Russians tire of corruption spectacle
- 6 March 2012
- From the section Europe
The most successful political slogan in Russia this year has been one coined by the opposition.
Say the phrase "the party of crooks and thieves", and almost everyone knows who you are talking about - the ruling party, Vladimir Putin's United Russia.
Although United Russia looks likely to win again in parliamentary elections on Sunday, there is growing dissatisfaction in the country.
Over the past few years, people have seen bureaucrats and politicians buying mansions and luxury cars, way beyond anything their official salaries could pay for.
The word "korruptsiya" (corruption) is on the lips of businessmen and pensioners - and even Kremlin spin-doctors.
The most infamous recent case of alleged corruption centres on the death of Sergei Magnitsky.
He was a young corporate lawyer working on behalf of Hermitage Capital, a British investment fund specialising in Russia.
Sergei Magnitsky discovered what he thought was a massive tax fraud. He believed that officials had wrongly awarded a $230m (£145m) tax refund, which had ended up in criminal hands.
But the bureaucrats and policemen he accused turned the tables on him. He was arrested, and a year later he died in prison after a severe beating and months of medical neglect.
His fate contrasts with that of Olga Stepanova, the woman who authorised the tax refund. She is one of a group of officials who suddenly became very rich.
Her mother-in-law is now the registered owner of an ultra-modern country house outside Moscow worth an estimated $20m, and her husband owns luxury villas in Montenegro and Dubai.
She says the money came from her husband's business, but their annual joint tax returns show an income of around $38,000.
It is two years since Sergei Magnitsky died, but none of those he accused of the tax fraud has been brought to justice.
"It's terrible. I don't know how these people live with themselves," his mother Natalya Magnitskaya said. "They have no conscience. And I find it very difficult to come to terms with that."
For many observers the case of Sergei Magnitsky has come to symbolise much of what is wrong with modern Russia.
It exemplifies a system which seems to allow some officials to become very rich without any comeback. The era of the oligarchs was the 1990s; this is the age of the millionaire Russian bureaucrat.
Drive along Rublyovo-Uspyenskoye Shosse into the countryside to the west of Moscow, and the scale of the enrichment of officials becomes clear.
It looks like the sort of place where only millionaires would live, but here Russia's new rich reside - the ministers and officials.
Some of the money comes from legitimate businesses. But much comes from bribes, from government contracts given to friends and relatives, and from seats on boards with a clear conflict of interest.
Giorgy Dzagurov is the owner of Penny Lane Realty, one of Moscow's biggest real estate agents.
"I would say that 40% to 60% of buyers of top-end housing in Russia are Russian governmental employees," he said. "That does not necessarily mean it comes from corruption, but some properties are directly purchased from bribes."
The mansions on the Nikolino Elite Settlement are worth $20m or more, but among the residents is Boris Gromov, the governor of the Moscow Region.
He owns no businesses, and the only jobs he has ever done are soldier and politician. His official salary is around $125,000.
Then there are the luxury cars.
Gennady Gudkov, who is a member of opposition party Just Russia in parliament, carried out an investigation into expensive cars being bought with state funds.
He found that even small departments and universities were buying top-of-the-range Audis, BMWs and Mercedes Benzes.
"Our bureaucrats did not save any money. They spent a lot just for their luxury. Just for their pleasure. Taking no attention to the needs of the people, of common people," he complained.
"They do what they want, paying no attention to the needs of common people. That's the result of a lack of control and impunity.
"It's very dangerous when people start to hate those who must serve them. They see them using these luxury cars when salaries go down, and all other benefits go down."
In most democracies it is the parliament that gives the population an official voice, providing a check on the executive.
But Russia's parliament, the Duma, has had its wings badly clipped during the Putin years.
At a recent debate on corruption none of the deputies appeared to be listening to the speeches.
The voting was a bizarre charade in which deputies ran around pressing the voting buttons on behalf of absent colleagues - even the parliamentary procedures were a fraud.
Vladimir Pligin is one of the better-respected members of the ruling United Russia party. He says he knows the problems but asks people to be patient
"We have not achieved the proper balance between the executive, legislative power and also our court system. We are in the process of the construction of this balance," he explained.
He said that the process had been going on for "only 20 years - not a big period of time from the historical point of view".
The problem is that the system of corruption is becoming entrenched.
By the time democratic reform comes along, the patience of the people of Russia may have run out.