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ILW: Russian Corruption

Corruption Threatens 'Foundations of Russian Statehood,' Visiting MLaw Prof Says

By John Masson
Feb. 15, 2013

Visiting Michigan Law Prof. Ekaterina Mishina knows a thing or two about official corruption in the Russian Federation. Her experience includes stints as legal advisor to the chief justice of the Constitutional Court and as a key legal expert on one of the projects of the Open Russia Foundation, among other high-end legal work.

So her analysis of why corruption continues to flourish in Russia, especially after a temporary decline, made interesting listening at a recent International Law Workshop held in Hutchins Hall.

Prof. Mishina was introduced by Michigan Law Prof. Tim Dickinson, who noted that it was not uncommon early in his career for a Russian client to ask if the lawyer was paying off the right people or judge to get something accomplished. The implication was that lawyers were "fixers" and were expected to know who and how to effectuate a bribe to help their clients.

Watch a video of the talk.

Such a misunderstanding likely arose from Russia's long, distinguished history of official corruption, Prof. Mishina said.

"Corruption has been an essential part of life in Russia, not for decades but for centuries, regardless of the form of government," she said. "In the Soviet Union, in the Russian Federation, and in the Russian Empire, the taking of bribes was such a natural thing, nobody even bothered with a question of whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. The only question was what to take to the official. Money, jewelry, I don't know, puppies—whatever."

There were, however, definite rules. Recipients could only take according to their rank, she said. And it was definitely prohibited to take more than what your boss was taking.

"Everything was very organized and under control," she said, with an ironic smile.

In Soviet times, Prof. Mishina said, official corruption clustered in three or four main areas: health care, education, and seemingly mundane tasks of daily life such as obtaining a driver's license. But as the Soviet Union and its attendant governmental authority collapsed, a variety of shadow administrative functions sprang up—all available for a market-driven price.

By the late 1990s, it was possible for big businesses to buy favorable governmental decisions, for the well-heeled to purchase crucial court decisions, and for political factions to tilt the playing field in their favor.

In time, Prof. Mishina said, there was so much evidence of falsification of election results that "no one is even surprised anymore."

Other developments encouraged creative corruption, as well. Regulation lagged behind technological development, creating gray areas that opportunist officials of all ranks were quick to exploit.

That's one explanation, Prof. Mishina said, for a certain wariness among Russians.

"When a Russian sees a policeman on one side of the street...he crosses the street," Prof. Mishina said. "Most Russians are more afraid of policemen than they are of criminals."

At least, she said, the criminals are predictable.

The endemic corruption will remain one of the country's great challenges going forward, Prof. Mishina added, as an ongoing merging of the criminal structure, government, and big business threatens the country's very independence.

"It essentially amounts to the crime of undermining the foundations of Russian statehood," she said.

"Some wonder, maybe Russia is not ready for democracy."

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