Russian anti-corruption campaigners have a new weapon in their struggle to cast a light on the vast fortunes amassed by government officials: the quadcopter.

The quadcopter is a four-rotor remote-controlled mini-aircraft which has been used for a number of years by the police and military for surveillance and reconnaissance. They have also been used for more benign purposes such as making aerial films of natural landscapes or high-rise cityscapes.

Now Russian activists have been sending them up to take a peek at what lies behind the imposing security fences surrounding the extensive country estates of the governing elite.

Country estates

While opposition leader Aleksey Navalnyy has been busy on the stump in his bid to win the Moscow mayoral election on 8 September, members of his Foundation for Fighting Corruption (FFC) have been on the lookout for new examples of the huge wealth amassed by government grandees.

On 12 August, Navalnyy wrote a blog post about the large adjoining country estates or dachas in an elite area of the Moscow Region owned by defence minister Sergey Shoygu and the deputy speaker of the Russian senate, Yuriy Vorobyev.

Vorobyev is the father of Andrey Vorobyev, acting governor of the Moscow Region and a candidate in next month's gubernatorial election.

Satellite pictures of the two estates are available on Yandex.Maps, the Russian equivalent of Google Maps. But the quadcopter allowed the FFC activists to get much clearer pictures of Vorobyev's luxury residence - a large chalet-style main house, two large outbuildings, a pond and an ornamental garden, all perched pleasantly on the banks of the Moskva River.

Shoygu's neighbouring residence, which is curtained by trees, was not so easily accessible. Plus, as Navalnyy joked, if the defence minister saw a quadcopter over his house he might "think it is an attack or a war".

Navalnyy contrasted the value of Shoygu and Vorobyev's country estates - R220m to R330m ($6m to $10m) - with their relative modest earnings. Vorobyev earned just over R6m in the past two years, while Shoygu declared income of around R21m.

The Defence Ministry responded by insisting that all of Shoygu's assets had been properly declared.

UN convention

Two weeks later, the FFC quadcopter was hovering above the green spaces of the Moscow Region again, this time to bring Navalnyy's blog readers pictures of the two hectares of prime real estate owned by Aleksandr Gorbenko, one of the deputies of acting Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin, Navalnyy's main rival and hot favourite in the upcoming election.

The extensive grounds of Gorbenko's dacha comprised a huge double-winged central residence set amid wooded parkland and numerous other buildings and facilities.

Gorbenko earns around R7.5m as deputy mayor but, says Navalnyy, in order to afford this kind of luxury he would have to "go without food and drink for several years".

Navalnyy says that if he wins the Moscow mayoral election he will insist that officials not only declare their income (as is now the case) but also "account for their property, if this property (bank accounts, lifestyle) clearly does not accord with their income levels".

He also said that he would push for Russia to ratify Article 20 of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption which criminalises illicit enrichment.

Meanwhile, it is unclear what the authorities' response will be to these invasions of their well-heeled privacy.

One Twitter user suggested that it could be a military one, quipping: "There is a view that the Russian air defence system will soon receive an urgent order to learn how to shoot down the opposition's quadcopters."

The College of Journalism’s Russian website

Comments

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Sizwe M

    on 29 Aug 2013 13:19

    It's really fascinating to see how technology coupled with social media is changing the face of politics. This takes citizenship journalism to a whole new level in my opinion. I can't imagine that these quadcopters cost all that much, and there is certainly plenty of public demand to know what's going on behind the scenes with their political leaders.

    I wonder how long it will take those in other countries to follow suit (although I imagine the US government would hardly allow anything like this near the White House, or common presidential getaways!) Given the controversy in South Africa around the president's newly built Nkandla residence - http://goo.gl/d8TV23 a quadcopter or two locally may well be enough to start a reality TV series!

    When one considers the level of corruption in Russia, it's sad to see that economic growth is not the only thing the BRICS countries have in common. Unfortunately it is going to take a long time for governance principles to change (or at least be observed!)

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