Why is corruption such a ubiquitous problem in Russia? Is there any hope for it to change? Ilya Shumanov tackles these questions and shares his path from government official to prominent anti-corruption activist.
(Ksenia) - Let's dive right in. Many in the West believe authoritarianism and oligarchy are the main reasons for corruption in Russia. Do you agree?
(Ilya) - Authoritarianism and oligarchy can be both causes and consequences of corruption. It’s a vicious cycle – often authoritarian regimes are a breeding ground for corrupt practices, and in turn, corrupt practices spawn such regimes.
However, we have some examples of authoritarian regimes (namely, Singapore) where there is a possibility for an open and transparent government, but, simultaneously, people’s rights and freedoms are limited. The intersection of corruption and authoritarianism is possible and even likely, but there are exceptions.
As for oligarchy – I’m more prone to call it cronyism, nepotism, or other forms of favoritism – for me it’s a consequence of corruption. It is an important one: corruption in Russia is legalized, and it became the general way in which economic processes function. Key beneficiaries of this kleptocratic economic system are businessmen close to the center of power and public officials, including security and intelligence officials.
Now, the root causes of corruption. Democracy and democratic processes are skills. They need to be learned, there has to be a tradition, and some time has to pass to achieve awareness of democratic processes, accept them, and take advantage of them fully. This is possible in countries where society is mature. It means it has mature societal institutions and is aware of the value of rights and freedoms that people are ready to defend. Russia doesn’t have that, because for seventy years [during the Soviet Union] all dissident voices were shut down. That, plus the cult of personality, pressures on citizens, lack of opportunity to express opinions and to defend rights and freedoms, is one of the key problems for Russia. This patience, this sufferance, this static character is conducive to corrupt practices.
Another important issue is that now in Russia there is too much state [control] – in economics, in business, in personal life, in oversight, in everything. When you communicate with any public official, there is too much temptation to try to circumvent the state by using corrupt practices.
Our readers might be unfamiliar with the prevalence of corruption in Russia, which is present from the highest levels of government down to everyday transactions like going to the doctor. What do you see as the main symptoms of corruption in Russia? Could you give some examples from your own life?
As you can imagine, I don’t give bribes, so it’s hard for me to give an example from my personal life. But I’m not blind to what’s going on around me and I see a lot of instances of corruption.
There are three different levels of corrupt practices. The first is the “everyday” level – everyday personal communications and relationships, including with governmental officials. The second is at the administrative level, which includes citizen-government and business-government relations. There is a lot of room for abuse there. The third level is the top level, political corruption. We have problems on all three levels, and corruption penetrates all economic, business, and personal life.
Nevertheless, I admit that the Russian government and society made a leap forward in the last five, ten years. It happened not on the account of increased awareness about corruption, but as a result of eliminating the possibility for corrupt practices. Specifically, using digital tools to provide government services reduced the frequency of direct communication between citizens and officials.
Therefore, we see corruption on the “everyday” level slowly becoming a thing of the past.
For example, there is a digital system that allows citizens to acquire passports without any communication with an official. You can pay bills, enroll kids in school – all through digital services. Some corrupt practices, like corrupt doctors in hospitals or road police, still exist, but there are fewer opportunities for them.
As for the administrative corruption, it exists and pulls significant resources from the state. As for political corruption, I think it’s a separate conversation. It includes various economic processes, such as distribution of budgets for governmental or infrastructure projects, or global projects like the Olympics, the World Cup, or [political] summits. Large chunks of these budgets go to people with ties to state officials. I think cronyism or crony-capitalism is a good term for the current format of economic processes in Russia.
With regard to the symptoms of corruption:
Firstly, there is tolerance towards corruption and lack of understanding of what constitutes a corrupt practice, especially if it doesn’t involve anything tangible. There is a lack of understanding of corrupt practices in terms of conflicts of interests, nepotism, favoritism, services, and administrative pressures. This tolerance is a key issue in understanding corruption in Russia.
Secondly, transactions with cash. This is an important economic component of administrative and low-level corruption. They use cash in truly cosmic volumes.
Third is the scale of the shadow economy. We have some areas of our economy that even Rosstat [Russian Federal State Statistics Service] can’t track. We have whole regions, like some regions of the North Caucasus, where it’s impossible to get an objective statistical reporting.
