A Russian beauty queen garnered global headlines this week by standing by her impassioned denunciation of the endemic corruption that demoralizes society and saps the economic life of her homeland, made in an essay she'd written that was supposed to be about why she's proud to be a Russian.
"But my Russia – it is also my poor, long-suffering country, mercilessly torn to pieces by greedy, dishonest, unbelieving people," Natalia Pereverzeva wrote in an essay that was part of her entrance requirement to the Miss Earth competition this week in Manila, Philippines.
"My Russia – it is a great artery, from which the 'chosen' few people are draining away its wealth. My Russia is a beggar. My Russia cannot help her elderly and orphans. From it, bleeding, like from a sinking ship, engineers, doctors, teachers are fleeing, because they have nothing to live on," she wrote.
Ms. Pereverzeva's outburst was almost certainly spontaneous, based on her own personal experience and straight from the heart.
But it also happens to coincide with one of the periodic anticorruption crusades launched from the Kremlin to convince the Russian public that something is being done to combat the official graft that by some accounts siphons off as much as a third of Russia's gross domestic product and undermines the effectiveness of all government efforts, from law enforcement to preparations for the Olympic Games.
Recent weeks have seen the fall from grace of at least one top official, as well as the most sweeping set of allegations about official graft – involving several government agencies – to be revealed to the public in years. Some experts suggest that Vladimir Putin, now embarked on his third term as president, may be using his vast powers and political capital to finally confront Russia's most intractable scourge. Others argue that it's a public relations campaign at best, or more likely a cover for political score-settling among bureaucrats, which is traditionally the most common reason that explicit corruption charges surface in Russia.
Hard numbers on corruption
Whatever the deeper political truth, the facts about everyday official graft so far revealed are truly shocking, and they provide some hard numbers to back up Pereverzeva's emotional assertions.
Earlier this month Russia's defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was dismissed after investigators implicated him in a massive kickback scheme that allegedly embezzled almost $100-million through improper sales of military-owned properties. Mr. Serdyukov has not been charged, but several of his subordinates are facing serious criminal allegations.
In October, Russian media reported that investigators were looking into the alleged theft of $427-million in the preparations for September's summit of APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), which was hosted by Russia in the far eastern port of Vladivostok at a mind-boggling cost of $21-billion.
And last week the head of the presidential administration and another close Putin protege, Sergei Ivanov, admitted that more than $200-million had been misappropriated from Russia's ambitious Glonass space program, which Moscow hopes will become a full-scale satellite-based Russian alternative to the US GPS network and the European Union's future Galileo positioning system.
"The struggle against corruption was necessary because at some point it became clear to the leadership that corruption is a threat not only for the society but for authorities as well," says Kirill Kabanov, head of the nongovernmental National Anti-Corruption Committee.
"At some point of the development of the system it became clear that corruption is not a cement of bureaucracy but the system that is destroying the country. The situation has reached the boiling point. Corruption is a deadly threat to national security... For Putin it is necessary to prove that he controls the country. What we're seeing is not a struggle against corruption at some lower levels, but confrontation with corruption in specific sectors [of government]. One step leads to another, and makes it necessary to continue. Putin doesn't like to back off so I think he will go on with it," he adds.
But other experts are not so hopeful. Anton Pominov, research director for the Russian branch of the international corruption watchdog Transparency International says it's more likely we're witnessing another bout of Russia's interminable bureaucratic wars, which are mainly about dividing up power and property, or perhaps a Kremlin-run public relations campaign aimed at calming the concerns of conscientious Russians like Pereverzeva.
Most of the loudly-declared official anticorruption drives of the past have, indeed, produced no lasting results.
"Corruption is an institutional problem, not an interpersonal one," says Mr. Pominov. "The public is made to believe that if someone goes to prison, then corruption has been successfully fought. But that's not enough and, in any case, even now we see that people at the top are not suffering," he adds.
"We need to see institutional changes before we start believing it. For example, half of the military budget is secret, in other words nobody answers for it. An institutional change would make that more transparent, enable the public to access information and see where the money goes... The government needs to reform the way it works, and the public should be educated so that it can be informed and empowered to act against corruption," he says.
Russia's No. 3 problem
In a public opinion survey conducted by the independent Levada Center earlier this year, corruption was named by respondents as the country's No. 3 problem after price rises and low incomes. In the poll, 57 percent of Russians described corruption as an inevitable evil; 26 percent said it was less than in the disastrous decade of the 1990's while 9 percent said it was worse.
"Putin's present campaign has nothing to do with the struggle against corruption," argues Georgy Satarov, head of the independent InDem Foundation, which specializes in corruption studies, and a one time Kremlin aide to former President Boris Yeltsin.
"Putin periodically presents himself as the arbiter in bureaucratic conflicts and allows groups to trample one another, but the goal is to frighten officials and keep them all in line," he says.
The basic system of universal corruption will continue, Mr. Satarov says, because it is fundamental to the maintenance of Kremlin power.
"We have a saying; 'once compromised, forever controllable.' At the top they are convinced that a corrupted subordinate will remain loyal because he is allowed to steal, and he will always fear being exposed as a criminal or thrown out of the feeding-trough...
"The tragedy is that this is a false idea of stability, one that undermines the effective work of government and brings only personal stability for those at the top."