12 February 2013, 13:35

‘If Russia were “mafia state” it is frequently painted as by the West, why would its anti-corruption laws and transparency indicators be steadily improving?’

‘If Russia were “mafia state” it is frequently painted as by the West, why would its anti-corruption laws and transparency indicators be steadily improving?’

There are many opinions on this topic and I see no reason to add more to that morass. I do however think it will be useful to ground the scale and trajectory of Russian corruption in quantifiable facts and statistics. There are three major ways of measuring corruption: (1) Subjective assessments; (2) Objective assessments; and (3) Opinion polls. On the Open Budget Index, which measures fiscal transparency, Russia improved drastically from 47/100 in 2006 to 74/100 by 2012, and is now ahead of all the BRIC’s, all of East-Central Europe barring the Czech Republic, and even Germany.

Questions to the Voice of Russia Weekly Experts’ Panel Participants

The most famous subjective assessment is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. Russia might go up and down across the years, as per the businesspeople and “experts” it polls, but overall it remains consistently stuck somewhere in between Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. Bearing in mind that they also believe Italy is more corrupt than Saudi Arabia – a country owned by its ruling family even in name – one must ask to what extent this PERCEPTIONS index reflects actual corruption in a country, as opposed to the expat packages it offers and its friendliness to the international business community. Is it a complete coincidence that Russia’s already low CPI score started plummeting to new depths in the exact same year that it jailed Khodorkovsky? 

Russia does much better on assessments that include precise methodologies for calculating scores, i.e. a particular anti-corruption law either exists – or it doesn’t. On the Global Integrity Index, it scores 71/100, which is comparable to many other middle-income countries like Lithuania (74), Hungary (73), and Mexico (68). On the Open Budget Index, which measures fiscal transparency, Russia improved drastically from 47/100 in 2006 to 74/100 by 2012, and is now ahead of all the BRIC’s, all of East-Central Europe barring the Czech Republic, and even Germany. Widespread tropes of shady siloviki appropriating all the proceeds from the Russian oil industry – typically accompanied by terms such as “Muscovite patrimonialism” or “rent-seeking clans” by those seeking to project an aura of learnedness – to the contrary, Russia is second only to Brazil and Norway in the transparency of its oil and gas accounts, as measured by the Revenue Watch Index.

Although it is true that neither of these three indicators directly measure corruption, answer this: If Russia truly were the “mafia state” it is frequently painted as by the Western chattering classes, why on earth would its anti-corruption laws and transparency indicators be steadily improving? For instance, Navalny’s work to expose corrupt state tenders is hailed in the press– and rightly so! – but had not the kleptocratic Kremlin made those tenders publicly accessible on the Internet, none of that would be possible in the first place!

The final method of measuring corruption is both the most direct and democratic – asking ordinary Russians how often they experience it, as opposed to the musings of ivory tower “experts” and limousine expats. Unfortunately, opinion polls on the matter – most of which come from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, the Levada Center, and FOM (The Foundation for Public Opinion) – are too irregular and differently worded to confidently discern any decadal trend. On average, about 25% of Russians tend to say they or their families experienced corruption in the past couple of years. This is directly analogous to countries like Hungary (24%), Romania (31%), and Mexico (33%) – and not far below the worst-performing “old European” country, Greece (18%). That is, of course, nothing to write home about; but neither is this comparable to India (54%), let alone aforementioned Honduras or Equatorial Guinea. The claims that Russia is “Nigeria with snow” are nothing but hot air.

If ordinary corruption is difficult to quantify, it is doubly so for elite corruption. But going beyond the typical anecdotes and opinions, the sums involved in the Oboronservis scandals are on the order of $100 million or so. This is an order of magnitude or two higher than the largest corruption scandals in developed Western countries, but on the other hand… In a Twitter argument about whether it was better to live in Russia or India, Swedish diplomat Mats Staffansson wrote to me, “India has enormous poverty but has one big advantage. A functioning noncorrupt legal system. Good British heritage… Corruption in India is definitely a problem but on a much smaller scale than in Russia.” In response, I challenged him to find a single Russian corruption case from the past decade that is remotely comparable to the theft of food worth $14.5 billion that was supposed to be sold as subsidized rations to the Indian poor. I am still waiting for an answer

As for whether corruption in Russia can ever become “the exception rather than the rule”… Well, where precisely is this threshold? Corruption is part of a continuum, not a set of discrete states. I will venture to say, with the correct incentives and cultural propaganda, that it is certainly plausible for Russia to reduce its levels of corruption from the levels of Romania or Mexico today to the somewhat better levels of Italy or Poland. I do not know if improvements beyond that are possible. Whether it was due to Protestantism, or the out-breeding fertility patterns specific to family life within the Hajnal Line (which according to some theories promoted altruism), the peoples of north-west Europe seem to have reached a level of very low corruption that has been equalled by very few other societies. In Russia’s case, just converging with Mediterranean and Visegrad corruption norms would be an adequate achievement.

Anatoly Karlin, Da Russophile

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