And the last aspect is the lack of an understanding about the relationship between taxes and state budgets. People don’t understand that their taxes are a payment for government services, a part of a social contract. In Russia, people don’t make this connection. There is a critical level of paternalism, a desire to be on the side of the strong instead of demanding your own rights, moving forward, and developing.
What strata of corruption do you deal with at Transparency International Russia?
We don’t work with the everyday practices, such as catching people who give chocolates to a doctor or 500 rubles [7 USD] to a traffic policeman, because it’s almost impossible to identify those practices. It’s a matter of awareness and willingness to reject those practices and we conduct work towards raising awareness. We work with kindergartens, schools, and universities in order to create zero tolerance towards corruption. In addition, law enforcement should develop an understanding that even small bribes like that can lead to criminal liability.
We mostly work on the administrative and political levels of corruption, specifically the distribution of budgets, as well as lobbying and other non-monetary forms of corrupt practices. Also, because stolen money usually needs to be laundered, we work on identifying illicit financial flows.
How did you start working on anti-corruption? What inspired you?
In 2009, I came to Moscow for a seminar series at the Moscow School of Political Studies. These seminar series were a set of meetings with civil society leaders, journalists, and politicians who all shared the values of human rights, transparency and accountability, and humanitarian principles. At the time I was still serving as a local government official in my hometown of Kaliningrad [before joining Transparency International, Ilya was the Head of the Department of the Consumer Market in the Kaliningrad Administration].
During one of the sessions, I met Elena Panfilova, who is now Chair of the Board of Transparency International – Russia, and was at the time serving as Director. That was the starting point of our professional relationship. She later came to Kaliningrad for several events, and we met multiple times. Those meetings resulted in that I opened my own anti-corruption NGO in Kaliningrad. After some time, Elena offered me a job at the Transparency International office in Kaliningrad. I was very happy to accept. After 4 years, I moved to Moscow to become a Deputy Director, and that’s what I do now.
You are from Kaliningrad, the enclave of Russia in Europe. Tell us more about your experience there.
Kaliningrad is a very special region – it’s the most Western region of Russia, and it’s not geographically connected to the rest of Russia. Kalinigradians are very different from the residents of Central Russia: almost all of them special passports and often travel abroad, they have a very high level of culture and tolerance toward others. They cherish their region and their culture. It’s quite a free environment. There are many clubs and discussion groups that allow people to develop their opinions.
[The philosopher] Immanuel Kant was from Kaliningrad. I am a follower of his teachings, and like any Kantian, I filter information through the Kantian critique, which states that a-priory trust is impossible without verification. That is one of the foundations of my understanding of right and wrong. If any opinion or conclusion withstands that verification, I start to trust it, if not – I don’t.
As for my anti-corruption work in Kalinigrad, we succeeded in quickly gaining recognition from many local actors, such as media, civil society, business, and governmental bodies, which is very rare. We managed to build a working relationship with the government due to our high level of expertise and being able to speak the same language as the government officials.
We really made an impact, brought change and results: people were criminally prosecuted, many officials were fired. However, it was all on the small scale of a region with a population of one million people. After a while I felt like I outgrew that space, I wanted to be inspired by something on a bigger scale, and I was very happy to accept the offer to move to Moscow.
Is the work you do satisfying for you? What are some success stories?
At the beginning of my career, I felt like it was really important to bring someone to justice. I wanted to be an instrument that brings cases to their logical conclusion, to do the work that law enforcement should’ve done. I used to advocate for sanctions and consequences to make sure officials know they can’t evade responsibility for their actions.
Later, my thinking evolved. Now I believe that some change is not about sanctions and punishment. There are models that allow me to advocate for change without social pressure and conflict. I mean using soft power, advocacy instruments, and solidarity practices. These models are in my arsenal, and when choosing strategies of communications and achieving results, I prefer this way.
I will give you some examples of our work’s results, the ones of which I’m most proud.
From our recent work, there is our report about Golden Visas [a process of buying residency or citizenship in the EU in exchange for significant investments, which creates significant corruption risks]. Our report [on Russians using this practice] was included in the European Parliament’s comprehensive summary report, and I’m very proud of that. It is an indication of our results; it shows that our opinion counts and is used as an additional instrument.
