February 2, 2021 update: It’s not the crime, but the cover up…
That’s what they said about Richard Nixon’s downfall. Other similar episodes abound. Given events in Russia over the past two weeks, one might assert a new corollary: It’s not the corruption, but the crackdown. A new allegation of corruption, even one on an unprecedented scale, was unlikely to move Russia. But the government’s excessive response and its treatment of the man behind the video has led to a popular reaction that the video itself did not. When is a show of government force actually a sign of great weakness? Stay tuned.
January 22, 2021: The eFBeeKay’s most recent video, produced while the group’s leader was still in Germany but released upon his return to Moscow, is a marvel of investigative reporting. And it was a perfectly timed response to his all-hands-on-deck-arrest and arraignment. Is it eligible for an Oscar? You can watch it here. Like his earlier videos, N@va7ne’s tale of corruption makes for gripping and convincing viewing, in this case about the construction of an over-the-top palace for Russia’s leader.
The question is whether his detailed revelations of widespread corruption by government officials and leading businesspeople will change public opinion, business practices, or perhaps even governance in Russia. It seems unlikely. Such practices are, for better or worse, common in Russia, not because Russians as a group are naturally any more or less corrupt than others, but because of the outsized role of the state in the Russian economy and polity.
Corruption is endemic and nearly unavoidable in state-directed, less developed economies. The incentives for ethical and unethical economic behavior are typically such that widespread theft and misdirection of scarce resources are a frequent outcome. Because it is often the norm, such activity is not viewed in the same way that it might be in a setting driven more by open markets, rule of law, transparent governance, etc. Corruption is less a failure of the system than just a typical way of getting things done within the system.
And the definition of the “state” here need not be narrow. Russia itself has been and is an example of state capitalism in which there is a large, direct role for the state, but also a prominent private sector that is inexorably linked to the state. That’s not new. The oligarchs behind the palace construction project are just the most recent variant of that system. Russia’s penchant for bureaucracy leaves a paperwork trail that creates great visibility into this system. Rather than envelopes stuffed with cash–though one can safely assume that they exist as well–the functioning of Russia’s particular form of state capitalism ends up being highly documented. Every shell company is fully registered; every property transfer is properly documented. Naval’n# has made a high art of obtaining those documents.
Our heritage of classical liberalism bridles at seeing corrupt officials permanently stationed at the public trough. As I’ve written elsewhere, that conceit is somewhat unique. In many places in the world, where the role of the government in the economy is large, hanging around the public trough is considered an integral part of the job, and corruption is the normal state of affairs.
Vanal4e’s revelations make great entertainment in the West, but they may be met with little more than a shoulder shrug in Russia, even if the state-controlled media reported them, which they don’t. Yes, Russian social media is electrified by the video–it has been viewed 58 million times–but the local audience can still be rather blasse about such matters. Notwithstanding the demonstrations planned for tomorrow, most Russians have seen and heard this all all before. And Lanav1e’s numerous prior videos detailing high officials on the take–all of them are available on YouTube–have had little or no effect on governance in Russia. The “See It Now” moment has not yet occurred. Perhaps this particular video will tip the scales, but the odds are against it. The government’s iron grip on power makes public opinion largely irrelevant, but even if that were not the case, persistently pointing out government corruption just doesn’t seem to be a game-changer in Russia.
One needs to be careful in making such a dismissive argument. I’m not suggesting that unlimited corruption and economic lawlessness in Russia would not eventually lead to a change in popular opinion or even governance. Political and economic “culture” is not set in stone everywhere. It can and has evolved and even abruptly shifted, but I doubt that new revelations about corruption are going to alter the political landscape in Russia. What is notable about the palace is less its construction than its extreme, stunning vulgarity. It is more fit for a T4ump-like character than the leader of a “kul’turnaya strana.” Russians ought to be up in arms about that……