In Russia, corruption is considered in much the same way as the climate: something that makes life harder and causes constant grumbling, but is an unchangeable part of the fabric of life.
“Of course all politicians are corrupt, we’ll never be able to do anything about it,” says Nadezdha, a 47-year-old housewife in the town of Kimry, about 100 miles from Moscow. She had not heard of the allegations in the Panama Papers, which suggested members of Vladimir Putin’s family, and those close to him, had benefited from dubious cash flows. Instead, she insists the Russian president is part of the solution, not the problem.
“Poor Putin is trying to fight these bloodsucking bureaucrats, but he can’t clean up everything on his own.”
Save for limited online discussion among the politically active classes – one video compares the $2bn (£1.4bn) that passed through a company controlled by Putin’s friend, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, to state spending on healthcare, roads and pensions – for the most part the leaks have passed by with little fanfare. The allegations, published in Russia by the small independent paper Novaya Gazeta, were dismissed by Putin, and state TV, as a western plot.
It takes three hours to drive to Kimry from Moscow, on roads that become progressively worse. During the oil boom of Putin’s first presidency, Moscow and Russia’s other major cities changed beyond recognition, as quality of life shot up and an urban middle class developed.
But smaller towns such as Kimry, which has a population of about 50,000, saw little of the oil money. In the last two years, amid a faltering economy, things have worsened, as already struggling Soviet-era factories ceased production and paid salaries late. The local newspaper recently ran a competition offering a free car check-up for the reader who took a photograph of the biggest pothole in Kimry.
“Most of all we need to overhaul all our infrastructure,” says Kimry’s mayor, Roman Andreyev. “It’s in a completely unacceptable state: the water and heating systems are all Soviet projects that have not been repaired in years.” And this year there is no money at all for road repairs, he said.
Almost everyone in Kimry gives the same answer when asked the reason for the town’s woes: corruption. Andreyev, a 34-year-old Communist, became mayor in 2014. His victory was a shock in a country where politics is dominated by the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, but he ran on an anti-corruption platform and won an unexpected victory on a low turnout.
“I think if there was a real, serious fight against corruption, things would improve in a year or two,” says Andreyev. However, he would not comment on whether such a fight is even possible in the current system.
A year after losing elections, the previous mayor was arrested on corruption charges and is currently in pre-trial detention. A local business source said the arrest was less likely to be a genuine attempt at cleaning up corruption, as the law enforcement bodies had known about his dubious dealings for years. Instead, people in Kimry link the arrest to disgruntled business partners of the former mayor exacting revenge for his election defeat.
Critics say that such corruption cases, even if genuine, are used as political tools; if everyone is corrupt then officials are easier to control from above.
However, while cases are often brought against mid- and low-level officials, those at the very top of Putin’s “power vertical” appear immune. Well before the Panama Papers revelations, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny released damning reports that provide convincing evidence against ministers and the political elite.
However, instead of investigating, state bodies have instead gone after Navalny. The politician was under house arrestand his brother has been jailed. A documentary due to be aired this week will claim Navalny is an MI6 operative trying to bring revolution to Russia, based on “evidence” from “secret MI6 correspondence” permeated with grammatical errors.
Navalny said no disclosures about Putin or his inner circle were capable of harming the president’s ratings, because state television simply ignores them.
“In 2016 I don’t think we can say that anything negative can have an effect on public opinion inside Russia,” he said. “There are very many true facts about Putin which if they were properly explained on the state channels would completely destroy his rating. But that will never happen.”
In a Russia-wide poll by the independent Levada Centre, carried out in February and released last week, people were asked about corruption at a national level. One-quarter said Putin could succeed in stamping out corruption by purging corrupt officials and increasing punishments; 44% said Putin would try to get rid of corruption but would likely fail because it is an impossible task; 19% said it was hard for Putin to fight corruption because he depends on many corrupt officials for his power; just 7% said Putin would not even try to fight corruption seriously because he himself benefited from it.
As Russia continues to suffer an economic downturn caused largely by falling oil prices, it becomes even more important to tackle corruption and ensure money earmarked for social spending and infrastructuregets used for its intended purpose.
A World Bank report released last week said 20 million Russians, nearly one in seven of the population, would live below the poverty line of 9,662 roubles (£102) this year. “The projected increase in 2016 would return poverty rates to their 2007 levels, undoing nearly a decade’s worth of gains,” the report stated. The average salary in Kimry is around 20,000 roubles per month.
But as living standards slip ever downwards – even as evidence mounts of the palatial homes and offshore accounts enjoyed by those at the top – there is little sign of a meaningful protest movement.
Outside the liberal online bubble of the politically active, most Russians who have heard about the Panama disclosures remain unmoved by them. When TV Rain, an independent channel, questioned Muscovites in the city’s White Square business district, many said it was quite normal for people to help out their friends, and that they didn’t see anything wrong with the president keeping some money to one side.
In Kimry, people are not so much approving as resigned to the idea. “Look, I don’t know what the point of making all these accusations and stirring up trouble is,” said Yaroslav, a 42-year-old factory worker. “So what if Putin is corrupt? There are two types of rulers: good corrupt rulers and bad corrupt rulers. At least Putin is trying to do good for the country.”