EExactly a year ago, I didn’t die of chemical weapon poisoning, and it seems corruption played a big part in my survival. Having contaminated the Russian state system, corruption has also contaminated the intelligence services. When a country’s top management is concerned about protection rackets and corporate extortion, the quality of covert operations inevitably suffers. A group of FSB agents applied the nerve agent to my underwear just as clumsily as they incompetently followed my footsteps for three and a half years – in violation of all instructions from above – allowing civilian investigators to expose them at all times.
To be fair, a regime based on corruption can perform more basic tasks perfectly. The justice system – the first thing over which autocrats eager to rob their nation take control – works perfectly on a quid pro quo basis. Therefore, when I returned to Russia after medical treatment, I was taken directly from the plane to the prison. There’s not much to celebrate in there, but at least now I have time to read the briefs of world leaders.
In these books, the leaders of the world write in terrifyingly interesting ways about how they have solved the main problems facing humanity: wars, poverty, migration, climate crisis, weapons of mass destruction. These are the questions on the agenda. The fight against corruption, on the other hand, is rarely part of what they hope will be their legacy. It’s not surprising ; this is a “secondary item on the agenda”.
Surprisingly enough, however, corruption almost always deserves a mention when world leaders describe failures – whether their own or, more commonly, those of their predecessors.
“We have spent years, hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of human lives in Iraq [or Afghanistan, you name it] – but the corrupt government of al-Maliki [or Karzai, you name them] alienated the people with their thieves, paving the way for victory for radicals armed with slogans of honest and just government and RPGs.
This leads to an obvious question. Guys, if corruption is preventing us from finding solutions to big agenda problems, maybe now is the time to make it a priority on this agenda?
It’s not hard to see why this hasn’t already been done. Corruption is a delicate issue to be debated at world summits. Suppose you discuss Syria and cyber attacks with Vladimir Putin. Everyone finds it interesting, everyone knows where they are. At the final press conference, everyone will have something to say.
Now imagine a meeting with Putin on the issue of corruption. The very fact that he was lifted represents a movement towards personalities. The whole thing, from start to finish, is awkward. The richest leader in the world, who fled his own country, is invited to discuss how to deal with his problem. Very delicate, very awkward.
Now turn on the news. It was precisely the fact that the West “failed to notice” the utter corruption in Afghanistan – which Western leaders preferred not to talk about a subject they found embarrassing – that was the most crucial factor in this. the victory of the Taliban (with the support of the population). The West did not want to discuss the plundering of the budget; it was much better to focus on people stoned to death or executed by beheading.
After the implosion of the USSR and the end of the world ideological confrontation, it is corruption – in its classic definition, “the exploitation of an official position for personal gain” – which has become the universal basis and without ideology of the blossoming of a new authoritarian International, from Russia to Eritrea, from Myanmar to Venezuela. And corruption has long ceased to be simply an internal problem in these countries. It is almost invariably one of the main causes of the global challenges facing the West.
A new “hot” war in Europe with the use of air strikes and artillery? It is Putin who takes revenge on Ukraine for the anti-corruption revolution that overthrew his protégé, Viktor Yanukovych. Religious extremists of all stripes find it easier to propagandize when their opponents drive Rolls-Royces through the streets of penniless countries. Migration crises are caused by poverty, and poverty is almost always caused by corruption.
“It’s also good that climate change is not linked to corruption!” You may ironically reflect. I invite you to say this in the face of the millions of hectares of Siberian forest that burn each year due to total and barbaric clearing, violating the fire rules for forest management. I am reluctant to make this prediction, but I fear that the next big terrorist attack will not be just another bombing by religious fanatics but, for example, a chemical weapon in the water supply network of a big city or a devastating attack on the computer infrastructure of an entire country, and that the sponsors of terrorism will be one or the other of the people in possession of a golden palace. The reason for the commission will be to divert the world’s attention from the golden palaces to global security concerns.
So it is not we who should feel uncomfortable confronting corrupt authoritarians with difficult questions and becoming personal, but, on the contrary, they who should know that their shady actions will invariably be the main topic of discussion. at world summits. This would be a crucial step towards eliminating the root cause of many “big” problems.
