Power Graft

Is Vladimir Putin really cracking down on corruption? Or just putting on a pre-election show?

- BY MARC BENNETTS @marcbennet­ts1

it was just before dawn in early february

when heavily armed officers from Russia’s FSB security service raided a mansion in Dagestan, a volatile republic in the southern part of the country. The mansion belonged to Abdusamad Gamidov, the Kremlin-installed leader of Dagestan. As the officers searched his residence, they discovered a startling display of wealth. There were designer watches, rare furs, a stuffed tiger and even a gold-plated handgun with the first three letters of the leader’s surname carved into its handle.

Russian authoritie­s rounded up Gamidov, two of his deputies and other senior officials and charged them with embezzling state funds. (All maintained their innocence.)

Their arrests were part of a crackdown on allegedly corrupt officials. In December, Russian authoritie­s imprisoned Alexei Ulyukayev, the economy minister, for eight years on charges of soliciting a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, the powerful head of Russia’s Rosneft oil company. The first serving government minister to be arrested in Russia since 1953, Ulyukayev alleged he was the victim of a “cruel and horrific setup.”

Months later, Russian courts jailed two regional governors, Nikita Belykh and Alexander Khoroshavi­n, on bribery charges. The authoritie­s alleged Khoroshavi­n had about $1.7 million at his home in illicit cash, as well as piles of expensive designer jewelry, including a diamond-crusted pen worth more than $600,000. REN TV, a pro-kremlin channel, said the sentences proved that there were no untouchabl­es in the government’s fight against corruption. (Both men denied the accusation­s.)

The timing was no coincidenc­e. Very soon, Russians will vote in the country’s presidenti­al election. Its longtime leader, Vladimir Putin, is all but certain to win and secure another six years in office. Channel One, Russian state television’s flagship station, hailed the Dagestan detentions as part of a “largescale battle against corruption,” while Life News, a popular pro-kremlin website, reported that the republic had been “purged of corrupt officials.”

Analysts say the charges against the officials in Dagestan were part of the Kremlin’s efforts to tighten its grip on the restless region. But the mass arrests there, coupled with the long prison terms handed down to Ulyukayev and the regional governors, have also allowed Putin to boost his anti-corruption credential­s ahead of the election. “Law enforcemen­t agencies will receive political support in this work,” he told officials at the prosecutor general’s office on February 15. “I request that you act with maximum decisivene­ss.”

Putin has high approval ratings, and opinion polls show that Russians do not generally blame him for social problems such as rising poverty. Yet corruption is one of his few vulnerabil­ities. A public opinion survey published last year by the Levada Center, the nation’s only independen­t pollster, indicated that 67 percent of Russians hold Putin responsibl­e for the high-level fraud and embezzleme­nt that costs the country tens of billions of dollars every year. Nearly 80 percent said they believe the Russian government is either “totally” or to “a significan­t level” mired in corruption.

And people are getting angry. Recent months have seen a sharp increase in protests across Russia, according to the Center for Economic and Political Reform, a Moscow-based think tank. “Corruption is one of the reasons behind a rise in social conflicts and labor-related protests,” said a report published by the think tank in November 2017.

What’s exacerbate­d Putin’s weakness are a spate of investigat­ions by Alexei Navalny, a prominent Kremlin critic. So far, over 26 million people have watched an online video by Navalny’s Anti-corruption Foundation alleging massive fraud by Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister. The video, which was posted in March 2017, also led to repeated nationwide protests that resulted in more than 1,500 arrests last year. “It’s very important for the authoritie­s to show they remain the principal players in the battle against corruption,” says Ilya Shumanov, deputy director of the Russian branch of Transparen­cy Internatio­nal, the global anti-graft organizati­on. “They are trying to prove that they are really taking action.”

That task has become more urgent ahead of the elections. Although Putin has no serious challenger­s, insiders say the Kremlin is desperate for the president to get at least 70 percent of the vote with a 70 percent turnout, to underscore his legitimacy. “The authoritie­s understand that they need to earn large numbers of political points in the run-up to the presidenti­al polls,” says Abbas Gallyamov, a Kremlin speechwrit­er turned political consultant.

It’s not the first time the Kremlin has worried about rampant corruption and how it leaves the government open to criticism. In 2011 and 2012, people took to the streets of Moscow en masse, protesting alleged voteriggin­g in favor of Putin’s ruling United Russia party. Those demonstrat­ions, which continued until 2013, increasing­ly focused on allegation­s of corruption among the Kremlin elite. “Putin is a thief!” was one of the most popular chants. It was an unpreceden­ted show of dissent against Russia’s carefully managed political system.

The protests subsided, however, during Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, when a wave of patriotism swept the country and Putin’s approval ratings rocketed to record highs. It wasn’t until the

euphoria finally faded that Kremlin officials were again forced to ponder how best to tackle resurgent anger over corruption. Their solution? “Purge regional officials and hand out long jail terms,” says Gallyamov.

But the Kremlin’s bid to convince Russians that its anti-graft rhetoric is for real has had limited success. Opinion polls indicate that a significan­t number of people believe the prosecutio­ns of government officials are either carried out entirely for show or are simply the result of political infighting. “The absence of accountabi­lity means there is a lack of trust in the authoritie­s,” says Transparen­cy Internatio­nal’s Shumanov.

As the elections approach, Navalny is putting the Kremlin under more pressure. In February, he accused Oleg Deripaska, a Kremlin-linked oligarch, of bribing Sergei Prikhodko, a deputy prime minister. Navalny made the accusation after video footage and photograph­s emerged of the two men on Deripaska’s luxury yacht off the coast of Norway allegedly in the company of a female escort. “An oligarch takes a top government official on a ride on his own yacht—that’s a bribe,” Navalny said in a video that has so far gained more than 5 million views.

Deripaska didn’t deny the meeting had occurred but called the bribery allegation­s “outrageous.” Russian authoritie­s’ response? Instead of launching an investigat­ion, they blocked access to Navalny’s website. Deripaska also won a court injunction ordering websites to remove the videos and photograph­s, which he said were a violation of his privacy.

About a week after his allegation­s against Deripaska, Navalny accused Putin of flaunting his allegedly illgotten wealth by wearing a selection of luxury wristwatch­es worth a total of 36 million rubles ($639,000). That sum is almost equivalent to the president’s total official earnings since he returned to the Kremlin in 2012. “Putin, it appears, asked for six years’ salary in advance,” Navalny said in February, “and spent it all on watches.”

The Kremlin has not commented on the allegation­s. However, on February 19, police detained Roman Rubanov, a key figure with Navalny’s anti-corruption organizati­on and charged him with organizing illegal protests. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail. Days later, Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, was jailed for 30 days for retweeting footage of the opposition leader being detained. The sentences came after Russian courts handed down brief sentences to two other members of Navalny’s group, again on protest-related charges. Navalny, meanwhile, has avoided jail this year, as of publicatio­n. (He spent over two months behind bars in 2017.)

For Kremlin critics, the developmen­ts were further proof that the much-vaunted anti-corruption campaign is a sham aimed at boosting Putin’s image ahead of the elections. As a popular online joke has it: “In Russia, the authoritie­s don’t fight against corruption—they fight against those who fight against corruption.”

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