Putin Targets Corruption with Crackdown

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Russia's President Vladimir Putin puts the customs service under the control of a trusted ally as part of an anti-corruption drive. Ten law enforcement officials have been fired in the initiative. Many observers believe the moves are not really about fighting corruption, but actually reflect turf battles between Kremlin factions.


Russian president Vladimir Putin has launched what he says is an anti-corruption drive. Ten law enforcement officials have been fired, and Putin has placed his country's notorious customs service under the direct control of his Prime Minister. But not everybody's buying it.

As NPR's Gregory Feifer reports, political analysts believe the Kremlin isn't really fighting corruption as much as consolidating its control over government agencies.


The drive began earlier this month with Putin's long-awaited State of the Nation address. He opened with an assault against corruption in government and big business.

President VLADIMIR PUTIN (Russia): (Through translator) Some members of those structures have broken both legal and moral norms. They've enriched themselves at the expense of the majority of citizens to a degree unprecedented in our country's history.

FEIFER: The following day, Putin moved the customs service from under the control of the economic development minister, a liberal. The new head of the service is a former KGB officer like Putin himself. Andrei Belyaminov worked with Putin in East Germany in the 1980s. Then a day later, the government fired 10 officers in the security service, interior ministry and other law enforcement agencies.

An informal-looking Putin soon met with Russian television journalists to explain his decisions. Over tea at his residence in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, he said the firings came after long-running investigations.

President PUTIN: (Through translator) The efforts logically ended in the result we see today, but that work isn't finished and not only in the area of customs.

FEIFER: Political analysts say Putin was responding to society's concern over Russia's ever-growing corruption. But they say firing a handful of civil servants will do nothing to help since a real fight against corruption would require the participation of civil society, which Putin has seriously restricted during his six-year tenure.

Alexei Makarkin of Moscow's Center for Political Technologies says Putin's administration has taken control over much of the national media, cancelled regional elections and helped deliver Parliament into the hands of pro-Kremlin loyalists.

Mr. ALEXEI MAKARKIN (Center for Political Technologies, Moscow): (Through translator) Fighting corruption requires an effective free press, transparency of government, an independent legal system, parliamentary oversight of bureaucracy and so on, all the normal things that minimize corruption in developed countries.

FEIFER: Moscow's Indem think tank, which studies corruption, estimates that Russians paid bureaucrats more than $300 billion in bribes last year, an all-time high. But Indemp president Yurgi Satarov(ph) believes the Kremlin isn't interested in punishing even a few corrupt officials. He says there are different political clans within the Kremlin and this month's firings were the result of turf battles between them.

Mr. GEORGII SATAROV (Indem): (Through translator) Some of those fired were simply transferred to different jobs. There were no announcements about what precisely they did wrong so there's absolutely no basis to say it's a battle against corruption.

FEIFER: Satarov says Putin's pronouncements about fighting corruption are chiefly meant as a cover-up for the redistribution of posts to those close to the president. Vladimir Pribylovsky of Moscow's Panorama Political Research Group agrees.

Mr. VLADIMIR PRIBYLOVSKY (Panorama Political Research Group): (Through translator) There are no fewer than three clans inside the administration and maybe as many as five. They are constantly fighting among themselves and there are enough assets to fight over, so the firings may continue.

FEIFER: Pribylovsky says Putin has been highly successful at spinning the Kremlin's consolidation of control into a populist message.

Mr. BRIBILOSKI: (Through translator) The president generally likes to engage in public relations. That's his main job, image making.

FEIFER: Putin's two-term limit ends in 2008. But Pribylovsky and other analysts believe the president's latest image-boosting efforts might hint that he is not yet ready to step aside.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.

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