OK, but what are we supposed to do? Surely there is not much that the people of Washington or Berlin can do to combat the corruption of officials in Minsk or Caracas?
Certainly, but it is also true that an important aspect of corruption in authoritarian countries is the use it makes of the financial infrastructure of the West – and in 90% of cases what has been stolen is stored in the West. A public servant working for an autocrat knows better than anyone how important it is to keep your capital away from colleagues and boss.
All it takes to get started is for Western leaders to show determination and political will. The first step is to turn corruption from a source of unlimited opportunity into an onerous burden for at least some of the elites surrounding the autocrats. It will divide them and increase voices for modernization and corruption reduction – which will be strengthened and equipped with new arguments to make in elite circles.
The following five steps are quite realistic, easy to implement, and can be a very effective start to tackling global corruption.
First, the West should formulate and recognize a special category of “countries that encourage corruption”, which will allow uniform action against groups of countries, rather than imposing sanctions on particular states.
Second, the main sanction – the main tax on corruption, if you will – for this group of countries should be “imposed transparency”. Any documentation relating to contracts concluded between Western companies and partners in countries with corruption risks must be published if the contracts have any connection with the State, its agents or their relatives.
Do you work for a public company in a country with a high risk of corruption and want to buy a villa on the French Riviera? Alright, go ahead, but be aware that all information on the deal will be publicly available. Do you want to have relations with an official in Minsk or the aunt of a Russian governor? No problem, but you will need to publish the entire paper trail of the transaction and will no longer be able to hide the bribe you pay through that “regional representative” or “local partner”.
Third, fighting corruption without fighting corrupt individuals is pure hypocrisy and undermines voter confidence. Until personal sanctions are imposed on the oligarchs, primarily those around Putin – the model for all corrupt officials and businessmen in the world – any anti-corruption rhetoric from the West will be seen as a game and wind.
There is nothing more frustrating than reading the latest sanctions list, filled with the names of colonels and intelligence generals that no one has ever heard of, but meticulously cleared of the people for whose benefit these colonels act. The West needs to break free from a semantic mindset where the label “businessman” acts as an indulgence, making it very difficult for them to get on the sanctions lists. Putin’s oligarchs, those who run “state” and formally private enterprises but whose prosperity is tied to Putin’s group, are not businessmen but leaders of organized criminal groups. Now, alas, the Western establishment is behaving like Pavlov’s dog: you show them a secret service colonel and they shout, “Punish him!” you show them the oligarch who pays the colonel, and they shout, “Invite him to Davos!”
Fourth, the US, UK, and Germany already have great tools to tackle foreign bribery, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, Bribery Act, etc. Guess how many cases have been brought following reports from our Anti-Corruption Foundation, now classified as an extremist organization by the Putin government?
That’s right, none. The sad reality is that even Western law enforcement agencies treat corrupt foreign officials with gloves. With a little political will on the part of the government (and pressure from public opinion) this situation can be rectified.
Fifth, hindering the export of political corruption clearly deserves the creation of an international body or commission. Take a look at what’s going on right now. By investing relatively modest sums of money, the dreaded Putin is buying far-right and far-left movements across Europe – turning their politicians into oligarchs and agents of his own. Legalized corruption flourishes, often in the form of board memberships of state-owned companies. A former German Chancellor, or a former Italian Prime Minister, or a former Austrian Foreign Minister, can act as background dancers for the Russian dictator, thereby normalizing corrupt practices. Any contracts between former or current Western politicians and trading partners in corrupt authoritarian countries should also be subject to public scrutiny.
These are first steps, but even they will have a significant impact, creating elite groups within authoritarian countries for whom campaigning to reduce levels of corruption will become a rational choice.
No money, no soldiers, no reconfiguration of industry or world politics is needed to begin to act. Only political will – which unfortunately is often lacking. Public opinion and the wishes of voters are what can finally make things happen. Then, one day, world leaders may write in their memoirs that they have solved many of the major problems of the “big agenda” simply by eliminating their root cause – without troops, billions of dollars and wasted decades.
Translated by Arch Tait