The Russian government is sending out two very different messages in its declared war on corruption. On the one hand it is trying to curtail the efforts of civil society organisations as they go about their business, including Transparency International Russia, with a series of inspections that are hampering their operations. But at the same time, the government is taking measures to stop officials from hiding illicit wealth as part of its programme to curb corruption.
Although cracking down on government corruption is welcome, it is no substitute for independent scrutiny. That is why the crackdown on civil society is so counterproductive, and not just in the fight against corruption. It is a blow against democracy because if it forces civil society organisations to close – and this is likely – it will deny ordinary citizens a voice through independent organisations on issues that concern them.
Last week tens of non-governmental organisations were inspected by the Russian authorities as the government moved to enforce a series of controversial laws aimed at identifying organisations that receive foreign funding. When the laws were enacted, we with many other NGOs spoke out against them.
For the fight against corruption, civil society is a prerequisite. Citizens need to have a way to hold their government to account and to ensure that the laws on the books to stop corruption are actually enforced. This is particularly true in countries where there is endemic corruption – Russia is ranked 133 out of 176 on the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index – and people do not trust in government to act against it. Independent oversight by civil society is the best way to check and challenge those who might use entrusted power for personal gain, our definition of corruption.
The move against civil society comes at a time when the government is speaking out loudly about corruption. In 2011 Russia signed the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention and the most recent report from the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) on Russia’s anti-corruption efforts, shows the country is making progress on fulfilling anti-corruption obligations.
The report concluded that that “out of the 26 recommendations issued to the Russian Federation, 15 of them have to date been implemented or dealt with in a satisfactory manner and 11 have been partly implemented.”
What GRECO called for in particular was a strengthening of the independence of the judiciary and a reduction in the number of people protected by immunity. Too many officials are able to act outside the law. Russia also needs better access to information on corruption offenses and better whistleblower protection. GRECO also concluded, “The implementation and monitoring of impact of such measures should continue to feature prominently in the national anti-corruption action plans, including by ensuring input by civil society.”
Role of Civil Society
Civil society functions are the eyes and ears of citizens. Unfortunately, the only civil society organisations that can oversee the Russian government these days are ones that the government has appointed. Transparency International Russia is not part of this group.
Despite the current climate of intimidation, however, civil society is functioning. Transparency International Russia’s report from 2012 shows a variety of activities that give citizens a chance to monitor corruption. It collaborated with the Youth Human Rights movement on a large-scale campaign in 20 cities to check police officers’ identification tags. This is a pro-active exercise to stop petty corruption. If an officer can be identified, he or she is less likely to ask for a bribe.
Transparency International Russia also monitors the income statements of Russian public officials with the help of students and publishes the results and monitored the use of 600 million rubles (US$19 million) of public funds to socially oriented NGOs, and found several cases of conflict of interests. It provided analysis and recommendations on making this process more transparent and accountable.
These practical examples show why civil society is an ally and should not be a target for intimidation if the government is committed to the cause of fighting corruption. The same is true for groups that work to protect human rights, the environment and other issues that concern citizens and affect daily life. Civil society is there to highlight areas where governments need to improve their practices. They should be supported not harassed. Many organisations are calling on President Putin to stop the inspections and let civil society get on with its work.
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