In Russia, the price of bribes rise as its corruption rating slides

Russia ranked 154th on the annual Corruption Perceptions Index of 178 countries, sliding down eight spots from last year. A promised 'war on corruption' isn't yielding fruit.

A war on corruption is Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's signature policy, and he's staked his political career on winning it.

On Mr. Medvedev's watch, Duma deputies and state officials have been forced to file income statements for the first time, the police force has been overhauled, and arrests for bribe-taking have sharply increased.

So why is Russia getting lower marks for fighting corruption than in the past?

The latest sign that Medvedev's much vaunted anticorruption drive is faltering comes from the independent Berlin-based corruption watchdog Transparency International, whose widely watched global Corruption Perceptions Index shows Russia slipping dramatically down the annual list of 178 countries, from 146th place last year to 154th. That puts it in league with countries like Laos, Kenya, and the Central African Republic.

The 8 worst countries on Transparency International's list

Russia has even fallen behind most of its post-Soviet neighbors, with Ukraine sprinting 20 places ahead and the hermit state of Belarus a full 27 places up the list.

"Yes, the authorities have made loud declarations about fighting corruption, but there's a big discrepancy between words and reality," says Anton Pominov, a researcher with Transparency International's Russian branch. "It's not just us. Most reports by independent organizations on Russian corruption agree on one thing: nobody sees any effective action."

Medvedev's agenda

Medvedev, who came to power in 2008, has passionately argued that Russia needs to "modernize" its industrial base, social customs, and political institutions to survive in the 21st century.

The first order of business, he frequently says, is to eradicate the country's endemic culture of graft, bribe-taking, and official extortion, which experts estimate sucks upwards of $300 billion out of the economy each year.

"We are not used to saying 'we have a dream' in my country, but this is my political vision," Medvedev told a gathering of journalists and scholars a year ago. "[Corrupt officials] hold the power in Russia. Corruption has a systemic nature, deep historic roots. We should squeeze it out. The battle isn't easy but it has to be fought."

But the average price of a bribe has actually shot up this year, according to Russia's Interior Ministry, to 44,000 roubles ($1,450), up from 23,000 roubles ($750) in 2009.

Russian police opened 35,000 corruption cases in the first nine months of this year, which marks a jump of 17.5 percent over the same period last year, according to an Interior Ministry statement.

"We understand that you can’t overcome corruption in one year," Alexander Nazarov, deputy head of the ministry’s economic crimes department, told journalists Wednesday.

Culture of corruption

"We have laws, but they don't function," says Yuly Nisnevich, a corruption expert with the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The results are much worse than figures alone can illustrate. What we see is that the authorities are losing control. People come into official jobs for one reason alone: to line their own pockets."

He says that bribery cases may be increasing in number, but those charged are mainly small offenders such as doctors, teachers and traffic cops.

"A fish rots from the head down," Mr. Nisnevich says. "How can you expect people who've come to power as a result of corruption to seriously battle against corruption. And there are no mechanisms in our society to correct this."

Public opinion polls show that most Russians are completely cynical about the anticorruption drive, with 80 percent naming official bribery as one of the country's top problems, after poverty and unemployment, in a recent survey by the independent Levada Center in Moscow.

"While many people say they feel positively toward Medvedev's idea of fighting corruption, very few say they believe it can succeed," says Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center. "Last year, when there were several high-profile corruption prosecutions, 71 percent of respondents in one poll told us they believed these cases were just window dressing."

Some critics say that the centralized, top-down political system established by former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the root of the problem.

"Authoritarian systems usually breed corruption," says Nisnevich. "If you don't have political competition, business transparency and civil society participation, corruption becomes the main way of transacting all affairs. Without competition, there's no hope of fighting corruption."

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