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Anti-corruption crusade in Russia - “chop off one head, two will grow back”

December 04, 2012, 17:14 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

MOSCOW, December 4 (Itar-Tass) — Corruption scandals involving high-ranking Russian officials have made front-page headlines for weeks now, and their number keeps growing. There have been signs this is part of a well-orchestrated political campaign sanctioned at the very top. According to mass media, the go-ahead to exposing corrupt officials of any rank was given from the Kremlin in order to better the authorities’ popularity rating. However, as follows from opinion polls, many Russians no longer believe the struggle against corruption may be successful.

The string of high-profile criminal cases against corrupt senior officials is not accidental. As the RBC Daily has learned, the Interior Ministry got a message from the Kremlin to the effect no important connections would interfere with the struggle against corruption at any level.

“In our investigations we quite often reached high-placed officials, only to be told at once that we should not overdo it. Then we had to confine ourselves to exposing small fry, involved in corruption schemes. Or see cases just fall apart,” the source at the Interior Ministry told the daily. “Now there has been an unequivocal message from the Kremlin we have a free hand. We can investigate any charges and any suspicions irrespective of what official may be harmed,” the source said.

“The war on corruption has been declared a priority,” an official at the presidential staff said. “Civil servants must be aware the situation has changed. If someone is unprepared to live the honest way, he should step down.”

Last week provided convincing proof the anti-corruption cases featuring very high-ranking persons were opened as part of a large-scale campaign to put the civil service in order.

The latest row was in St. Petersburg. At the end of last week police launched an investigation into theft from the city’s budget by members of the city’s energy committee and by a utilities repair company. Funds earmarked for the construction and capital repairs of thermal power and water supply facilities are in focus. As a result of fraudulent schemes a total of 600 kilometers of substandard pipes was laid under the city’s streets. According to preliminary estimates, the damage totaled three billion rubles. The apartment of the energy committee’s chief, Vladislav Petrov, was searched and 18 million rubles, 100,000 dollars and 100,000 euros was confiscated.

The chief military investigator, Alexander Sorochkin, said the former defense minister, Anatoly Serdukov, may soon be invited for questioning within the framework of the multi-level criminal case of the Oboronservis holding company, which has already cost him his post. The investigators keep unearthing ever more instances of theft. The damage has already risen to above 4 billion rubles.

Investigations into thefts in the Russian space agency Roscosmos and in the course of preparations for the APEC summit in Vladivostok are continuing.

However, the former minister of agriculture, Yelena Skrynnik, has been number one figure in the news over the past few days. Before taking a seat on the Cabinet Skrynnik had led the company Rosagroleasing. In Moscow, Interior Ministry officials made it quite clear that they have sufficient evidence for indicting Skrynnik in connection with the investigation of the embezzlement of 39 billion rubles in Rosagroleasing. The Interior Ministry has examined the affair for the past several years. The heap of scandals that has piled up over the years Skrynnik led Rosagroleasing and the Agriculture Ministry indicates the investigators long ago had sufficient reasons to investigate the former minister. Moreover, in private conversations police detectives told reporters and human rights activists that “all facts are known but no action can be taken.”

Now it looks like the permission to probe into the former agriculture minister’s role has been received. However, although she returned back home several days ago, Skrynnik has not yet been summoned for questioning and no criminal charges have been brought against her. Apparently, the task of sending Skrynnik to jail is not on the agenda, experts say. In the meantime, mass media have been discussing the details of her scandalous private life and publishing pictures of wrist watches 50,000-60,000 euros a piece and describing in detail her real estate in France and business in Switzerland.

That high-profile anti-corruption cases at the federal level were cooking Vladimir Putin said at a meeting behind closed doors with the discussion club Valdai in October 2012, one of the participants in the meeting told Kommersant-Vlast magazine. He said the Russian leader promised that society would soon have a chance to see an example of real struggle against corruption, which would sound an important message to all.

A report by the Kremlin’s political technologists addressed to one of Russia’s governors, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, says that the struggle against corruption is a consequence of reports and surveys, conducted at the presidential staff following the regional elections of October 14. Opinion polls registered falling trust in the country’s top leadership and almost revolutionary sentiment in the people’s minds.

The General Director of the Center for Political Information, Alexei Mukhin, is quoted by the daily as saying that the crusade against corruption may go much farther than the affairs of former government ministers Yelena Skrynnik and Anatoly Serdyukov: “At least, the president has stated clearly more than once that the struggle against corruption will go on.”

However, the campaign has not had any noticeable effect on the president’s popularity yet. Moreover, Putin’s rating in November fell still further against October, according to the latest Levada center poll. The level of approval of the president’s activity over the past month was down from 67% to 63%, and that of Dmitry Medvedev, from 61% to 54%.

Most Russians do not believe the president will achieve success in the struggle against corruption, according to another Levada Center poll, published by the daily Kommersant. In his election speeches the president had promised to lower the level of corruption by 50-60 percent. Now, even against the background of anti-corruption campaign 14% of those polled by the sociologists are certain that this will not happen. A tiny 6% percent think otherwise.

As many as 42% of the respondents agree the current leadership in its intention to retain power relies only on the loyal people and turns a blind eye on their crimes, and 19% disagreed with this statement.

A quarter of Russians (25%) are certain that the anti-corruption campaign is nothing but evasive action, taken to distract the people from the real problems. Only 4% emphatically disagreed with that.

“Chop off one head, and two others will grow in its place,” Kommersant quotes a senior researcher at the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Leonty Byzov, as saying. “The main problem of corruption is the legal institutions described in Russia’s laws are ineffective, while repressive measures can only ‘trim the growing lawn,’ to prevent the weeds from getting too large. But the lawn will keep growing anyway, because that’s life.”