The drama unfolds up the street from the Bolshoi Theater this time, as a lawmaker is detained in parliament on murder charges. The Justice Ministry proposes legalizing corruption in certain cases, while Moscow vows to do “everything” to prop up its embattled ally in Venezuela and a new report suggests Russia’s most prominent “private military company” is not so private.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
It’s official: Corruption may soon be legal in Russia. In some cases, that is, if legislation proposed by the Justice Ministry is adopted.
Just which cases is unclear, because the ministry has left it vague: “In certain circumstances, complying with restrictions and bans…to prevent or settle conflicts of interest…is impossible for objective reasons,” the draft bill says. Whatever that means.
The ministry, which says the proposal is part of a response to a call from President Vladimir Putin for a plan to combat corruption, has promised to provide more details later. For now, it suggests that bribes, kickbacks, and other forms of graft could be perfectly legal under “force majeure conditions.”
“Officer, I may have been driving a little fast but I need to pick my kid up from childcare. No time to sit here while you slowly fill out a report — perhaps 500 rubles on the spot is a fair resolution.
“But inspector, without these illegal migrant workers, the stadium will never be built in time for the Olympics.”
“Vladimir Vladimirovich, a political foe may take control of this oil company if the lower tender from an ally is not accepted: It’s force majeure.”
These are entirely imaginary scenarios, of course.
Thieves In Law
But experts suggest that abandoning a zero-tolerance policy, even if it’s only on paper, is a slippery slope and is difficult to justify.
“There’s not a single rational explanation for the use of exceptional circumstances when an official couldn’t declare a conflict of interest,” the newspaper Vedomosti quoted Ilya Shumanov, deputy head of Transparency International, as saying.
Ironically – or maybe not — the proposal came to light around the time Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption.
Russia’s ranking: 138th – tied with Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, Guinea, and Papua New Guinea.
On a scale of zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), Russia’s score fell by one point, to 28. Some other former Soviet republics scored lower, but a few scored a lot higher: Georgia was at 54, and Estonia – a spot of yellow next to the deep-red expanse of Russia on TI’s color-coded map – was at 73.
As Soviet citizens who had a fair and just constitution but were utterly unprotected by it knew, the problem with legislation often lies not in the letter of the law but in its selective – or nonexistent — application.
Who’s to say that if Russia pokes loopholes in its corruption legislation, those who slip through them will do so simply because they are on the right side of the Kremlin or the national, regional, or local authorities.
Right side, wrong side — that can change fast.
That may be what Federation Council member Rauf Arashukov was thinking when a session of the upper parliament chamber on January 30 suddenly shut its doors to the press and — with Prosecutor General Yury Chaika and Investigative Committee chief Aleksandr Bastrykin in the house — fellow lawmakers stripped him of his immunity from prosecution.
Arashukov was taken for questioning in handcuffs and charged with murder by authorities who say he ordered the contract killings of two political figures who were shot dead in the North Caucasus region of Karachai-Cherkessia in 2010 — one of whom authorities say was also beaten with a baseball bat. He is also accused of being behind an attack on a witness in one of the cases.
An Investigative Committee statement hinted not so subtly that Arashukov — a now-suspended member of the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party — had avoided prosecution for years because the murder cases were long in the hands of local law enforcement, and that the result came quickly once the federal authorities took charge.
Accounts of the scene in the upper house made it sound pretty dramatic for an institution whose full name is the Federation Council of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation — with the disgraced deputy making for the exit but being stopped in his tracks by the “icy voice” of the speaker, Valentina Matviyenko, telling him to sit back down.
Prisoner Of The Caucasus?
The seemingly stage-managed affair may have been designed to paint a picture of disparate parts of Putin’s ruling system, the parliament and the police — those who make the laws and those who implement them — working as a well-oiled machine to catch a dangerous criminal who had somehow insinuated himself into their ranks.
Another piece of subtext, underlined by the Investigative Committee’s statement that Arashukov requested a translator during questioning, saying his Russian is poor, cast the arrest as a triumph over lawlessness in the North Caucasus. It was a defeat, that line of thinking goes, for a climate of impunity in some parts of the region that has persistently raised questions about the strength of the Kremlin’s hold on the vast and diverse country — and particularly its restive southern stretches.
But as a symbol of federal control over the North Caucasus, the arrest of Arashukov – even if you add the detention the same day of his father and several associates on separate charges — has limited force.
That’s because relatively few Russians had even heard of Arashukov until now, while for many the Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, has been a powerful symbol of just that problem since Putin installed him as regional president in 2007, when he was 30 years old.
“Interesting, how will they arrest Kadyrov?” one journalist asked wryly on Facebook. “What will that special operation be like?”
Rights activists say Kadyrov rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces in Chechnya. Government critics say the Kremlin has given him free rein because it relies on him to keep a lid on separatism and insurgent violence after two devastating post-Soviet wars in the region.
Some Russians in Moscow and elsewhere are resentful about the central government’s financial support for Chechnya and other republics in the region that receive subsidies, leading to the racially-charged slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus!”
Similar questions are being raised about Russian support for Nicolas Maduro, the embattled Venezuelan leader who is facing a challenge to his rule.
The daily Nezavisimaya gazeta blamed persistently shrinking real incomes in Russia in part on the Kremlin “tradition,” left over from the Soviet era, of extending financial support to “regimes that…will never return the money” and use it only “to prolong their lives.”
Seeming to ignore such concerns at least for now — and accusing Washington of pushing for “illegal regime change” by recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president — Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on January 29 that Russia “will do everything to support the legal government of President Maduro.”
But Latin America expert Mikael Wigell said that Russia’s power to influence events in Venezuela is limited.
The events there are “quite illustrative of what is going on in many parts of the world, with Russia actively trying to prop up autocrats and using them to disrupt the liberal, rules-based world order by all sorts of means,” Wigell, a senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on January 24.
“It is also important not to exaggerate Russia’s power in this. It is largely a nuisance,” he said. “But with an economy smaller than Italy’s, Russia is not really that well-equipped to play the long game.”
Lavrov did not outline any specific steps that Russia would take to support Maduro’s government.
But rumors that the Kremlin was shipping gold out of Venezuela were fueled by reports that a Boeing 777 flew in from Moscow, parked near a private corner of the Caracas airport, and returned to the Russian capital three days later.
Russia’s Central Bank chief said reports that the Boeing 777 and a cargo plane transported Venezuelan gold were untrue, and other Russian officials also issued dismissals or denials.
There was also speculation that the Boeing 777 could have ferried Russian mercenaries to Venezuela. But, according to the Moscow Times, Nordwind Airlines said it had carried undisclosed passengers as part of a “regular charter flight” and stressed that “there were no weapons, no private military company fighters or gold on board.”
There may already be Russian military contractors in Venezuela. In a January 25 report, which Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov scoffed at but did not deny in televised comments on January 27, Reuters cited sources as saying that an unspecified number of Russian fighters had flown to Venezuela in the previous few days.
Meanwhile, a new report by Estonia-based media outlet The Bell sought to shed some light on the genesis of the so-called Vagner group, a “private military group” that is the best known of a number of such organizations despite the fact that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin-linked businessman who is believed to run it, claimsit does not exist.
The Bell report, which cited unnamed sources, suggested that the idea of creating Vagner was cooked up not by Prigozhin — who is known as “Putin’s chef” because of the high-level activities of his catering company — but by the General Staff of the Russian military, and that Prigozhin was chosen as part of an effort to ensure deniability.