The Man Fighting Corruption in Russia

A specter is haunting Russia—the specter of corruption. President Dmitry Medvedev, who last spring said Russia is suffering from "legal nihilism," conceded last week that some government jobs can be bought. Kirill Kabanov's National Anti-Corruption Committee offers an answer. Kabanov investigated some of the Putin era's biggest corruption cases with the NGO after leaving the FSB, losing friends to various poisons along the way. He talked with NEWSWEEK's Anna Nemtsova about the blurry line between money and power in Moscow. Excerpts:

NEMTSOVA: What is the National Anti- Corruption Committee?
ABANOV: It is a nongovernmental organization whose purpose is to investigate state corruption, Customs crime, money laundering and so forth. The members are politicians, businessmen inspired to do something about the system, journalists, lawyers and experts.

Does the Kremlin listen to you?
In his first public statement to the nation in 2000, Putin said government jobs should be occupied by professionals, otherwise the country would sink into corruption and stop being a democratic state. At the end of his eighth year, Putin admitted that corruption damaged all levels of the government. We had a hard time pushing our messages through to him. In 2003, our research showed that former secret police and military men occupied more than 51 percent of the leading state and business positions. Putin appointed his men to key positions. Cooperating with a few honest and brave people in the Interior Ministry, we investigated, and made public, statistics about corporate raiding and money laundering through state and foreign banks. Just to illustrate, according to our data, in Moscow alone banks laundered $100 million [per day].

What were your most successful investigations? Which suspects got punished?
Together with a group of Parliament deputies, we investigated former Atomic Energy minister Yevgeny Adamov, who was prosecuted for stealing millions of dollars of federal money. But the case was frozen, and Adamov is free now. Our partner in the Parliament, Deputy Yuri Shchekochikhin, was killed, as we see it, due to his involvement in the investigation. We investigated Chinese contraband, where the Russian side was top Federal Security Service generals. That was the only time when Putin reacted. Five generals were fired.

Was it dangerous for you?
Yes, we lost a few of our friends and committee members during the last few years. Our researcher in Smolensk, Nikolai Petelin, was shot outside of his apartment building; Sergey Kharlamov, a former deputy secretary of the Security Council and a member of our committee, was shot in the street. Our friend, the deputy chairman of Central Bank, who had discovered hundreds of millions of dollars being laundered, was killed last year.

Are there signs that Medvedev will treat high-level corruption differently than Putin?
Medvedev says and does things nobody before him has tried. He appointed himself to lead the anti-corruption council at the president's office. That shows the nation that the president took personal responsibility to make a change.

Does that mean officials responsible for corruption will be punished?
No. Unfortunately, the ones guilty of the situation in Russia have been promoted. The new president inherited the same team. We want to know, for example, why Victor Ivanov, who was responsible for the presidential staff, and must have been aware that posts could be bought, has been promoted to be a manager of the Drug Control police.

So the justice situation hasn't changed?
Pressure on media stays the same. Raiders' attacks on private companies go on, and the brightest example is TNK-BP. I will not be surprised if the British part of the joint venture loses the shareholders' dispute. BP will stay in the name, but the actual financial control will be in Russian hands.

What does Medvedev need to win his war on corruption in Russia?
He needs new anti-corruption legislation, independent courts and independent police institutions to prosecute corrupt bureaucrats on all levels, beginning from the Kremlin. Unfortunately, he doesn't have any of these.