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Today’s guest post is from Matthew Murray, currently Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, who previously served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
When President Putin began Russia’s expanded military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the imprisoned Russian anticorruption activist and political opposition leader Alexey Navalny was on trial once again over fabricated charges of embezzlement. Though Mr. Navalny faces another 15 years in a penal colony, he seized the opportunity during his February 24 hearing to publicly state his opposition to Russia’s war on Ukraine. “This war between Russia and Ukraine was unleashed to cover up the theft from Russian citizens and divert their attention from problems that exist inside the country,” he said.
Mr. Navalny’s statement reflects a deep understanding of the causes of war. Throughout history rulers have started wars to divert and distract attention of their citizens from growing domestic problems and restiveness. And this pattern fits the Russian situation well. In recent years, Putin’s popularity has declined due to failure to modernize Russia’s economy, his flawed management of the Covid-19 pandemic, and—not least—the corruption of his regime and his inner circle. Indeed, last February, when Russian courts initially sentenced Navalny to over two years in prison, tens of thousands of Russian citizens from 109 cities across the country went to the streets to demonstrate against Putin’s rule. In ordering the invasion of Ukraine, Putin may well have been seeking to divert attention from failures at home, including his autocratic control of the political economy for the benefit of himself and the Russian oligarchy.
But it’s more than that: Putin’s aggression may also be aimed at legitimizing his rule at home by installing a new state-sponsored oligarchy in Ukraine. He may be seeking to kill the idea, which took hold in Ukraine during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity at the Maidan. The Maidan Revolution started when Ukrainians took to the streets of the Maidan in central Kyiv to protest then-President Victor Yanukovych’s sudden decision to reverse the nation’s course to join the European Union and engage in free trade with the world’s largest economic bloc. But the Maidan Revolution was not just about one decision or one administration. The Maidan uprising was a revolution against the system of corrupt rule of Yanukovych and the oligarch class that was choking the nation’s potential—and it was also about the idea: the idea that every individual should have the freedom, the right, and the path to fulfill their human potential. This idea fundamentally threatens Putin’s personal authority and autocratic rule. As Ukraine’s reformers have begun to take concrete steps to embed this idea in independent institutions, they set an example for Russian citizens, who may be inspired by Ukraine’s example to demand that their government suppress official corruption and respect for human rights. Continue reading
Today’s guest post is from Joe Powell, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Open Government Partnership.
The corruption continued to the end. A cast of convicted fraudsters, tax dodgers, and money launderers littered President Trump’s final pardon list. One clemency went to Elliott Broidy, a former top fundraiser for Mr. Trump who had been implicated in illegal lobbying in connection with Malaysia’s multi-billion dollar 1MDB embezzlement scandal. Trump’s final official act as President, taken minutes before the official transfer of power, was to pardon the tax evading ex-husband of one his favorite Fox News hosts, Jeanine Pirro.
None of this was remotely surprising after four years in which ethics, conflict of interest, and the rule of law did not seem to apply to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Contrast this with the extraordinary act of bravery from Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who despite being jailed on his return to Moscow after his near-fatal poisoning, released a viral documentary last week about the construction of President Putin’s palace on the Black Sea. The film, which within days had racked up nearly 100 million views, details the corruption, bribery, and opaque corporate structures used to fund what Navalny claims is the world’s most expensive real estate project, with an estimated price tag of at least $1.4 billion. The funds come from Putin’s oligarch friends who dominate the top positions in many of Russia’s biggest companies, and drain state resources that could improve the lives of ordinary Russians. A single gold toilet brush and toilet paper holder, purchased for one of Putin’s wineries near the palace, cost more than the average annual state pension in Russia. No wonder Putin is so desperate to silence Navalny.
What ties Trump’s pardons and Putin’s palace together is the insidious effect of corruption on democracy. Globally, corruption has been one of the main drivers of 14 years of consecutive decline in civil and political liberties around the world. This democratic recession has affected long-standing and emerging democracies alike, and has spurred street protests and civil society campaigns in many countries. Hungary is a textbook example. Prime Minister Orbán has used state funds for patronage, ensuring that only close supporters receive high value government contracts, and threatening to veto the European Union budget over any checks on his power. Throughout the world, dark money has increasingly fueled online disinformation and a decline in press freedom, which has made accountability harder to achieve.
To turn the tide on this democratic backsliding, a major global effort to combat corruption is needed. President Biden is well placed to help lead the charge. Continue reading
Earlier this month the White House sent a letter to Congress pledging a commitment to the “robust and thorough enforcement” of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA). The GMA, which grew out of a similar 2012 law that focused only on Russia, allows the executive branch to impose certain sanctions—including visa bans and freezing of U.S. assets—on any foreign citizen who commits gross human rights violations or who retaliates against whistleblowers who expose corruption. After Trump won the election, many feared that his administration would shelve meaningful enforcement of the GMA. (After all, the Obama Administration had also been reluctant to implement the original Magnitsky Act aggressively, and did so only under pressure from Congress.) In light of those low expectations, the White House’s statement was taken by many as an encouraging sign.