Also, I’m very proud of my own investigations, which I do ad hoc and almost always pro-bono. For example, a year ago Ivan Golunov [an independent journalist] was set up by the police with planted drugs, and it was very important to me to participate in that story, it was my personal initiative. I started investigating who was trying to persecute Ivan Golunov. I created an investigative report about Colonel Schirov. He’s since been fired from law enforcement. Partially, justice was restored: Golunov is free, that colonel is fired, and probably [it would not have happened] without the help of my investigation.
Another achievement I’m happy to share is our big report on Russian Lobbyism in Europe. We sent it to the EU parliament and the European Commission. We also published it in Russian and asked the newspaper Vedomosti to collect comments from the companies - registered lobbyists in EU countries. The companies reacted very negatively, without understanding that lobbying is actually a legal practice. Putin’s classmate, Mr. Egorov, called Transparency International and demanded to delete the publication, which we didn’t do, and I am proud of it.
We also did a big report about the Defense Ministry, specifically about conflicts of interests. Two days before the report was published, we sent it out to experts. We knew they might leak it to the government, and indeed the report was leaked. On the day of publication, we found out that the Defense Ministry canceled a contract for twenty-one billion rubles. This contract was mentioned in our report, and of course, I connect these two events and also count it as our impact.
Do you think the people in the West, especially in the US, can do anything to help Russian civil society and your work in particular?
It’s a hard question because the U.S. is divided right now and everyone there is very oriented towards their domestic issues. Russia enters into that domain only in regards to Russians in the U.S., or, let’s say, political changes that brought Trump to power. At some point that spurred interest towards Russia and its actions made Russia a topic of discussion in the U.S.
There is this tendency developing right now, McCarthyism 2.0 so to speak, that sees any Russian influence or any Russian activity in the U.S. as a potential threat to the stability of society. It’s mostly due to the fact that there is a lack of representation of Russian civil society or other independent actors and institutions in the U.S. Entities like The Immortal Regiment [an event and an organization dedicated to commemorating the memory of the participants in World War II], Rossotrudnichestvo [a Russian government agency administering foreign aid and cultural exchange], or even people who try to create relationships with elites and do business in the U.S. – all are connected to the Russian government in one way or another. They are “power actors” – formally or informally cooperating with Russian power.
Only a handful of [Russian] actors [abroad] are more or less independent – “power actors” in exile [like former politicians and prominent businessmen living abroad]. These projects don’t have Russian official support, and their legitimacy is also reduced because they don’t have ‘boots on the ground’ – they don’t work in Russia and have to operate from abroad.
So I don’t really have any advice or recommendations. I would only ask people to separate Russian pro-government activity [abroad] from the independent projects and initiatives that exist in Russia. Those projects are probably hoping to have some cooperation with the U.S. and with the Western world.
I have to add that I believe Russians must help themselves. We can’t talk about systematic change or external help to bring about this change until Russia’s social fabric changes from within. Russian society has to be ready for change and share the values of that change. Only after that can we make use of support and legitimization from abroad. Until society is ready, outside forces can’t really make any substantial or organic change.
Is there hope for anti-corruption and democratization efforts in Russia?
A fair question, and I think about it often. Why do I do all of this? For me, it’s about my life and my child. I think that the knowledge, values, and principles I pass to her will be in demand, and she will need them to make her own decisions. Her life will be based on these principles, and she will stop before doing something she shouldn’t do.
I see the new generations that have come along and are growing up in a different environment, with different standards. On the one hand, they are less oriented towards the same deeply-instilled social norms we are, they have their own values. On the other hand, they have a high demand for fairness, and this demand correlates with the demand for transparency and honesty. My hope is for this generational, paradigmatic change.
Generation Z, they watch YouTube, get informed through social media. Manipulating their opinions is more difficult because propaganda instruments don’t work that well on them.
I believe that our society has to go through a cycle. If you talk to people who were communist party organizers or activists, you understand that they can’t just turn a switch in their minds and become people who base their decisions on principles of transparency, honesty, accountability, and their own personal understanding of what’s right and wrong. Their herd reflex will dominate because that’s how they were brought up. I think the new generation is freer, and the values and principles they possess are a basis for future change. That’s where I put my hope.