Moscow takes aim at culture of bribery

The Baltimore Sun

MOSCOW -- With varying degrees of enthusiasm - and, often, no enthusiasm at all - Russia has long wrestled with the business of bribery, in which citizens are compelled to fork over payments for everything from admission to "free" public universities to lucrative commercial contracts.

In Peter the Great's day, the harshest penalty for pocketing money was death. The czar might give a corrupt bureaucrat a second chance but certainly not a third - ordering him hanged for the transgression instead.

The newest tool in the fight against corruption: a 16-page booklet called "If You're Asked For A Bribe."

The booklet is designed to help Russians know what to do the next time an official demands a bribe, which, surveys say and practice shows, will probably be soon enough.

The culture of bribery here is so entrenched and widely accepted that many believe there is only one thing to do: pay it. It is not uncommon to keep a few hundred rubles tucked in the back of one's billfold for that purpose.

Bribes are paid for medical care, to get out of military service, to obtain a driver's license, to win a favorable court decision, to fast-track a business license, to secure a seat in government, to shuttle items through customs - in short, for most everything.

"By giving bribes, we support corruption and it should be stopped," said Andrei Przhezdomsky, a member of the Public Chamber, the government advisory group that unveiled the booklet recently. "This vicious circle should be broken somehow."

President Vladimir V. Putin has repeatedly declared the same thing, in stronger terms. But even as he has vowed to make the fight against corruption an administration priority, surveys have found that graft has worsened on his watch.

According to a report by the Indem Foundation, a nongovernment group that fights corruption, individuals and businesses spent $319 billion on bribes last year, 10 times more than four years earlier; the average business bribe, the study said, has jumped to $135,800 from $10,200 in 2001.

In June, Sen. Levon Chakhmakhchyan was expelled from the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, after federal security agents said they caught him with $300,000 in marked bills from an airline company executive, a down payment in what was reported to be a $1.5 million bribe.

The new booklet starts with the basics. The section called "What is a Bribe?" notes that while bribes often come in the form of a demand for cash, they don't always: They can include payment such as cars or summer cottages.

Another section highlights "indirect" signs of extortion that might be employed by a bribe-seeking bureaucrat, including casually writing the desired sum on a slip of paper and leaving the office with a desk drawer or briefcase wide open.

The booklet also includes tips on how to behave.

"Listen attentively and try to remember exactly the conditions set by the bribe-taker," it suggests. "Try to postpone the time of bribe-giving until the next meeting and, if possible, offer a place you know well."

The booklet reminds citizens they may lodge an official complaint with any number of offices. It even lists the addresses for the prosecutor, the Federal Security Service and other law enforcement bodies, and provides a sample letter.

Denis Maimistov sees just one problem with this approach.

"All these offices are totally corrupt," said Maimistov, who works in sales at a company that makes games for cellular phones and who recently had to pay a $40 bribe for the processing of his passport.

Once, during a routine "document check" by traffic police in Moscow, which yielded nothing wrong, the officer demanded to see Maimistov's passport. Drivers aren't required to carry them, and Maimistov didn't have his. The officer threatened him with jail, so he coughed up 400 rubles, or $15, and was on his way.

Now, even if he is stopped for a road violation, Maimistov has a different approach: He tells the officer he wants to go through official channels and pay any fine directly to the government, which requires that forms be filled out. Usually, he said, the impatient officer just lets him go.

The booklet, 100,000 copies of which have been printed, is a project of the Public Chamber, a group convened at Putin's behest to serve, on paper at least, as a liaison between public officials and the people.

"It offers a lot of simple advice," Przhezdomsky, who sits on the chamber's anti-corruption subcommittee, said of the brochure, which he helped write.

"We do realize that this booklet won't solve the problem on the global level; to do that we need serious legal actions on the part of law enforcement," he said. "At the same time, we hope we manage to arm ordinary people with such a weapon as knowledge."

It isn't just the Russian Constitution that prohibits bribery, the booklet points out, offering quotations from religious texts.

"Damn those who take bribes to kill the soul and shed blood of the innocent!" declares the Bible. "Both those who give bribes and take bribes will be found in hell," warns the Prophet Muhammad. "Don't misinterpret the law and don't take gifts; as gifts blind the eyes of the wise and prevent just cause," the Torah says.

Bribes come in all types and sums, which often are left to the discretion of the payee. There are those extracted for service: One Muscovite said she paid $18 to the city ambulance service to take her to a good hospital, then $200 to a doctor there who was unwilling to perform an operation without it. The anesthesiologist, she was told, would need $50.

Then there are bribes for getting out of minor legal scrapes: A woman driving in central Moscow last year without all the required documents said she didn't have "enough" money to pay on the spot, so she drove home, with the officer who stopped her sitting in the passenger seat, for more. He declined the offer for tea, taking $30 instead. Then he demanded that she shuttle him back to his post.

The anti-bribery booklet - which says, "Read and Pass On to a Comrade!" on its cover - is being distributed to municipal government offices in Moscow, to political parties and to nongovernmental groups. It's meant, it says, for anyone who considers bribery a "shameful" and "mean" act and wishes to see a Russia free from "the dominance of thieves and corrupt officials."

None will go to the Kremlin.

"No, we're not going to forcefully spread these booklets among Kremlin officials," said Przhezdomsky, who hopes 1 million copies will be printed.

They'll have access to it, though, he said, on the Internet and in newspapers, which have agreed to publish it.

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