The recent release of the so-called Panama Papers raises a lot of questions, one of which is: Is it better for an authoritarian regime to fight corruption, or work with it? Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir V. Putin of Russia point us to two very different answers.
In 2012 President Xi, calling corruption an existential threat to China’s Communist rule, undertook a broad campaign to purge the Communist Party of what he called “tigers and flies” — corrupt officials and businesses, at every level of the party apparatus and government bureaucracy. As of last year, the campaign had netted more than 100 high-ranking officials, including a dozen military officers, several senior executives of state-owned companies and four top politicians.
Critics of the regime tend to blame President Xi for using the campaign to eliminate his rivals, but the anti-corruption effort is highly popular with the public, and many independent analysts agree that it helped galvanize further reforms in semiprivate industries like the oil sector.
President Putin has followed Mr. Xi’s lead, at least rhetorically — except that in his nearly 17 years in power, not a single political “tiger,” to borrow Mr. Xi’s term, and only a few “flies” have been brought down by corruption charges.
But why is Mr. Putin, despite his willingness to start military wars, reluctant to declare a real war on corruption — even though, as Mr. Xi has found, anti-corruption campaigns are usually popular with the public?
Only a fool would argue that there’s a dearth of corruption in Russia. Recent opinion polls from Moscow’s independent Levada Center indicate that a majority of people view state bureaucracy as irremediably corrupt. Russian movies and novels are full of officials who take bribes. Why then is the Kremlin so unwilling to undertake a cleanup, particularly in a moment when cutting the cost of corruption could compensate for depressed oil prices?
The commonplace explanation in the Western media is that Mr. Putin himself is deeply corrupt — indeed, that he sits at the epicenter of Russia’s corrupt edifice. This may be so. But as someone who has spent his life in the Balkans (and therefore knows a thing about corruption), I have learned that being corrupt is hardly a reason not to declare a war on corruption; on the contrary, it could be an incentive, because there is nothing that corrupt politicians hate more than other people’s corruption.
The reason for Mr. Putin’s reluctance, then, is more complicated.
On one hand, for him, mutual accusations of corruption are the dirty bombs of the intra-elite wars, which cause a lot of collateral damage. Research has long demonstrated that corruption, although hitting the poorest groups in society hardest, is primarily a middle-class concern — and in today’s Russia, the middle class to a great extent is composed of these same bribe-taking officials that anti-corruption campaigns should target.
On the other hand, what matters in politics is not the levels of corruption, but the public’s perception of how corrupt their country is, and very often the link between the two is not direct. Small and successful wars abroad can be a better instrument to change people’s perception of how corrupt their country is than the actual efforts to reduce corruption. Correlation is not causation, but in the wake of Crimea’s annexation, the number of Russians who believed that corruption was increasing plummeted to 30 percent, from 50 percent.
Interestingly, there is one way that corruption itself worries Mr. Putin: as a weapon that can be used by Russia’s external enemies against him. What worries the Kremlin is not that Russian officials are corrupt, but that they are vulnerable to Western pressure, since the assets they stole, just like their children, are in the West. Corruption as a rule helps unite elites, but it can also make them good recruits. (In this sense, Moscow should not be unhappy about the West’s efforts to clean up hidden offshore accounts.)
The Kremlin’s top priority then is not purging corrupt elites, but nationalizing them. Russian elites have the right to be corrupt, but only if they have proved their loyalty. Paradoxically, the West’s sanctions against business figures closest to the Russian president helped whitewash some of the most notoriously corrupt Russian oligarchs and allow Russian propaganda to present them as selfless defenders of the motherland.
Ultimately, the most important reason for Mr. Putin’s reluctance to declare a war on corruption is that any anti-corruption campaign will inspire the public to demand change. It plays not only on the public’s anger, but also on its aspirations. And it is precisely this demand for change that the Kremlin fears most. Unlike in China, leaders in Russia avoid promising that life will be better tomorrow; what they promise is that things will not get worse. And unlike in China, they can afford to do so because the Russian economy is driven not by the entrepreneurial energy of the masses, but by natural resources.
This is why the Russian government is ready to acknowledge corruption’s ubiquity — the slickest propaganda couldn’t convince people otherwise. But the government also advances the idea that corruption is a way of life and is thus a natural phenomenon. In a way, corruption is like vodka: You know it hurts, but Russia is unimaginable without it.
Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna and a contributing opinion writer.