I am spending a couple of weeks on Lithuania's Baltic Sea coast in a resort town. A few days ago I had friends for tea, a middle-aged couple who still remember the Soviet era well. I told them about a conversation I had with a local real estate agent, who was trying to sell me an apartment.
Trying to lure me from the place I am staying in currently, he told me: “Look, there is only so much time that you can enjoy the vista from the balcony here. Soon they will build a tall residential complex that will block your view.”
My guests laughed: “He was just taking you for an ignorant Russian with lots of money! It is impossible to build anything higher than a 4-storey building on the site because there are zoning laws which are strictly observed. It is forbidden to build high buildings in the recreational zone.” “So what!” I retorted. “There are many things that are forbidden in Russia, which are easily ignored for a fee. I am certain you can always find a way here too, can't you?” The Lithuanians conceded that there was, of course, corruption. But they also insisted that it is much more discrete: “Building something in a totally unlawful manner would have created a big scandal, which no one wants and which the municipality will not risk.”
This conversation happened as Russia's deadly malaise, the ancient transportation infrastructure combined with two other, greed and corruption, continues to claim more and more lives. The sinking of a cruise ship, the Bulgaria, on the Volga with a loss of more than one hundred lives prompted President Dmitry Medvedev to observe bitterly that “too many rotten old pots” are sailing Russia's waterways. As one Russian commentator observed, “It doesn't look like the president accidentally received a special report on the state of the Russian river transportation just before the disaster. Medvedev obviously spoke from experience and knowledge of the country.” While the sunken ship is about to be raised, investigators are digging deeper in a story that seems to represent the matrix of Russia's existence today: greedy businessmen, exploiting a ship that should have been mothballed long ago, corrupt civil servants giving it a clean bill of health for bribes, a motley crew of sailors who did not care about giving the passengers safety instructions and who seem to have abandoned ship first, as Gazeta.ru, one of Russia’s leading online publications, reported, and finally, the passengers themselves who did not care about asking for a safety briefing or buying insurance, at least if you believe the accounts of Russian media.
This means that regular citizens are not just victims of corruption; they are complicit in it through their negligence and nonchalant attitude to life and death. “We are a country of collective irresponsibility,” as Gazeta.ru put it, sadly but rightly.
My Lithuanian guests were shocked by the disaster but felt it could not happen in their country. Or rather it could but not because of the combination of circumstances described above. In the Baltics, I have seen enough examples of people buckling up in their cars as a matter of habit or traffic police responding to phone calls from bored retirees complaining that a neighbor’s car is improperly parked. To be absolutely certain, the former Soviet lands are sailing further and further away from the corrupt practices of the recent past. This is not to say that corruption has been successfully eradicated from public life in the Baltic States, but they are definitely on their way to cleaning up their act significantly.
Transparency International's 2010 corruption perception index ranges countries on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 indicating high corruption expectations, while 10 symbolizes corruption-free societies, or at least perceived as such. According to this scale, Russia hovers around 2, while the most corrupt of the Baltic States, Latvia, registers 4.3, Lithuania scoring 5 and Estonia a 6.5. Even Georgia and Ukraine are showing better results on Transparency International's scale: the former significantly, the latter marginally.
The European Union is frequently derided by politicians and experts in Russia as a “new Soviet Union that regulates everything and sees corruption everywhere.” I am sure that the Bulgaria's dead passengers would have benefited hugely from a dose of the EU's “health and safety fascism” and a few of its nosy anti-corruption enforcers. It is not a perfect world that my Lithuanian friends live in. But it is definitely a much safer one.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.