Millions of dollars in cash, lavish jewelry, apartments that resemble palaces… A corruption scandal in the Russian defense ministry is unfolding before a stunned Russian public.
Even hardened and cynical Russian journalists are left speechless by the scale of graft in one of the country’s most troubled ministries.
Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, the first civilian ever to occupy the position, was fired by the same man who entrusted him with the task of reforming the army back in 2007: President Vladimir Putin. Several of the former minister’s associates – mostly civilians whom he brought with him to the office – are under arrest and others will no doubt be behind bars soon.
The fact that Serdyukov was considered a member of the president’s inner circle makes the case a landmark of sorts. My colleague Andrei Kolesnikov, Kremlin correspondent for the business daily Kommersant, has hypothesized that Putin is serious about tackling corruption.
Other Moscow observers advance the theory that the president is trying to extricate himself from the web of corruption that has in fact paralyzed state institutions and represents a growing threat to the Putin regime itself.
Even prestigious international projects designed to raise Russia’s international profile, like the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi or last September’s APEC summit in Vladivostok, suffered from astronomic kickbacks that contributed to corner-cutting – and defects – in major construction projects.
So is Vladimir Putin serious about tackling corruption? The Defense Ministry overhaul may well be a one-off aimed at keeping the ruling class in check and showing that there is no absolute immunity, even for the Kremlin’s “in crowd.”
But even if the Russian president is indeed serious about putting a stop to the “plunder of Russia,” he will probably fail. Corruption is built into Russia’s political regime. It is the main proverbial carrot for the sprawling bureaucracy. The stick used on Serdyukov is employed sparingly. The only really punishable offence in Russia is disloyalty.
Any kind of anti-corruption crusade will undermine the foundations of the “Putin system” and create uncertainty and panic inside the country’s ruling elite. Changing the post-Soviet rules of the power game that date back to the late 1990s means revolutionizing Russian politics and Russian life itself.
Transparency and accountability, freedom of the media and parliamentary oversight, independent watchdogs and emphasis on ethics in civil service – all the weapons for a successful battle with corruption - are well known. But trying to apply them in earnest for the first time in post-Soviet Russia would spell the total collapse of the current political order.
Putin is no such revolutionary.
What is more probable is that the president is thinking about retiring from active political life and is laying the groundwork for his exit strategy: gradual elevation of the newly appointed defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to the premiership (the traditional springboard to the Kremlin) with early presidential elections to follow.
Shoigu is one of Russia’s most popular public figures. The purge at the Defense Ministry is designed to make him even more popular and prominent, especially in comparison with his unlucky predecessor, who was intensely disliked by the public and elites alike.
The “Shoigu for President” theory is currently making the rounds on the Moscow rumour circuit, and it is no more far-fetched than a few others in the country’s recent history that have come true.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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 a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. 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.
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