Of all the former states in the Soviet Union, according to a global ranking, Russia remains one of the most corrupt. That helps explain why an estimated 60,000 Russians took to the streets March 26 in anti-corruption protests. Not only were these the largest protests in five years, they took place in dozens of cities and despite the fact that officials denied permits for the demonstrations and the government has been cracking down hard on dissidents.
What stirred the thinking of so many Russians to envision an honest and accountable government?
While President Vladimir Putin remains popular, the focus of the protests was his prime minister and protégé, Dmitry Medvedev. A scathing report on his wealth, released on YouTube in early March and watched by more than 12 million people, revealed the depth of Russian corruption – and Mr. Putin’s vulnerability to mass dissent. One sign of Putin’s worry: His security forces arrested more than a thousand demonstrators, including anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. He’s the one who compiled the corruption file on the prime minister.
Another reason for the size of the crowds is the fact that average wealth in Russia has fallen about 42 percent since 2013, a result largely of Putin’s policies. Yet there may be another cause. In one former Soviet state – neighboring Georgia – anti-corruption protests achieved remarkable success, a fact not lost on many Russians.
Georgia’s so-called Rose Revolution in 2003 overthrew a very corrupt regime and ushered in wholesale reforms aimed mainly at curbing low-level corruption. The traffic police, the face of daily bribery to the people, were all fired. In addition, taxes were simplified and the number of required permits was cut from 600 to a few dozen. The number of state workers fell by 50 percent while the salaries of the remaining workers were boosted. To hold officials accountable, the transparency of government transactions was greatly improved. And all this despite Georgia being one of the poorest of the former Soviet states.
Last year, Georgia was judged to be one of the least-corrupt countries in Central Asia and Europe. On the Corruption Perceptions Index of the group Transparency International, it ranks near Spain, Latvia, and Costa Rica. Over the course of three governments since 2003, noted a January report by the Council of Europe, “Georgia has come a long way in creating a regulatory and institutional framework for fighting corruption.”
The country still has corruption challenges, mainly in the judiciary. One in 8 Georgians says corruption is one of the nation’s top three problems. But the country has achieved what The Economist magazine calls a “mental revolution.” Perhaps more Russians want what their neighbors in Georgia already enjoy.