Taking On Russia's Ubiquitous Bribery

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told lawmakers this month that
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told lawmakers this month that "those who take bribes feel it involves no risks or consider such risks to be negligible. It mustn't be so." (By Mikhail Klimentyev -- Associated Press)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 14, 2008

MOSCOW -- Earlier this year, with final exams looming, Alexander and 10 of his fellow mathematics students were summoned by their professor at a Moscow technical university. All were missing course work needed to complete their study of a field known as discrete mathematics, and without it they could not take the final exam, jeopardizing their graduation.

"The professor asked for suggestions how we might resolve this situation," said Alexander, who spoke on the condition that his full name not be used. "One of our group suggested that we meet him at his home, and he said he would give him a ride there while the rest of us took the Metro."

On the way to the apartment, the professor and the student settled on the terms for everyone, recounted Alexander, 22. Each student would pay 500 rubles, or approximately $22, for each missing piece of work, and an additional $170 for a 4 -- the Russian equivalent of a B -- on the final exam. Alexander said he ended up paying about $280.

"It was reasonable," Alexander said. "You have to pay for your own stupidity."

From birth to death, corruption courses through the lives of Russians -- a phenomenon that newly elected President Dmitry Medvedev recently said has become "a way of life for a huge number of people."

"Those who take bribes feel it involves no risks or consider such risks to be negligible," Medvedev told lawmakers. "It mustn't be so."

In the Russian education system alone, about $1 billion is paid each year in bribes to secure entry and pass exams, according to Mark Levin, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics who has studied the phenomenon. Levin estimated that unqualified students, depending on the reputation of the school, pay between $500 and $20,000 for admission to a university. Most of those students, he said, continue to pay bribes to pass exams and to emerge with diplomas.

Medvedev has pledged to introduce new anti-corruption legislation by October as part of a broad campaign to reduce bribery. In the early weeks of his presidency, he made the centerpiece of his administration the establishment of the rule of law and the ending of what he calls "legal nihilism," or the wholesale flouting of the law.

But Russia has a history of half-hearted or failed attempts at combating corruption. Despite the centralization of power under former president Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has been unable or unwilling to tackle an issue that may well be expanding even further. The country's staggering new wealth, largely flowing from oil and natural gas revenues, has led to an explosion in graft, which is now measured in the tens of billions of dollars.

In a survey of corruption levels in 180 countries, Transparency International, a watchdog organization based in Berlin, ranked Russia 143rd, with 180th as the worst.

"We have a lot of people who in their lifetimes worked only in the civil service, and what they have does not correspond with their income, which is extremely modest," said Yelena Panfilova, head of the group's Russia office. "They have shares in business, property in London or Paris or Madrid or the Maldives, children in boarding school in England . . . and a couple of cars.

"And they say that any law forcing them to account for their assets is a violation of their human rights."

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