Russia’s Anti-Corruption Moves Draw Renewed Skepticism

Wall Street Journal

Is Russia finally getting serious about corruption?

Russia’s Interior Ministry has taken the rare step of spearheading a high-profile international investigation, charging a former member of the board of directors of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development with seeking a bribe from a company that wanted a loan.

Yelena Kotova, who sat on EBRD board from 2005 to the end of 2010 as a representative of Russia, Belarus and Tajikistan, denies the allegations.

Coming after the introduction of higher fines for bribery, more investigations, official jawboning on the issue and a higher ranking in the latest Transparency International data, does this signify the turning of a page?

It does not, according to two attorneys who work with companies in Russia.

“It’s good that the Russians are investigating corruption,” said Danforth Newcomb at Shearman & Sterling, but he said he hasn’t detected any significant improvement in the level of corruption there.

Likewise, Daniel Rothstein from a New York law firm with the same name, said his view, partly based on conversations with professional colleagues in Russia, is to “doubt there is a trend toward cleaning up private or public corruption.”

Both lawyers point out corruption investigations in Russia are often used for settling scores. “Unless you’re inside the case, it’s impossible to know the significance of any corruption investigation in Russia,” said Rothstein.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been pursued for alleged fraud and money laundering, while the infamous case of Sergei Magnitsky involved the lawyer being arrested for the very allegations of plunder that he leveled against officials.

Russia’s score in the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index did improve in 2012, rising to 2.8 on a zero-to-100 scale and its ranking rose to 133. In 2011 those numbers were 2.4 and 143, respectively, and in 2010 they were 2.1 and 154. Still, such numbers continue to depict Russia as one of the most corrupt major nations in the world.

Anton Pominov, research director at Transparency International Russia, was quoted at the time of the release of the 2012 index as saying corruption permeates all levels of society. “It’s petty corruption, it’s administrative corruption; I would say it’s like a mid-level corruption and then there’s political or grand corruption,” he told Voice of America.

What of Vladimir Putin’s remarks in his December presidential address that companies shouldn’t use offshore tax havens and that officials should be barred from operating foreign bank accounts or owning securities abroad?

“I know of no national leader who is in favor of corruption when speaking to the media,” said Newcomb at Shearman & Sterling.

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