In late January of this year, the Russian Justice Ministry proposed draft legislation that would legalize corruption. More specifically, the proposal, which implements one of the recommendations of Putin’s 2018-2020 Anti-Corruption Plan, would decriminalize corruption “when non-compliance with prohibitions, restrictions, and requirements established in order to combat corruption… [is] due to force majeure”—that is, when circumstances beyond the official’s control make corruption unavoidable. Or, as the Russian government puts it, “[i]n certain circumstances, the observance of restrictions and prohibitions, requirements to prevent or resolve conflicts of interest, and the fulfillment of duties established in order to combat corruption are not possible for objective reasons.” The proposed legislation would create a commission to “assess the objectivity of circumstances” to determine if compliance was possible.
What are these alleged “objective reasons” that might establish a force majeure defense to corruption charges? In contract law, force majeure—sometimes known as an “act of God”—covers unforeseen circumstances, like natural disasters or wars, that are totally outside the control of the parties to the contract, and that make it impossible for one of those parties to perform his or her end of the agreement. But what could force majeure possibly mean in the context of corruption? What circumstances, equivalent to a war or natural disaster, could compel a government official to take a bribe, or embezzle public funds? It is difficult to imagine such a scenario. The Justice Ministry did release a preliminary statement with some initial clarification into the type of circumstances that might trigger this force majeure exemption from criminal liability. That statement noted, for example, that it may not be possible for officials to take the usual measures to prevent or resolve conflicts of interest when the officials are posted in small, remote areas. The idea seems to be that is such settings the community is so small and close-knit that it wouldn’t be feasible for an official to recuse from all decisions in which she might have personal relationships with some of the parties affected. The preliminary statement also noted that sometimes former family members (say, ex-spouses) do not agree to provide information on income and expenses of common children (information that officials are usually obligated to disclose), and that sometimes non-performance of certain duties related to anticorruption might be due to a prolonged and serious illness. The Justice Ministry promised that it would provide more specific information on what constitutes force majeure after the proposed rule’s comment period closed on February 8, 2019. The government has not yet done so, however, despite the fact that more than a month has passed.
At least some of the force majeure examples in the Justice Ministry’s preliminary statement sound reasonable, though it’s not clear whether the special exemption is really needed to deal, say, with an official who isn’t performing certain duties because of a debilitating illness. (Presumably, that official would be on indefinite leave anyway?) But the legislation is written much more broadly than these narrow examples would suggest. Would the new legislation allow individual bribe-payers and bribe-takers to assert a force majeure defense on the grounds that they didn’t create the “culture” or “system” of corruption in which they find themselves embedded? If that counts as force majeure, it would open a giant loophole allowing in Russia’s anticorruption laws, allowing anyone accused of corrupt action to argue that they felt pressured by (social) forces beyond their control. The proposed legislation could be read that way, and if it is, it would undermine efforts to combat corruption. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder if that is the exemption’s purpose. Moreover, by taking the position that certain offenses shouldn’t count as corruption at all, the proposal sends a signal that corruption is not a priority for the Russian government, thus providing room for further loosening of corruption legislation.
Now, the Russian government might be sincerely concerned about not over-punishing people who technically violated the law but do not seem sufficiently blameworthy to deserve harsh sanctions. But if that is the worry, there are other ways to address it, ones that don’t risk creating an enormous loophole in anticorruption laws and that don’t send the signal that the government might not take corruption that seriously. Here are three alternatives to decriminalizing corruption that Russia’s Justice Ministry could consider: