Vladimir Putin is suddenly on the defensive against corruption

Stephen Sestanovich writes: For years now, Putin has claimed — with brazen but disarming candor — to be fighting hard against corruption and the abuse of state power. In his 2015 speech to parliament, he complained that the bullying of legitimate businesses by bribe-seeking officials was a blight on the Russian economy. In his April 2016 call-in, he took questions about shakedowns by government inspectors, about real estate scams enabled by the courts, about the enslavement of workers in a fish cannery (ignored by the police), about the illegal seizure of a Moscow research institute by officials who wanted its land, and more. Putin has said that without fundamental reforms, the country’s economic growth will “hover around zero.” Last summer he told parliamentary candidates of his own party, United Russia, that they had to work harder to win the people’s trust.

Most of this was, of course, meaningless rhetoric. Any serious follow-through would threaten the system Putin has created.

But that’s why we should pay attention when he changes course. On the program last week, Putin announced that corruption is simply “not among the top” issues bothering Russians. When an earnest high school student complained about light punishment meted out to corrupt officials, the president’s initial, prickly response was to suggest that someone else had written the question. His lame concluding plea: “Let us rely on the work of the judicial system.”

Dismissing corruption and the abuse of power didn’t keep Putin from playing his usual role as national problem solver. Was a young teacher paid too little? The president said he’d look into it. Was a single mother in Siberia homeless after forest fires? Putin said he’d talk to the governor of her region. And the woman who lost her home to floods in southern Russia? Again, he promised to talk to her governor.

Yet through all this Putin kept repeating that there was something “strange” about the problems being raised. After all, money had been budgeted to help victims of natural disasters. Maybe, he volunteered, one of the governors was just new on the job? He steered consistently clear of the need for systemic reform or stronger anti-corruption initiatives. Sure, officials at all levels sometimes made wrong decisions, Putin admitted, adding, “I will reprimand them for this” (a typical response). And when asked what he did when people cheated him, the president modeled acceptance: “I try not to make a fuss.”

It’s obvious why Putin has gotten nervous about the corruption issue. His most visible political opponent, Alexei Navalny, has made it the centerpiece of hugely popular online videos and of recent rallies against the “crooks and thieves” of the current regime. It was always a bit shocking that Putin thought he could claim to be a champion of clean government, but somehow he got away with it. Now, apparently, he worries that even talking about corruption will validate Navalny’s critique. [Continue reading…]

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