How corrupt is Russia?

The US Treasury has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being corrupt, while Putin has been encouraging his cabinet to work harder against corruption. Is there any way of knowing where the corruption lies?

Mikhail Klimentyev/AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin heads an anticorruption council in the Kremlin, Moscow, Jan. 26, 2016.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is corrupt, according to a US Treasury official’s comments Monday to the BBC.

The country as a whole needs to do a better job of tackling corruption at all levels, President Putin in turn told his cabinet Tuesday.

Russia has long been plagued by allegations of corruption, but how much of a problem is it, and how does Russia compare with other countries?

The allegations against Putin emerged as Adam Szubin, in charge of US Treasury sanctions, told the BBC’s Panorama program that the US government had regarded the Russian president as corrupt for “many, many years.”

"He supposedly draws a state salary of something like $110,000 a year. That is not an accurate statement of the man's wealth, and he has long time training and practices in terms of how to mask his actual wealth,” said Mr. Szubin.  

It is thought to be the first time that a representative of the US government has made such direct accusations.

"We've seen [Mr Putin] enriching his friends, his close allies, and marginalising those who he doesn't view as friends using state assets,” said Mr Szubin. "To me, that is a picture of corruption."

A 2007 CIA report estimated Putin's wealth at $40 billion.

When the BBC asked Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov to comment, he said, “None of these questions or issues need to be answered, as they are pure fiction,” reported The Moscow Times.

Mr. Peskov then demanded Tuesday that the US Treasury’s accusations be proven, because “the voicing of such accusations by such agencies as the U.S. Treasury without actual evidence casts a shadow on this very agency.

Sputnik News, a media organization that describes itself as pointing “the way to a multipolar world that respects every country’s national interests, culture, history and traditions,” described the US Treasury’s comments as “groundless slurs against Putin.

As for Putin himself, he had this to say in 2008 regarding claims he was Europe’s wealthiest man: “It's simply rubbish. They just picked all of it out of someone's nose and smeared it across their little papers.”

Yet amid this international furor over Putin’s personal conduct, the President continues to chair cabinet meetings in which he demands that “the country’s law enforcement bodies need to work more effectively to recover assets stolen from government coffers.”

“We have adopted a number of anti-corruption measures and introduced mechanisms that help expose corruption schemes at any level, work with a purpose and react in a timely fashion, and sometimes even isolate those involved in corruption from society,” Putin said in a meeting Tuesday, according to the Kremlin. 

Where to turn, in the face of such conflicting assessments?

One possibility is the non-profit, non-governmental organization Transparency International, which aims to give “voice to the victims and witnesses of corruption” and “work together with governments, businesses and citizens to stop the abuse of power, bribery and secret deals.”

Each year, they rank countries of the world according to a “Corruption Perceptions Index,” based on how corrupt a country’s public sector is perceived to be according to “expert and business surveys carried out by a variety of independent and reputable institutions.”

Russia comes in at 136 out of 175 countries according to figures for 2014, the latest available. This puts it below countries including Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, and China. 

[Updated Jan. 27th: According to Transparency International's 2015 index, released shortly after this story was published, Russia now ties at 119 out of 168 countries, alongside Azerbaijan, Guyana and Sierra Leone]

Of 28 countries analyzed in Transparency International’s latest Bribe Payers Index (2011), which “ranks the world’s wealthiest and most economically influential countries according to the likelihood of their firms to bribe abroad,” Russia was placed 28th. 

To give the last word to Russia's president himself, writing in a New York Times opinion page in 2013: "The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not."

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