Taking On Russia's Ubiquitous Bribery
President Has Pledged to Undo 'a Way of Life'

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."

As recently as 2006, Russia ratified the U.N. Convention Against Corruption but excused itself from a key provision on "illicit enrichment." The article requires countries to make it a criminal offense when there is a "significant increase in the assets of a public official that he or she cannot reasonably explain in relation to his or her lawful income."

Bribery enriches Russian bureaucrats and other officials to the tune of $120 billion annually, a senior Russian investigator said. "The revenues of our bureaucrats from corrupt activity, according to experts, account for one-third of our national budget," Vasily Piskaryov, a senior official at the Investigative Committee of the Prosecutor General's Office, said last month.

Other groups believe the scale is even bigger. The Indem Foundation, a Russian grass-roots organization, estimates that Russians pay $319 billion annually in bribes. "It is always with us, in every part of our lives," said Georgy Satarov, head of Indem and a former adviser to the late president Boris Yeltsin.

And everything has a price, according to Russians who were willing to discuss bribes they had personally paid, on the condition that they not be fully identified.

Yulia, a new mother, said she slipped her doctor in Moscow $1,500 to ensure the best care when she was pregnant, even though she has state medical insurance. She said the doctor wouldn't see her without the cash up front.

Nina, a grandmother in Penza, a city about 400 miles southeast of Moscow, said that she paid $150 to a local bureaucrat to get her daughter's child into a state kindergarten, which is ostensibly free.

Sasha, a recent university graduate, said he paid $3,000 this year to avoid military service. The money was passed by a mutual friend to the head of a recruitment office, and Sasha got a medical exemption in return.

Oksana, who recently purchased an apartment in Moscow, said she paid $4,000 to obtain the documents proving she owns her property. Moscow city officials at first demanded $10,000.

"What choice do you have?" Oksana said. "You can fight them, but it will take forever, and they can make things very bad for you."

Yuri, who runs a small business, said he paid $1,200 to continue on his way after he was stopped while driving under the influence of alcohol in Moscow this year. The traffic police are among the most notorious bribe-takers in the country. Yuri said he phoned a friend, who brought the cash to the location where he was stopped.

"There is a very easy and light-hearted attitude to corruption in our country," said Panfilova of Transparency International. "But I keep trying to stress that corruption kills. Do you really want to take your children to see the doctor who bought his diploma? What about the drunk driver who pays, and then kills someone down the street?"

Another small-businessman, a glass company owner who wouldn't allow even his first name to be used, said he pays about $900 a month to various inspectors and police. If he refused, he said, they would paralyze his business with alleged fire, health, labor, tax or sanitary violations.

"Arbitrary inspections by officials, from firemen to police, are often an excuse to extort bribes," Medvedev said in March.

And that's just the small stuff.

For tens of thousands of dollars -- estimates vary from $10,000 to $50,000 -- investigations by police or other state agencies can be purchased to cripple business rivals, ripening them for cheap takeovers. Russian business organizations say that each year, about 8,000 businesses are the subject of such attacks by "raiders," as Russians call these corporate bandits.

The Institute for Public Projects and the Institute for Comparative Social Research, two Moscow research organizations, recently compiled a price list of big-ticket bribes after interviewing businessmen, politicians, civil servants and other experts who were granted anonymity.

· A state contract to a state firm: A 20 percent kickback of the contract's value.

· A state contract to a private firm: A 33 percent kickback of the contract's value.

· A state license for a large private business: $1 million to $5 million.

· A charitable grant: 20 to 30 percent of the grant's value.

The think tanks suggested that a place on a political party's list of candidates for parliament could be acquired for $2 million to $5 million.

Medvedev has provided few details about his proposed attack on corruption. Some critics, including Satarov, believe his interest in establishing the rule of law grows from a desire to legitimize property acquired by Kremlin insiders and their loyal collaborators during the Putin years.

"They are afraid that those who might replace them will take away their property," Satarov said. "The plan is to create . . . a sort of island where the rule of law exists. Their property is on this island."

But Panfilova said she is reserving judgment on Medvedev's initiative, which could also be part of a broader strategy to strengthen his still-uncertain political position.

"If the plan is filled with real instruments to control the income and property of civil servants, it means he is serious about fighting corruption," she said. "Anti-corruption can also be a perfect tool to confront your political enemies. And that's easy to do in Russia. There will be something to investigate on almost each and every person."

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