good bit of not-so-quiet grumbling from a number of athletes and coaches that many of the funds that should have been dedicated to training and fielding top-quality teams was instead syphoned off by various sports ministries for decidedly un-athletic reasons.  Russia built the largest pavilion in Vancouver’s Olympic Park and the nation flew over dozens of low-ranking government officials and Russian celebrities (along with their personal assistants, wives and girlfriends) over for the Games, while at least one athlete in Vancouver had to borrow money from his family to buy equipment so he could even compete in his event.  On a more serious note, the culture of corruption in Russia was evident in their military campaign against Georgia in August 2008.  The Russian army that rolled into Georgia was much the same in terms of technology as the Russian army that rolled into Afghanistan in 1979.  Among other things, the army lacked the unmanned drone aircraft that have become a staple of the modern battlefield; Russia lost at least one airplane in the conflict when they were forced to repurpose an obsolete bomber for battlefield reconnaissance.

It’s not that Russian manufacturers are incapable of building modern, high-tech weaponry.  The problem, analysts say, is that the Kremlin will only buy weapons from a circle of well-connected manufacturers.  And knowing that their military contracts are in the bag, these manufacturers have little incentive to produce modern, state-of-the-art equipment.  But even with corruption seeming to affect national security to such a degree, the Medvedev/Putin tandem still have had little success in combating it.  This is a situation that is made even more difficult to understand since the party of Medvedev/Putin, United Russia, enjoys a huge majority in the Duma, the Russian parliament.  In fact, political critics in Russia contend that the Duma is little more than a rubber stamp for the leaders in the Kremlin.

The new book Putin’s Oil (full review here) by journalist Martin Sixsmith could offer a clue as to why corruption remains such an intractable problem. Putin’s Oil details the ultimately successful attempt by Putin’s government to prosecute Mikhail Khodorkovsky – the billionaire CEO of the energy conglomerate Yukos – and to takeover and dismantle the company.  It is well-known that the two men had a deep, personal animosity, but Sixsmith offers the suggestion that the crusade against Yukos was not directed solely by Putin, but rather the siloviki – an old Soviet term for Kremlin insiders, now applied to Putin’s inner circle of colleagues, many from his days in Russia’s state security services.  The siloviki, Sixsmith contends, wanted to dismantle Yukos, not because the company had grown too large, or because it controlled vast oil and gas fields, which the siloviki believed were truly the property of the State (the usual publicly-stated reasons); but rather they dismantled Yukos for their own personal profit – many of the assets of the dismembered Yukos allegedly wound up in the possession of various members of the siloviki, picked up at bargain-basement prices.  The reason that anti-corruption efforts have failed so far under Putin/Medvedev then is simply because too many well-connected people are making too much money from the status quo.

A bit of supporting evidence for this claim came in the pages of the New York Times last week.  The Times gave an update on the story of Aleksei Dymovsky, who shot to fame last year as Russia’s “Corruption Cop”, thanks to his plea on YouTube asking Vladimir Putin to take steps to end corruption among Russia’s police forces.  Dymovsky, a cop in the southern Russian town of Novorossiysk, claimed that not only was corruption rampant among Russia’s police, and not only did high-ranking officials turn a blind eye to their bribe-taking subordinates, they expected them to take bribes. Dymovsky claimed that the starting salary for a policeman in Novorossiysk was deliberately set at a mere $400 per month (barely a living wage) since superiors expected officers to augment their income with bribes anyway.  Dymovsky showed reporters from the Times the house of the police chief of Novorossiysk, a million-dollar seaside estate on the Black Sea coast, supposedly bought on the Chief’s annual $25,000 salary.  Members of the Duma recently proposed “Dymovsky’s law” a bill that would punish not police officers who take bribes, but rather police officers who publically make statements detrimental to their superiors – like accusing them of bribery in the first place.  It’s a sad indication of where the fight against corruption in Russia is likely headed. And for all of his good talk about the future, Medvedev’s crusade against corruption will likely be no more successful than Putin’s, in large part because it’s designed not to be effective.

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When not writing about international affairs, Ed Hancox works in nonprofit development. He holds a M.A. degree in International Affairs from The New School where he worked as a research associate on a project examining Russia's transition from Communism.