But many activists and NGOs fighting corruption, in Putin’s Russia and elsewhere, remain rightly skeptical. After all, Trump’s praise and upbeat rhetoric about corrupt authoritarian leaders—not only Putin, but President Erdogan or Turkey and President Duterte of the Philippines—naturally call into question the Administration’s seriousness about aggressive GMA enforcement. Consider further the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence coming out of Chechnya that its president Ramzan Kadyrov has authorized massive abuses against the LGBT community and opened what is amounting to prisons for gays, there are no signs that the Trump Administration is considering adding Kadyrov to any open sanctions lists, despite not only recent events, but his long track record of corruption and human rights abuses.
Moreover, the White House’s statement in support of the GMA might be an attempt to create the appearance of taking a firm stand against corruption and human rights abuses, to diminish political momentum for more consequential actions. Specifically in regard to Russia, the latest statement about the GMA should also be understood in the context of the broader scandal regarding the Trump team’s ties to Russia. This scandal has, if anything, intensified anti-Russian sentiment in Congress. Not only have leading Senators and Representatives come out in strong support of sustaining existing sanctions against Russia, but there are now a half-dozen initiatives under consideration in Congress that would both codify and expand these sanctions. In such context, it might actually be useful to Trump (and arguably his Russian friends) to appear to be taking firm measures against Russia and other kleptocrats, while resisting adoption or implementation of more meaningful responses. The recent White House statement pledging robust enforcement of the GMA fits that narrative. After all, rhetoric aside, neither the original Magnitsky Act nor the GMA create more than a small headache for Trump and Russians. Only few really high level names have been sanctioned under those initiatives. Financial sanctions (particularly restrictions on long-term loans) are what matters for the Kremlin most. Indeed, Russian leadership might even be happy to have the Magnitsky laws in place if those restrictions are relaxed.
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. Continue reading
My post a couple days ago expressed some discomfort with the decision to hold the Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention Against Corruption in Russia, given Russia’s track record on this issue, and my concern that the Russian government hopes to use this event more as a PR exercise than anything else. Apropos of these concerns, I finally had a chance to watch some of the video from the event, and one particular passage in the opening remarks of Sergei Ivanov (Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and a Putin crony) caught my attention. Sandwiched in between claims that recent surveys show corruption in Russia is decreasing and descriptions of all the measures Russia is supposedly taking to combat corruption, Mr. Ivanov said (and here I’m transcribing the English simultaneous translation, since I can’t speak Russian):
We firmly believe that anticorruption activities at the international level require clear rules and agreed efforts between countries. Imposing standards, however, which certain countries are not willing to accept, is not acceptable—all the more so, given that we have seen on more than one occasion that when one country establishes standards of behavior, it tends to be that this is unacceptable to other countries, and it can indeed be harmful. In this connection, we believe that when implementing international anticorruption standards, we need at all times to take on board the specificities of each individual state. I would note also that in the Russian Federation the system of anticorruption measures is based on our national legal culture, which takes on board our historical and economic and social development trends, and the general interests of our society.
Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but to me this sounds an awful lot like a veiled warning that the international community, both within and outside the UNCAC review process, should refrain from criticizing Russia (or other countries) for failure to live up to international standards, on the grounds that each state – and Russia in particular – has its own unique circumstances. Of course, at a high level of generality, Mr. Ivanov’s remark is unexceptionable, and UNCAC already makes plenty of allowances for differences in national legal traditions and political systems. But the spirit of UNCAC is very much to hold every signatory country to a higher standard. Insofar as Mr. Ivanov’s statement is meant to suggest that other countries should not be subject to criticism for failure to live up to international anticorruption standards—particularly in the context of the second cycle country reviews, beginning this year—this seems to me contrary to the point of UNCAC and the associated review process.
(For those who are interested, the video of the full opening ceremony, including Mr. Ivanov’s address, is here, and the portion of the speech I quoted above can be found at 2:37:18-2:38:26.)
Miami University Professor Karen Dawisha recently published a scathing indictment of the United States and Europe’s complicity in the Russian ruling regime’s wrongdoing, particularly its corruption at the elite level. Professor Dawisha argues that Putin and his supporters treat the West like an “a la carte menu” by protecting and multiplying their wealth abroad under the safe haven of Western rule of law, while avoiding the consequences of being held accountable for their “marauding” within Russia. This is damaging not only for Russia, but for the West as well. According to Professor Dawisha, the “presence [of Russian oligarchs] strengthens the worst aspects of our system, and weakens the best.”
One of Dashiwa’s central examples for this claim is Russian companies’ presence in Western stock markets. She argues that Russian companies’ foray into foreign stock markets has failed to “improv[e] the quality of Russian corporate governance and transparency” and should be lamented. While I will not attempt here to evaluate Professor Dawisha’s broader argument, I do believe that this particular example does nothing to support her broader point–and may ultimately illustrate its weaknesses–for two reasons: