By John Lloyd
NEW YORK Dec 18 In Moscow last week at a
conference for young Russian journalists, I met a man named
Edward Mochalov, who differed from most of the participants in
having spent much of his working life as a farmer. He retains
the ruddy countenance and the strong, chapped hands of the
outdoor worker in a hard climate - in his case, the Chuvash
Republic, some 400 miles east of Moscow.
Mochalov's story is that when thieves stole some of his
cattle and pigs, he protested to the authorities, only to find
himself in jail for eight months for wrongful accusation.
Maddened by what he considered the result of corruption behind
the scenes, he protested all the way up to President Vladimir
Putin, going so far as to appear in Moscow's Red Square with a
placard telling his story, though to no avail. As he pursued
justice, his farm went untended.
And so he turned to journalism. "I had no choice. The whole
administration was corrupt, nothing to be done but fight them
with words," he told me. Four years ago he founded a newspaper
he called, boldly and baldly, Vzyatka (translation: The Bribe).
It comes out most months, and it's replete with investigations
and denunciations of corruption in his locality. He prints some
20,000 copies and gives them away. Demand, he says, hugely
The local administration and power brokers simply ignore him
and carry on as before. That complaint was voiced by many of the
young journalists at the conference, who see their revelations
treated with the arrogant disdain of silence. They have no
illusions about their situation. The majority work in the
provinces, and try to practice journalism in cities where the
power structure, official and corporate, would often unite to
squash or punish journalism that was out of line. When critical
or revelatory pieces are published, they have found - as has
Edward Mochalov - that nothing changes.
As a result, corruption still reigns. This month's scandal
in Russia concerns Alexander Provotorov, head of the state
telecommunications corporation Rostelekom. Provotorov is being
investigated with others over his acts as a partner in Marshall
Capital, a private equity firm, and the default of one of its
subsidiaries on a $225 million loan. These matters are complex,
long running - and puzzling. Provotorov was an ally of Putin,
who in the past year has launched an anti-corruption campaign.
The Russian watcher Brian Whitmore of Radio Free Europe picks up
on the confusion in Moscow's top ranks when he asks, "Is it an
anti-graft campaign? A purge of the elite? Or the start of a
Among citizens, corruption produces disgust, mirrored
increasingly in popular newspapers like Moskovsky Komsomolets, a
Moscow tabloid, as well as on websites read by the young.
According to a poll by the non-governmental Russian research
organization, Levada Center, the number of people who believe
that bureaucrats work mainly for their own enrichment has grown
from 3.0 percent to almost 30 percent in the past two decades.
It has become a more settled conviction that the
political/corporate classes have constructed an
all-but-impregnable fortress of wealth and privilege, with high
walls to keep the rabble out and behind which they have a high
old time. Boris Makarenko of the Centre for Political
Technologies, a liberal institute, says more and more Russians,
especially those like the young journalists, no longer see
themselves as subjects. They "want to make inputs."
There is much a citizen should input. The INDEM think tank
in Moscow, run by Georgy Satarov, a former aide to President
Boris Yeltsin, estimates that corruption costs the country $300
billion to 500 billion a year. With a gross domestic product of
some $1.5 trillion, that is up to one-third of the economy.
Meanwhile, capital flight last year came in at $84 billion,
double that in 2010 and is still, it seems, increasing.
Putin is not thought to be far from the trough. There are
allegations from the political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky that
the president's personal pile is more than $30 billion, though
these estimates are unsourced and seem politically biased.
(Belkovsky is an associate of the exiled oligarch Boris
Berezovsky, an enemy of the president.) More to the point,
perhaps, was a report by the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov
that the official trappings of the president included private,
expensively tailored aircraft, 20 residences, four yachts and
almost $700,000 worth of watches - the lifestyle of a
billionaire. On these allegations, the Kremlin responds with
silence, or a curt denial.
Russian corruption underlies the latest spat between Russia
and the United States. Earlier this month, President Barack
Obama signed into law the so-called Magnitsky Act, which will
deny visas to Russia officials thought to be connected with the
violent death in jail of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer pursuing a
state-level tax fraud. The American financier who employed him,
Bill Browder, has campaigned tirelessly for the law; it speaks
directly to human and civil rights in Russia, and seems to have
infuriated the Kremlin. The Duma (parliament), controlled by the
president's party, is now discussing passing the "Dima Yakovlev
Bill" - named after the Russian 2-year-old who died when his
American adoptive father forgot that he had left him in a closed
car in sweltering heat in 2008. The man was acquitted in the
United States, and the Russian law on adoption was changed to
allow more oversight by the authorities - but the case remains
vivid enough in the popular memory to act as a rallying call.
Putin, in his state-of-the-nation speech last week, sought
not only to pledge to fight corruption and end the impression of
the elite being "an isolated caste" but also to laud Russia's
"state civilization, unified by the Russian people, Russian
language and Russian culture which unites us, does not allow
us to dissolve." Yet the "dissolving" of Russia will not come,
as he claims, from the imperialist designs of a hypocritical
West but from the challenges - in shrinking population, polluted
cities, groaning infrastructure, gross inequalities and vast
corruption. To deal with those, the Russian leader needs to be
part of a global solution. For the moment, though, he isolates
himself in the very problem he needs to fix.
( John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study
of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director
of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What
the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a
contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.)