Just Giving Thanks? Views on Corruption from Saratov

Posted: February 9, 2012 at 3:46 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:54 am

Author: Aaron Beitman, PhD Student,  University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Political Science 

In addition to our headquarters in the Washington, D.C. area, TraCCC maintains research centers in three cities across Russia.  These include Saratov (located in southeastern Russia on the Volga River), Stavropol (located in the north Caucasus), and Vladivostok (located in the Far East).  Today’s blog post will draw on news reports gathered by TraCCC researchers in Saratov and will focus on issues of corruption and bureaucratic malfeasance.  More information on TraCCC’s Saratov Center may be obtained here.


Corruption Statistics

According the newspaper Saratovskii Vzglad, the number of reported incidents of local government officials in the Saratov region abusing their office for personal gain has risen in recent years, as has the number of individuals caught in an act of bribery.  In 2011, it was reported that the head of the municipal education board and two municipal education board officials were arrested for bribery in 2011.  In addition, one official from the Saratov region Ministry of Sport, Physical Culture, and Tourism as well as three officials from the regional administration office were arrested on bribery charges.

Among executive branch agencies in the Saratov region, the unchallenged bribery leader remains the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD).  Of the 31 law enforcement officials charged with corruption or abuse of office in 2011, 28 are from the MVD, 2 are from the local branch of the Federal Drug Control Service, and one penal system official.  A majority of the MVD offenders come from the agency’s traffic bureau, which conforms to the stereotypical view of low-level bribery in the Russian Federation.


Environmental Crimes

While civil society in Russia and indeed across the former Soviet Union remains underdeveloped, one area of growth has been in the environmental sector.  Exemplified by the civil society activists who have worked tireless to protect the Khimki forest outside of Moscow, Russian citizens are becoming increasingly aware of the ways they can work to protect the environment.

That said, the Russian state is also working to improve environmental protection.  Aleksei Menshikov, an official from the Volzhskoe Interregional Environmental Crimes Investigative Agency, responsible for the Saratov region, recently gave an interview to reporters at the news portal “Saratov Business Consulting.”  Broadly speaking, Menshikov noted that his investigators submitted more than 30 criminal cases for judicial consideration in 2011, which covered crimes such as bribery, abuse of office, misappropriation of state funds, and others.

According to Menshikov, bureaucratic corruption in the environmental sector is rampant.  One particularly problematic organization is the agency responsible for fish and wildlife control.  Recently, an inspector from this agency decided to falsify information about administrative violations in order to improve his job performance record.  After filing the non-existent violations, the inspector paid the fines himself.  However, the inspector failed to cover his tracks well enough, which led to his being caught and convicted for his crimes.  2011 also saw a number of serious cases of high-level environmental corruption, including the prosecution and conviction of an assistant to the minister of the regional environmental protection committee.

In Menshikov’s view, people who take bribes destroy their inner professionalism.  While committing crimes against the state is clearly bad, Menshikov holds that bribe-takers lose parts of their souls when they enter into corrupt dealings.  As practice demonstrates bribes are not given to stupid people, because they are easy to catch.  Instead, the clever ones wait until the time is right to collect a bribe.

At the same time, Menshikov observes that many citizens fail to fully understand the ramifications of their participation in bribery schemes.  Menshikov recounts one case in which an experienced veterinarian was arrested for taking bribes.  Although the man was relatively old, intelligent, and a respected professional, he appeared not to understand why he was arrested.  This case, however, is not unique.  It appears, according to Menshikov, that people are unable to comprehend how much is at risk when they engage in corruption.  Unfortunately, fines and jail sentences seem unable to deter corrupt behavior.


Views on corruption from local leaders 

Saratov Center researchers also collected public statements on corruption made by prominent local leaders, all of which were found in Saratovskii Vzglad. Oleg Galkin, a deputy in the Saratov Oblast Duma recounts a story about how when he was driving with a friend, their car was stopped by traffic police.  After a brief discussion with the police officer, Galkin’s friend got out of the car to “pay” the fine.  Galkin wonders about who is guilty, the bribe-taker or bribe-giver.  On one hand, it is said that one cannot resolve a problem without a bribe.  On the other hand, Galkin talks about instances in which one party tries to resolve an issue without paying a bribe and another party chooses to pay. The result is always the same:  the bribe payer inevitably wins out.  In Galkin’s view, people have taught bureaucrats that they need to take bribes and bureaucrats have taught the people that they need to give bribes.  How this vicious cycle may be disrupted remains unclear.

Dmitry Fedotov, vice-chairman of the Saratov regional administration, takes a slightly more nuanced view.  While claiming that he has never bribed anyone, Fedotov readily admits that he has regularly offered “thanks” to many people throughout his life.  One time, after seriously injuring his leg, he received excellent medical care and was not given a bill.  Out of appreciation to his doctors, he brought them a nice bottle of whiskey. Fedotov admits that he has only once given a bribe in order to skirt the law.  Whereas now people pay bribes to avoid the army, Fedotov had the completely opposite experience.  After going to the local military recruitment office, the recruiters refused to enlist him.  So Fedotov went to the nearest store, bought two bottles of cognac, and brought them to the recruiters, who approved his enlistment application.

Alexander Parashchenko, head doctor at the St. Sofia Psychiatric Hospital, suggests that there is not a single person in Russia who has not given a bribe, as even Lenin gave money to doctors.  Be it a small bribe or perhaps a token of appreciation, everyone at some point has offered something, and Parashchenko is no exception.  However, this prominent member of the Saratov community maintains that he has committed no crimes.  Instead, Parashchenko argues that he has acted in the manner that has been required of him; to do otherwise would cause problems for him, his family, and his friends.  For Parashchenko, giving money to doctors and police officers on the street is not corruption, but an unfortunate manifestation of human nature.  Actual corruption is something different, having to do with connections between criminals and the state.


Final Thoughts 

As is clear from the above commentary, bribe giving and bribe-taking are woven into the fabric of life in Russia.  For the Western observer, it may be difficult at first to conceptually separate a bribe from a token of appreciation, but Russian cultural practices appear to make a distinction between the two.  In light of this, perhaps, it is perhaps more comprehensible, but no less justifiable, to see how a token of appreciation to your doctor could lead to an envelop full of cash to a bureaucrat for a coveted business license.  For more information on these topics, please visit TraCCC’s publications on corruption page.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu