People’s Corruption: The Strength, Not the Weakness of Putin’s Regime
Those who are making gloomy prognoses clearly underestimate the might of the social basis of Putin’s regime. In the 1950-70s, the concept of “people’s capitalism” was quite popular in theUSA. The major idea of “people’s capitalism” lay in the dispersal of stockholding opportunities among the population, which was supposed to change the nature of the American economy and American society in general. This idea had many important defenders in the business community, as well as among American politicians and intellectuals. The idea of “people’s capitalism” practically vanished from American debates on economic order in the 1980s.
Ironically, it was Putin who implemented the idea of “people’s capitalism,” albeit in a new form . He opened access to an illegal stream of income to a considerable part of the Russian population. To grant everybody shares as promised, he gave the most ambitious people access to a powerful source of corruption. In fact, Putin superimposed the feudal model of government on society, which supposes that holders of power in all spheres of life consider themselves to be feudal officials who possess their own fiefs. (Russians use the term “kormlenie,” or “feeding,” which points to the fact that each position “feeds” its holder with illegal revenues). In exchange for the fief, the holder grants their loyalty to the central administration, guaranteeing, for instance, the desired outcome of an election.
Two major strata comprise the contingent of those who enjoy Putin’s “all people corruption”. The first, the “feudal” layer, is comprised of the “office holders,” who have lucrative positions in the state apparatus: the top leaders and administrators at all levels—up to the chief of a small village.The size of the first stratum, whose members enjoy some of the benefits of corruption, is about 5-6 million. But if their relatives are added to this number, it grows to tens of millions of people.
Innumerable data show how almost every member of the bureaucracy extends various privileges to their close and remote relatives, including second and third cousins. See, for instance, what happened in the last two years in theOmskregion, where Governor Leonid Polezhaev’s clan was comprised of all his relatives, a typical phenomenon in most Russian regions, including small administrative units such as small cities and villages. In 2011, one of his sons, Konstantin, then a hospital director, was caught buying medical equipment fraudulently; he never suffered any consequences for his actions. In the same year, the governor’s daughter-in-law, Natelle, privatized a hospital and health resorts for herself, violating various laws. Another of the governor’s sons, Alexei, using his father’s connections in the oil and gas business, became a billionaire. Polezhaev also protects his distant relatives, such as his niece and several of his own spouse’s remote relatives.
The members of the second layer, the “little bribers,” are much more limited in the ways they can abuse their small power, when compared to the members of the “feudal layer,” because they do not have their own offices and are under the strong control of their own bosses. Still, in a lawless society, these “little bribers”—teachers and professors, medical doctors and nurses, clerks who issue various official papers for people , sanitation and fire inspectors can extricate additional income from the ordinary people who depend on them. Of course, the participants of “horizontal corruption,” with their modest illegal income from the bribes they receive are not as loyal to the regime as “office holders.” Still, having adjusted well to the existing order, they are far from being active protesters.
A special large group of participants in the corrupt activities are the hundreds of thousands of employees in private companies who get along with an official salary, and a “gray salary” (a “salary in an envelope”, in Russian terminology), which helps the company significantly reduce the taxes they must pay.
The strength of Putin’s regime not only stems from the active support of its “office holders,” and the mild support of the “little bribers,” but also in the Russian population’s indifference toward corruption. It is remarkable that while the critics of the regime, liberal or Communist, label corruption as a leading problem of society, the population delegates it to the bottom of the list of problems. Indeed, in a March 2011 survey with open-ended questions about the major problems of Russian society, only 8 percent named corruption, compared with 30 percent who mentioned a low standard of living, and 22 percent who mentioned unemployment.
Russian sociologists were amazed to find that the majority of Russians “are not upset with corruption,” and that they are indifferent to the movies and other materials that denounce corruption. Paradoxically, the absolute majority of Russians, no less than 70-80 percent, assume that corruption embraces all spheres of social life, yet the same number of people also believe that corruption is “a normal phenomenon;” they see it as being the same as it was under Yeltsin, as well as under Putin, and expect that corruption will only be higher in the future. At the same time, many Russians are sure that corruption helps to solve many problems in everyday life, and that the struggle against corruption is hopeless. It is remarkable that the most famous crusader against corruption inRussiatoday, Alexei Navalnyi, could only garner the support of a few percent of the population.
It is obvious that a great chunk of the population were delighted by Putin’s decision to stay asRussia’s president forever. As one author in aMoscownewspaper noted, “the members of the country’s bureaucratic class, having prospered in the cesspool of corruption created and deepened during Putin’s rule, are more than glad to have their license to steal renewed for another six or more years.”
Many critics of Putin’s regime who predict its collapse and a Russian version of “the Arab spring” underestimate its strong social basis in the millions of Russians deeply involved in corruption .There are different theories as to how corruption has become so endemic within the country. The elite, as well as many intellectuals, prefer to suggest that corruption is engrained within the fabric of the Russian culture. Thus, Gogol’s famous 19th century play Inspector General is as relevant today as it was during the reign Nikolas the First. Another school of thought, and one that I firmly support, rejects such a simplistic view considering the relatively low level of corruption that took place during Soviet times. Instead of simply ascribing corruption to the “Russian way,” I argue that corruption stems from the elite’s rise to power after the collapse of theUSSR. The lawlessness and corruption that is taking place within Russian society reinforces the ability of the elite to seek personal enrichment.Russia needs a new generation of ascetic politicians that will abandon phony declarations to fight corruption and commit to tackling the root of its cause. They would no doubt get the support of many ordinary Russians.