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Beyond Electoral Fraud: Russians Protest Corruption

Mar 3, 2012
Originally published on March 3, 2012 6:37 pm

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is headed for victory in Sunday's presidential election in Russia. The ballot's been set, so he's all but certain to win a majority, without facing an embarrassing run-off against one of his much weaker rivals.

Putin's also certain to face growing anger from an educated, urban middle-class that's been demonstrating on the streets of Moscow.

The middle class first came out to protest apparent vote rigging in December's parliamentary election. But many see electoral fraud as part of the wider problem of corruption and abuse of power in Putin's Russia.

Contracts Won With Kickbacks

Dmitri, a 29-year-old financial adviser for an oil company, didn't want to give his surname, but he did want to explain why he came out for a protest last weekend in Moscow. "Corruption and unequal position of citizens in front of the law," he says.

Sergei Vorobyov is another businessman who's itching to talk about corruption. He's the financial controller for a medium-size firm that imports video equipment for conferences and exhibits. His customers are mainly government agencies.

"We cannot win a state contract unless we promise to pay a specific person a specific sum, in cash," he says.

The blond, trim-looking 47-year-old is emphatic. "Our company has not won a single major contract without paying a kickback," he says, "generally not more than 10 percent of the cost of the project."

The extortion, as he describes it, doesn't begin or end when he gets to the office. There are the constant stops by traffic police who, he says, are more interested in enriching themselves than ensuring road safety. A few years ago, Vorobyov resolved not to cough up — and at one point had his license suspended.

'None Of The Institutions' Work

Acquaintances in the traffic police have told Vorobyov that supervisors set quotas for safety stops — and quotas for bribes. Part of each cop's haul gets passed up the chain of command.

Vorobyov regales a reporter with tales of ambulance drivers extracting bribes to pick up patients, doctors demanding something extra for anything beyond minimal treatment, educators who admit students to universities for a price.

"I think none of the institutions in this country works," says businessman Alexander Lebedev. "I think the judges are not the judges, the police are not the police, the central bank inspectors are not the central bank inspectors, and finally, the bureaucrats are not the bureaucrats. They're after quick profit, through corruption."

Lebedev is perhaps an unlikely anti-corruption crusader. He's on the Forbes list of billionaires, though he protests it's an honor he neither deserves nor wants. His holdings include a Russian bank, parts of Aeroflot, and The Independent newspaper in Britain. The Russian paper he finances, Novaya Gazeta, has been calculating the cost of corruption to Russia.

"In the recent eight years, say from 2003 to probably 2010, this country has been deprived of over ... $500 billion, which is money misappropriated inside the country, mostly in the state sector," he says. "These are state corporations, state banks, state companies — this is exactly what we investigate."

Lebedev says the paper's investigative reporting has led inspectors to tie up his bank's assets with audits, so he can no longer pay the salaries at Novaya Gazeta.

'Mostly About Unfair Treatment'

He is careful to say he doesn't think Putin himself has amassed a huge fortune. Like Putin, he was a Soviet spy, and he has this intelligence tip for his former colleague about the recent street protests:

"They are not as much about the rigged election. They are mostly about the unfair treatment by the state and about corruption."

Lebedev also warns Putin the protests will continue.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems headed for victory in tomorrow's presidential election in Russia. He is considered all but certain to win a majority and defeat the four much weaker rivals who are allowed on the ballot. Putin's also certain to face growing anger from an educated middle class that's been staging protests in Moscow. They first poured out after apparent vote rigging in a parliamentary election. But as NPR's Martha Wexler reports, they see electoral fraud as part of the wider corruption and abuse of power in Putin's Russia.

MARTHA WEXLER, BYLINE: Dmitri is a 29-year-old financial adviser for an oil company. He didn't want to give his surname, but he did want to explain why he came out for a protest last weekend in Moscow.

DMITRI: Corruption and unequal position of citizens in front of the law.

WEXLER: Sergei Vorobyov is another businessman who's itching to talk about corruption. He's a financial controller for a medium-size firm that imports and provides video equipment for conferences and exhibits. His customers are mainly government agencies.

SERGEI VOROBYOV: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: We cannot win a state contract unless we promise to pay a specific person a specific sum in cash, he says.

VOROBYOV: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: The trim, sandy-haired 47-year-old is emphatic. Our company has not won a single major contract without paying a kickback, he says, generally not more than 10 percent of the cost of the project. The extortion, as he describes it, doesn't begin or end at the office.

VOROBYOV: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: There are the constant stops by traffic police who, he says, are more interested in enriching themselves than ensuring road safety.

A few years ago, Vorobyov resolved not to cough up and at one point he had his license suspended.

VOROBYOV: (Foreign language spoken)

WEXLER: Acquaintances in the traffic police have told him that supervisors there set quotas. Quotas for safety stops and quotas for bribes. Part of each cop's haul gets passed up the chain of command. Vorobyov regales a reporter with tales of ambulance drivers extracting bribes to pick up patients, doctors demanding something extra for anything beyond minimal treatment, and educators who admit students to universities for a price.

ALEXANDER LEBEDEV: I think none of the institutions in this country works. I think the judges are not the judges, the police are not the police, the central bank inspectors are not the central bank inspectors. And finally, the bureaucrats are not the bureaucrats, they're after quick profit through corruption.

WEXLER: That's Alexander Lebedev, perhaps an unlikely anti-corruption crusader. He's on the Forbes list of billionaires, though he protests it's an honor he neither deserves nor wants. His holdings include a Russian bank, parts of Aeroflot, and The Independent and other newspapers in Britain. The Russian paper he finances, Novaya Gazeta, has been calculating the cost of corruption to Russia.

LEBEDEV: In the recent 8 years, say from 2003 to probably 2010, this country has been deprived of over $500 billion U.S., which is money misappropriated inside the country, mostly in the state sector. These are state corporations, state banks, state companies. This is exactly what we investigate.

WEXLER: Lebedev says the paper's investigative reporting has led inspectors to tie up his bank's assets with audits, so he can no longer pay the salaries at Novaya Gazeta. Lebedev ticks off the names of corrupt oligarchs who've taken billions out of the country. They have links to Putin, but Lebedev's careful to say he doesn't think Putin himself has amassed a huge fortune. Like Putin, he was a Soviet spy, and he offers this intelligence tip about the recent street protests.

LEBEDEV: They are not as much about the rigged election. They're mostly about the unfair treatment by the state and about corruption.

WEXLER: And Lebedev warns Putin, the protests will continue.

Martha Wexler, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.