In attacking corruption on all levels of Russian government, Putin is fulfilling an old promise in dramatic fashion. Criminal trials and billions of roubles are on the line. Half of Russia worries he has other motives.
When Vladmir Putin delivers his yearly speech to the nation from the Kremlin on Wednesday, December 12, one word will not be lacking: corruption. The Russian president appears to have declared open war on the deeply entrenched problem in Russia.
"It's not a campaign, but a systematic extermination of corruption," Putin said at a meeting with close advisers in Moscow this week. In a television interview, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev spoke of "the beginning of a very difficult task." He added that the timing of the ever-more explosive corruption investigations is no accident.
For weeks, investigations of senior Russian officials have been making headlines throughout Russia. The most prominent casualty at this point has been the long-reigning defense minister from Putin's former cabinet, Anatoli Serdjukov; he was forced to step down in October. Authorities involved in the investigations have also accused a ministry organization of embezzling 3 billion roubles, or 75 million euros (US $97 million). Further billions have also disappeared into the dark channels of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Roscomos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.
The greatest evil
Corruption certainly isn't new. Whoever breaks the speed limit on Russian streets, for example, can simply grease a palm to avoid a fine. Whether in hospitals, schools and public offices, corruption has been proliferating year on year, according to the Transparency International organization (TI). Bribes can get one anywhere.
On the current index of governmental transparency, Russia comes in at 138th place, making it among the most corrupt in the world. In a 2011 survey by Deutsche Welle, two out of every three Russians considered corruption to be the most important problem confronting the country.
Yet now it appears that transparency is on the rise. Hardly a day passes without reports of the newest corruption case. In 2013, the country is expected to develop its first collective corruption file, where grounds for suspicion can be listed and shared, reported the high-circulation Moscow newspaper "Izvestia." A new political party was also formed in Moscow last week. It is called People Against Corruption.
Doubts about Putin's plans
And yet for all the progress, still there are questions as to whether Putin can fight corruption with any degree of success.
"How can one do away with corruption when Russia has no independent judiciary and no rule of law?" asked a domestic policy expert of the Moscow Carnegie Center, Lilija Schevzova, in an interview with DW in 2011. At that time, Putin had just presented his electoral platform for a third term as Russian president. As part of that plan, he promised a drop in corruption levels by a factor of two or three by the year 2018. He is now waging that battle - one he had shied away from over the previous twelve years.
Perhaps that's why Russians are skeptical. Every second citizen doesn't believe the president can reach his goal, according to a survey carried out by the Levada Center in Moscow. Ivan Nineko of Transparency International's Russian chapter sees a struggle for power rather than idealism behind the recent spate of corruption scandals.
To make serious headway against corruption will only be possible, he believes, when high-ranking officials end up on trial. That hasn't happened yet.
Taking the steam out of protests?
Still, other experts believe the head of the Kremlin has a chance.
"It's become clear that corruption is now an obstacle for political governance," Kirill Krabanov, president of the National Anti-corruption Committee of Russia, told DW. In the past, country leaders tried dampening voices of protest through social welfare measures, Krabanov said. They now have to reckon with the fact that those monies were stolen.
Observers in Moscow assume that Putin's plans will serve primarily to take the wind out of the opposition's sails. In December of last year, 10,000 Russians took to the streets in Moscow to protest the victory of the centrist United Russia political party - Putin's and Medvedev's own and which currently holds 238 of the 450 parliamentary seats in the Kremlin. On the streets of Russia, however, United Russia has another name. It's known as the party of crooks and thieves.
Moscowlawyer Alexey Navalny, who coined that expression and continues to denounce Russian corruption on his blog, was recently voted chairman of the opposition's political coordination board. On Saturday (15.12.2012), the opposition is planning another large-scale demonstration in Moscow.