Today’s guest post is from Marina Zaloznaya, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and author of, The Politics of Bureaucratic Corruption in Post-Transitional Eastern Europe:
Russia and corruption have been dominating the news recently – with the reporting from Washington and Moscow converging in an unusual way. Ongoing accusations against Trump Administration officials resonate even more strongly when linked to Russia, a country most Americans view as rife with corruption. Indeed, many Americans think that Russian citizens are perfectly comfortable with the systematic corruption of political and business elites.
This is a myth. Yes, it is true beyond doubt that corruption is common in Russia – much more so than in the United States – affecting hundreds of thousands of people. But this is not because Russians are systematically more tolerant of corruption than are Americans.
My colleagues, Professors William Reisinger and Vicki Claypool, and I recently conducted a national survey of Russian citizens. We found, first, that 20% of ordinary Russians have been asked to or have given a bribe to a service provider in the previous year. (Such bribes take many forms. For example, university students pay to get better grades or pass a difficult exam, sometimes regardless of their abilities; parents pay teachers to ensure that their kids receive adequate attention at school; husbands buy extra comforts for their wives in labor; adult children pay to get their elderly parents in to see a specialist before it is their turn; and so on.) This result confirms that petty corruption is indeed widespread in Russia. At the same time, it’s worth emphasizing that the large majority of Russians—about 80%–did not take part in corruption during the previous year. While many citizens resort to illicit exchanges, many more make do without them.
More importantly, the fact that corruption is widespread does not mean that it is viewed as acceptable. When our research team asked if bribes or gifts to officials were acceptable, around 70% of Russians said “no.” It’s certainly true that many Russians will say, often with chagrin, that corruption is an inescapable part of the Slavic mentality. But this is eager embrace of suffering – familiar to anyone who has read Griboedov and Dostoevsky – has little to do with the value system that Russians actually follow in their everyday lives. Furthermore, Russians’ perception of, or experience with, official corruption reduces their support for the government. Our survey found, for example, that people who experience petty corruption when dealing with a bureaucrat believe their political leaders are more corrupt and less effective in doing their jobs. Encountering corruption diminishes rather than increases Russians’ likelihood of supporting Putin’s regime and voting for him in presidential elections.
Recent protests, organized by the opposition activist Alexei Navalny, reinforce our conclusions. Corruption makes Russians angry like no other issue. Russians are hard to mobilize. When opposition figures have tried to get people riled up against the abuses of civil and political rights, they have found little support. Alexei Navalny’s campaign against the regime’s “thieves and swindlers,” by contrast, has found sympathetic ears. In the wake of rigged 2011 parliamentary elections, more than 150,000 Russians protested; on March 26th of this year, as many as 20,000 filled the streets across eighty towns, cities, and villages, catching most observers off guard. If corruption is so ingrained in the Russian soul, how can we explain the fact that thousands of Russians recently took to the streets, risking their futures (since anti-government protests in Moscow always result in arrests) to condemn corruption among President Putin’s cronies?
Indeed, as I continue to follow the political news from both Russia and the United States, I can’t help but wonder if ordinary Russians are not that different from ordinary Americans. As has become clear in recent weeks, many Americans—no matter how they might answer abstract questions about corruption – seem to consider deep conflicts of interest to be an acceptable price for “strong” leadership. As the mounting evidence of self-dealing by President Trump’s family fails to generate a political fallout among Senate and House Republicans and seems to have no bearing on approval ratings among Trump voters, it becomes harder to argue that Americans possess a stronger moral compass, at least in regards to corruption, than ordinary Russians. In both countries, many people speak, write, and march against corrupt officials, yet many others turn a blind eye to the violations of law in hopes for a better life for themselves and their families. It seems that the abuse of power for private gain is tolerated no less in America than it is in Russia.