- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

MOSCOW — New figures show that corruption is flourishing in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, with the value of bribes paid to government officials now almost equal to the state’s entire revenue.

In an interview with state-run Rossiiskaya Gazeta this week, Deputy Prosecutor General Alexander Buksman estimated that corrupt officials are taking bribes worth $240 billion a year. He said that prosecutors had uncovered 28,000 cases of corruption among state officials in the first eight months of this year.

“We are confronting mass disrespect for the law,” he told the newspaper. “The scale of bribes has reached such a level that within a year a midranking corrupt bureaucrat can buy himself a [2,000 square-foot] apartment.” Based on current market rates, an apartment of that size in Moscow would cost nearly $800,000. The average salary in Moscow is about $800 a month.

Mr. Buksman cited numerous examples of corruption, including the case of the deputy head of the state property fund in the southern region of Krasnodar, who is accused of accepting more than $400,000 in bribes. He did not say how many cases of corruption have been prosecuted.

The monitoring group Transparency International estimates that corruption in Russia has grown sevenfold since 2001, the year after Mr. Putin came to power. In a report on perceptions of corruption released this week, the organization ranked Russia 121st out of 163 countries, in the same league as Rwanda and Burundi. Four years ago, Russia ranked 71st.

The independent Russian think tank INDEM said last month that on average businesses operating in Russia spend 7 percent of their budgets on bribes. The group also reported that the average sum being paid in bribes had risen to $146,000, up from only $11,000 four years ago.

It said the increase reflected growing government involvement in the economy, with large corporations facing higher bribes to win bids or participate in state-run projects.

Mr. Putin was elected in 2000 amid promises to bring stability and the rule of law to Russia. He has repeatedly vowed to crack down on corruption, including during a May 10 state of the nation speech, when he said that citizens don’t trust government officials and that “any official must know the state will not ignore any ill-gotten gains.”

Still, bribe-paying remains a frequent part of life for most Russians, from parents trying to enroll children in the best schools to businessmen seeking government contracts.

“Corruption is systemic in Russia. At some point, everyone has had to pay a bribe for something,” said Elena Panfilova, the head of Transparency International’s Russia office.

She said the dramatic increase in corruption is the result of the growth of the Russian government under Mr. Putin, who has concentrated more power in the hands of the state.

Since 2002, the number of Russian bureaucrats has grown from 1.1 million to 1.5 million, she said. “There are a lot more people looking for kickbacks.”

Still, Mrs. Panfilova said there are signs that Mr. Putin may be gearing up for a more serious fight against corruption before his final term as president ends in 2008. Russia this year signed on to the U.N. Convention Against Corruption and ratified the Council of Europe’s Convention on Corruption.

Mr. Buksman’s interview this week also marked the first time a top-ranking official had publicly put a monetary figure on the problem of corruption in Russia.

“Putin is leaving in 2008 and he knows he hasn’t managed to tackle corruption,” Mrs. Panfilova said. “He doesn’t want it to be remembered as one of his major failures.”

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