What you are seeing now is a consequence of a broader initiative from Vladimir Putin to restore the monopoly of power within his political leadership. He is trying to bring all of the key channels of power and money and influence more closely into his control, at least as far as the government and those people who occupy positions within his pyramid are concerned.
interview with Matthew Rojansky, Deputy Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment.
Has the fight against corruption in Russia reached a new level?
I definitely think that the public dimension of the debate about corruption has reached a new level. I can't say that the fight, as a comprehensive organized policy of the state, has changed, because the official position was always to fight corruption, and the activities that are taking place now are in some ways being forced by public scrutiny and political sensitivity. They are not a direct result of a comprehensive state program against corruption.
Some analysts say that the fight against corruption is becoming the new agenda of Putin's third term. If it is not the fight against corruption, what could this agenda be?
What you are seeing now is a consequence of a broader initiative from Vladimir Putin to restore the monopoly of power within his political leadership. What you see over the last ten years, as Vladimir Putin was building his vertical of power, was the emergence of many so-called sub-centers of power within the broader vertical.
And in this very public battle over corrupt officials you can see a desire to remove those officials from the government, while at the same time not fundamentally changing the system that allowed them to pursue their corrupt ends – very similar trends to what Vladimir Putin is trying to do with funding for various kinds of social projects, where he basically wants that funding to be controlled by the state.
You see him trying to reduce the amount of foreign assets which are held by officials of the state, he wants that to be under the control of the Russian state. So the bottom line is that he is trying to bring all of the key channels of power and money and influence more closely into his control, at least as far as the government and those people who occupy positions within his pyramid are concerned.
How will the Russian elite react to such a concentration of money and of real power in the hands of Vladimir Putin?
If I had to make a prediction, I believe Putin will be successful. And the reason is that he knows he has no choice. He knows that, once he has opened this battle, he cannot afford to make exceptions, he cannot afford to be seen as weak or unable to implement his vision. Because if he does, it is the beginning of the end – instead of what we're seeing now, which is the beginning of the beginning.
Putin recognizes that he cannot preserve the same type of government that Russia had in 2003. But he also knows that in order to maintain power in the type of society that Russia has today, which is a much more active and open society on the social level, he ought to have much tighter control over his own government. So he realizes if he fails in that, it will signify truly the beginning of the end of his government, even if it is the beginning of the beginning of a new Russia, in any case.
There are expert opinions that Putin is trying to advance this campaign not simply to maintain power, but for the greater good, for the future of Russia – they say that Putin sees that corruption destroying the system and he wants to do something to fight corruption.
For Mr. Putin, what is good for his government and for him is also for the greater good of Russia. This is the way that he sees the world. Remember, he is the spasitel (Savior). Thus, for him, losing the ability of his government to govern and to set the agenda for the state would be the end of Russia itself, in his world view. I don't agree with that, but I think that's his view. So what he's doing serves that dual purpose for him.
In reality, I don't think it's possible for him to eliminate corruption for the good of the state, simply because those people whom he removes will be replaced by others, who will use the same basic system. The system will not change. It cannot change, because it is a system which depends on Mr. Putin personally. Someone in that system will always be using the system for personal benefit.
You can put constraints on them, perhaps they will save a little bit less money in London and a little bit less money in Dubai, and instead more of that money will be put in Belarus. But you have to understand, the basic dynamic of the system will not change, because it depends on the personal patronage of one man.
Is there any chance that somebody will try to profit from corruption to raise his or her stakes in Putin's eyes?
I assume that there are players who can benefit from the change of management and leadership in military-industrial complex as well as in the agricultural field, and in the other areas which are being investigated. I don't know for sure, but I have to assume that people are smart enough to look for opportunities in all these places. I would just repeat what I said before, which is that as long as the system remains basically the same, somebody will come and fill this opportunity. It will not remain vacant for a long time. And it's not a system which allows transparency and accountability and the sort of nobility, even if it is what Mr. Putin imagines when he talks about fighting corruption. This is not a system which encourages people to take on public service for noble and selfless reasons.
He created this system, but maybe now he wants to create a new one, if we assume he has some noble aims and goals – to maintain power, not within this system but within a more complex and more, let’s say, honest system.
The problem is, what he sought to create 10 years ago, and what he did create, was not the same as what ultimately came out of it over the course of a decade. What ultimately came out of it was a very complicated system in which the will of one man and the patronage of one man were central, but there were many competing power centers, of which the best example, of course, was the Medvedev power center, which emerged four or five years ago.
Vladimir Putin ended that, and he's seeking now to end the other power centers and simplify things once again. If he can do that, and then, perhaps, you're suggesting, move to a more transparent, more genuinely pluralistic system –perhaps it's all possible. But we see as illustrated in Georgia and in a number of other post-communist transition states where you are trying essentially to create pluralism by fiat, by autocratic decree, you run into some serious problems.