Yelena Panfilova, Transparency International: “Corruption has never suddenly reduced in Russia”
Why there is no sense in fighting with specific corruptors
Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed during Direct Line this June: “The number of corruption crimes in Russia is reducing”. Expert in corruption control, Chairwoman of the Board of the Russian office of Transparency International Yelena Panfilova said whether this was true or not in an interview with Realnoe Vremya.
“Our history had something that seemed to be an attempt of victory over bribe takers, but this didn’t come to anything more than campaigns”
Mrs Panfilova, let’s start with such a question. When was the lowest level of corruption of state authorities in Russian history in our country? And is there any sense in studying this experience and applying it somehow?
It is probably impossible to single out a period of a sudden fall in the corruption level since the appearance of the state on the territory of Russia from the era of Ivan the Terrible, before and after him. The corruption level, in fact, has always been very high. What is interesting is that this corruption has always been divided into so-called petty corruption and political corruption. Corruption sometimes was quite open and completely shameless, and at times it was more latent, for instance, it is an abuse of administrative resources. There was some reduction in the corruption level in judiciary bodies in Russia in the late 18th-early 19th centuries during the construction of a completely new judiciary system. But it is such a local success, local change. Corruption has never suddenly reduced.
What about the Soviet Union?
Here we will altogether turn to Alyona Ledenyova’s book about the old boy network, about abuse linked with many officials’ enrichment during the period that had the same corruption foundation, they were just called differently.
Does it mean that even hard-line rulers haven't managed to fight corruption in Russia?
It is impossible to fight corruption by brandishing a sabre, cutting off heads. Nobody has managed to do it. It is necessary to build a clear-cut system of all state bodies in the accountability system. Moreover, this accountability is either vertical where everything is subordinate to a clear system of discipline with a clear purpose that all society shares (like Singapore) or this accountability is horizontal where society and citizens have a chance to significantly control what state bodies do (it is, for instance, Scandinavian countries).
And, consequently, our history had something that seemed to be an attempt of victory over bribe takers and so on, but this didn’t come to anything more than campaigns, more than short-term stories of putting an order. Moreover, there was no clear economic, legal system, administrative support of the anti-corruption campaign, consequently, corruption blossomed again as time went by.
Our history had something that seemed to be an attempt of victory over bribe takers and so on, but this didn’t come to anything more than campaigns, more than short-term stories of putting an order
“Corruption in the States is linked with businesses, but it is almost impossible to offer a police officer or a low-ranking functionary a bribe”
In one of your interviews, you said that the “ shake-up of the system” was always a long process, for instance, Lee Kuan Yew achieved a sustainable result only 30 years later and the USA did 50 years later.
You know, nobody has ever won corruption around the world. Corruption can be just minimised to some socially acceptable levels when it stops threatening national security, national well-being and national well-being of citizens. And Singapore also has cases of corruption, even Lee Kuan Yew was accused of corruption in his late period of rule. The States have corruption too, there is a lot of corruption there. Another thing is that it isn’t systematic and has some glitter or some segments. Corruption in the States is linked with businesses, but it is almost impossible to offer a police offer or a low-ranking functionary a bribe. And in Singapore, it is linked with the senior political leadership.
Yes, the creation of a real anti-corruption system takes time, a lot of effort. In case of Singapore, both the small territory and specifics of the established regime helped: in the situation at that moment it was required to build quite an authoritarian system of state management because Lee Kuan Yew accepted the country as a failed state, a dissolving state. He began to build the system from scratch. And it took 30 years to achieve sustainable results that go nowhere.
In case of the USA, the Great Depression, the big economic collapse and a gradual approach that corporations, a merger of power with businesses had to be restricted somehow, became an impetus for change. But then the Second World War interfered. But after the late 30s, it turns out that the system of control over low-ranking corruption, and its results in total already appear after the Nixon scandal, after the appearance of the Office of Government Ethics. It is a systematic state work. There must be no such thing — that we achieved results, waved flags and went ahead whistling Kalinka song. There can be ups and downs, but one has to keep a more serious and planned prospect in mind all the time.
What did fight against corruption begin with? Did the leader of a country decide to deal with this problem, came to an agreement with the powerful elite and handed over some control to the people?
