Revolutions often ignite over pervasive corruption – or rather when enough people demand integrity in government. Arabs had that aha moment this year. In Russia, the moment may be soon with news that Vladimir Putin plans to take back the presidency.
Mr. Putin does not appear the greedy sort, but his harsh consolidation of power has created a political system ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt – worse than Haiti’s or Nigeria’s. Other nations might want to start planning for another Russian revolution in coming years, given what the US Embassy in Moscow has called a “virtual mafia state” centered on the Kremlin.
Polls show a declining popularity among Russians for the once highly admired Putin. And the widespread corruption – estimated at $300 billion a year in kickbacks and bribes – will only hinder necessary reforms to prevent economic troubles as Russia’s oil production declines.
Putin was president from 2000 to 2008 and then, barred under the post-Soviet Constitution from a third consecutive term, he picked a placeholder, Dmitry Medvedev, to hold the office for four years. Behind the scenes, though, Putin still held the reins as prime minister. Last weekend, he announced he would run for president in elections next March.
His victory is assured because he has eliminated most of the organized opposition. And he can use his autocratic kleptocracy to stage-manage the election. In effect, the “Putin era” could run from 2000 to 2024, or longer than the reign of most dictators, and close to how long Stalin was in power.
Long before 2024, however, Russians may be frustrated at both the political stagnation and lost economic opportunities. More than a million Russians have fled the country in recent years, many of them educated middle-class – turned off by the rampant graft and a political elite that amasses personal wealth.
As David Kramer, president of the global watchdog Freedom House, told Congress in July, a growing number of protests in Russia “are driven more by economic grievances and frustration with corruption, less about the authoritarian nature of the regime.”
Corruption also has made Russia a bad investment for foreign companies, which are needed to shift the economy from an overreliance on oil and other minerals. Disputes over Kremlin policy erupted over the weekend with the forced departure of the respected finance minister, Alexei Kudrin. Without his fiscal probity and clean record, Russia may suffer even more capital flight and erosion of its investment climate. And in the future Putin may find it difficult to pay pensions and provide other benefits, practices that kept his popularity high during his early years.
The Justice Department is actively probing any cases of Americans (or Russians working for US firms) who pay bribes to Russian officials in violation of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act. (Britain may take similar action.)
And Congress is weighing bills that would punish Russian officials involved in the death of a dissident, Sergei Magnitsky, who blew the whistle on a $230 million scandal in Russia’s Interior Ministry.
The Russian people may have initially accepted Putin’s personalization of power. But they could end up rejecting him on the streets and in social media because that power relies too much on graft to maintain loyalty. And the absence of democracy reduces the necessary competition of ideas to help Russia become a truly advanced nation.