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Advocating for foreign bribery enforcement in a highly corrupt country

Grigory Mashanov

Russia is increasing its presence in Africa. Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, my country is returning to the continent, seeking to re-establish its former influence. Unless the prevention of corruption is a priority, this will be bad for both African countries and Russia.

Among the instruments of modern foreign policy are loans and other funds, which can force a country into financial dependency on its debtor. China’s Belt & Road initiative is already subject to corruption scandals with alleged cases of public officials being bribed so that their countries adopt these financial instruments.

In Transparency International’s most recent Exporting Corruption report, which measures enforcement of laws against foreign bribery, China has ‘zero or no enforcement’. Russia has the same level. That means that Russia’s exports to Africa carry with them a high risk of corruption. In a continent where some countries already have high levels of public sector corruption, as measured by the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), more bribes to public officials will only make the situation worse.

Even countries at the top of the CPI are not immune to exporting corruption, with businesses from Denmark, Sweden and other leading economies, behaving one way in their home jurisdiction while contributing to corruption overseas. It is obvious then, that economically powerful countries with low CPI scores, such as Russia, are sources of transnational corruption in business.

But that is a global perspective. In Russia’s public discourse, only Transparency International — Russia (TI-Russia) seems to have concerns about corruption being an aspect of Russia’s foreign policy. In a way, it sounds logical: if our country is so corrupt itself, why would we care how our government or companies behave abroad?

We in TI-Russia have made an attempt to attack these perceptions. We have conducted a small campaign, involving sending official letters to authorities, posting in social media and even contributing an article in the media about the OECD Convention on Foreign Bribery and Russia’s relationship to it. Through this, and the responses we received, we have discovered several findings:

  • The general public is not aware of Russia’s obligations to combat foreign bribery, which are enshrined in the OECD Convention. When commentators aren’t aware that foreign bribery by Russian companies should be punished in Russia, it creates an obstacle to holding Russian authorities accountable.
  • Explaining the essence of the convention to the public is very hard. It is not obvious to people that if one commits crimes outside of the country and bribes foreign officials, the home country has an obligation to punish this corrupt act.
  • When explanation is given, people are generally supportive of this idea in general, but they are more concerned about situations of bribery by foreign companies in Russia. People generally consider Russia to be a highly corrupt state, and therefore the question of how Russia would punish somebody for corruption abroad isn’t deemed to be relevant.
  • Russian authorities are extremely closed when it comes to discussing the OECD Convention. When visiting the OECD Working Group on Bribery consultation with civil society in December 2019 in Paris, we tried to establish contact with the Russian delegation. Its members refused to fully name themselves and provide their business cards. We also sent eight appeals questioning Russia’s low enforcement of the Convention to the relevant officials at the end of November. We should have received all the answers by now, but have received only four. This is unusual practice in Russia, highlighting that the situation around the Convention is sensitive for the Russian authorities.

After our initial advocacy, we can say for sure that campaigning on foreign bribery enforcement. Public pressure inside the country seems to be the only realistic means for persuading the Russian authorities to fulfil their commitments under international treaties. Who knows, perhaps it was our input that recently led the Russian authorities to begin investigating their first-ever case of foreign bribery? We will keep an eye on where this leads.