Fighting Russian corruption Age-old problem: Graft, dating back to czarist times, thrived under communists.

April 14, 1997

RESPONDING TO public shock and outrage over brazenly open official corruption, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is pledging to clean his government. This is easier said than done. Corruption is deeply rooted in the Russian psyche.

No country is free of graft; each has a different level of acceptable corruption. In Russia, bribes and gratuities have always been such a way of life that a proverb says, "If you don't smooth your path, you won't get anywhere." Peter the Great recognized this. Sailing to the Netherlands some 300 years ago, he told his entourage to sew up their pockets to avoid the temptation to steal or take bribes.

Although communists insisted that only capitalism bred corruption, graft was widespread in the Soviet Union. Gifts of vodka or cigarettes often achieved more than standing in long lines for goods or services in short supply. And if a motorist was stopped by a traffic officer, the routine was to hand over your driver's license with a few rubles folded inside.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and re-introduction of a free market economy six years ago created a fluid situation in which corruption has thrived on an unprecedented scale. Privatized big companies, controlled either by organized crime or cronies of ruling politicians, routinely skip tax payments to the state, finding it cheaper to line the pockets of powerful fat cats in government ministries.

Few top officials are charged or jailed. There are exceptions. Last year, Alexei Ilyushenko, the acting prosecutor-general, was charged with bribery. Several generals were fired recently, also accused of bribery.

"Corruption is one of the main reasons that the authority of the Russian state is low today," Mr. Yeltsin said in announcing his anti-corruption drive. He will have a tough time convincing his people that he is serious, though. "We have seen 'clean hands' operations in the past," said one jaded Muscovite. "Usually they don't get the big corrupters but some small officials. I think this campaign will probably be the same."

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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