Magazine article Newsweek

Why Putin's Corruption Crackdown May Be a Pre-Election Show; for Kremlin Critics, the Much-Vaunted Anti-Corruption Campaign Is a Sham Aimed at Boosting Vladimir Putin's Image Ahead of Russia's Presidential Election

Magazine article Newsweek

Why Putin's Corruption Crackdown May Be a Pre-Election Show; for Kremlin Critics, the Much-Vaunted Anti-Corruption Campaign Is a Sham Aimed at Boosting Vladimir Putin's Image Ahead of Russia's Presidential Election

Article excerpt

Byline: Marc Bennetts

It was just before dawn in early February when heavily armed officers from Russia's FSB security service raided a luxurious mansion in Dagestan, a volatile republic in the southern part of the country.

The mansion belonged to Abdusamad Gamidov, the Kremlin-installed leader of the republic. As the officers searched his palatial residence, they discovered a startling display of wealth, especially for one of Russia's poorest regions. There were designer watches, rare furs, a stuffed tiger and even a gold-plated handgun with the first three letters of the Dagestani leader's surname carved into its ornate handle.

Russian authorities rounded up Gamidov, two of his deputies and other senior officials and put them on planes to Moscow, where they were charged with embezzling state funds. (All maintained their innocence.)

Their arrests were part of a high-profile crackdown on allegedly corrupt officials. In December, Russian authorities imprisoned Alexei Ulyukayev, the economy minister, for eight years on charges of soliciting a $2 million bribe from Igor Sechin, the powerful head of Russia's Rosneft oil company. The first serving government minister to be arrested in Russia since 1953, Ulyukayev alleged he was the victim of a "cruel and horrific setup."

Months later, in February, Russian courts jailed two regional governors, Nikita Belykh and Alexander Khoroshavin, on bribery charges. The authorities alleged Khoroshavin had around $1.7 million at his home in illicit cash, as well as piles of expensive designer jewelry, including a diamond-crusted pen worth over $600,000. REN TV, a pro-Kremlin channel, said the sentences proved that there were no untouchables in the government's fight against corruption. (Both men denied the accusations.)

The timing was no coincidence. In less than a month, Russians will vote in the country's presidential election. Its longtime leader, Vladimir Putin, is all but certain to win and secure another six years in office. Channel One, Russian state television's flagship station, hailed the Dagestan detentions as part of a "large-scale battle against corruption," while Life News, a popular pro-Kremlin website, reported that the republic had been "purged of corrupt officials."

Analysts say the charges against the officials in Dagestan were part of the Kremlin's efforts to tighten its grip on the restless region. But the mass arrests there, coupled with the long prison terms handed down to Ulyukayev and the regional governors, have also allowed Putin to boost his anti-corruption credentials ahead of the election. "Law enforcement agencies will receive political support in this work," he told officials at the prosecutor general's office on February 15. "I request that you act with maximum decisiveness."

Putin has high approval ratings, and opinion polls show that Russians do not generally blame him for social problems such as rising poverty. Yet corruption is one of the former KGB officer's few vulnerabilities. A public opinion survey published last year by the Levada Center, the nation's only independent pollster, indicated that 67 percent of Russians hold Putin responsible for the high-level fraud and embezzlement that costs the country tens of billions of dollars every year. Nearly 80 percent said they believe the Russian government is either "totally" or to "a significant level" mired in corruption.

And people are getting angry. In recent months, there has been a sharp increase in protests across Russia, according to the Center for Economic and Political Reform, a Moscow-based think tank. "Corruption is one of the reasons behind a rise in social conflicts and labor-related protests," said a report published by the think tank in November 2017.

What's exacerbated Putin's weakness are a spate of investigations by Alexei Navalny, a prominent Kremlin critic. So far, over 26 million people have watched an online video by Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation alleging massive fraud by Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister. …

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