It varies. Every country has its own specifics. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t have a choice, the country was collapsing. And if those taking the last money of the semi-collapsing state aren’t stopped, there won’t be any state in general. This is why he began with imprisonment while explaining to people what it was. He didn’t grudge time to explain the public interest, common good. In other words, he obtained public support of strict reforms and strict measures of prosecution for corruption. And he began to build the system Singapore has now around it.
A collective consensus was reached in case of the States. But again, a leader was needed, such as Roosevelt, for example. It might be both a leader and a collective consensus of public forces represented in legislative bodies, public movements.
Lee Kuan Yew didn’t have a choice, the country was collapsing. And if those taking the last money of the semi-collapsing state aren’t stopped, there won’t be any state in general. This is why he began with imprisonment while explaining to people what it was
“We can’t say the whole country is ready for a fight against corruption”
According to recent statistics Levada Center published, corruption concerns 41% of Russians. In other words, our people understand that it is necessary to fight corruption. What about the authorities?
The authorities feel comfortable. We are talking about the history of the fight against corruption since the 20th century when there was no global anti-corruption system. I will remind that the UN Convention against Corruption in general appeared only in 2003. Corruption had been lastingly considered a common thing. There is a number of expressions in the English language, for instance, business as usual. Some country has tax deductions for bribes given abroad till the 21st century. For instance, businesses in Switzerland and Germany could present such payments as legitimate costs.
This is why the fight against corruption has begun to develop as an occurrence just recently. While there is growing dissatisfaction in our society about a lot of corruption in the country and understanding that something needs to be done.
Is anything done?
Our authorities made use of what others had provided and understood quite quickly that attention can be deflected to the fight against petty corruption: “Here they are, a bunch of creeps, these bribe takers, these doctors, teachers, the police, disgusting mayors of towns, a governor or minister as maximum”. As if corruption doesn’t exist at a higher level. In other words, there is a thin line between the fight against corruption is accepted and even a mention of it is unacceptable. Meanwhile, society sees it differently. This is why we can’t say the whole country is ready for a fight against corruption.
You say that one in two politicians fights the previous corrupted regime, enters his office and that’s it, six months later he becomes a personification of a corrupted regime himself. Does Volodymyr Zelensky have a chance to evade this fate?
There is always a chance. Everything depends on the desire, will and well-thought-out actions because the temptation is great when you can pick the lowest hanging fruit. Moreover, some people push you and say: “Everyone did, do and will do it. There was an old man Lee Kuan Yew, but it doesn’t matter who and where it was. And now we are smart, it is the 21st century anyway, new technologies, we will do everything discreetly. People will happily clasp their hands. Everything is going to be fine”.
Looking at politicians who came to power on the wave of the fight against corruption, people often think that they are alone. Actually, Zelensky isn’t alone, neither are Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev. They always have a big group of people by their side who influence the decisions they make. The question is what motives these groups have. And if the person who claimed he would fight corruption will really do it. I will remind that Vladimir Putin declared it in 2000, Dmitry Medvedev declared it in 2008. Are they able to restrain the influence of the entourage on their actions? Will they be committed to doing not what the entourage wants but what they personally want and what they promised to their voters?
Actually, Zelensky isn’t alone, neither are Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev. They always have a big group of people around who influence the decisions they make. The question is what motives these groups have. And if the person who claimed he would fight corruption will really do it
Do voters still believe politicians’ promises today? Their promises don’t change year after year: “To raise everyone’s salaries, fight corruption”.
You know, a human is such a creature that constantly lives with faith and hope. We will have a holiday soon, on 30 September, the Day of Saints Faith, Hope and Charity (Editor’s Note: the interview had been recorded earlier). People live with faith, hope, love, and their mother Sofia is wisdom. It is time voters united wisdom with faith, hope and love because the heart’s choice or choice by contradiction isn’t a demonstration of wisdom, it is a usual human aspiration to substitute a bad thing for a good thing. It is natural, I mean nobody should criticise anybody for this.
Now we live in times when any person who lives even as a hermit can find all the necessary information about everything, about everyone, make a conclusion, think for yourself if needed and make a choice if he should chew the gum some general line expressed by speaking heads gives. And when wisdom makes a choice together with faith, hope and love, then the voter won’t make a mistake. And when it is simple: “We feel so bad, let’s change X for Y”, then Y will soon become X.