Elena Panfilova: "This country is engulfed in apathy and fatigue with corruption exposures"

Elena Panfilova: "This country is engulfed in apathy and fatigue with corruption exposures"
Elena Panfilova Photo: Dmitry Lekay / Kommersant

"States determine the rules through the legislative system. So far, the civil society had only a supporting role - to pull the strings and draw the government’s attention to the pressing problems of society. But today this role is changing. LuxLeaks, Panama Papers, and investigative journalism in Russia - only after activists get involved, the politicians start to recall their populist promises to fight corruption, which were forgotten after the election. They finally organize a summit in London, a conference in Paris. However, corruption is deadly - both when a building, constructed of poor materials, collapses, and when terrorists receive funding through devious schemes. Laws alone cannot fight corruption. Without dedicated people - journalists, law enforcement officers, and activists - it is impossible to win," these were the words of Elena Panfilova, vice president of Transparency International and founder of its Russian branch, stated on the conference in Brussels on July 14. In an interview with the CrimeRussia, she told about her ambitions and how difficult it is to prove that "you are not a zombie."

— Russia was ranked 119 out of 167 in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2015, close to Azerbaijan, Guyana, and Sierra Leone. Some people say that poor legislation is to blame for the large-scale corruption in Russia, others refer to its enforcement. Sometimes, even general traits of Russian culture get their fair share. What is your opinion?

— We do live in a world where each country has its cultural traditions. However, corruption cannot be called one of them. Somehow the Russians who moved, for various reasons, to other countries, lose such a tradition once they are immersed in a different institutional reality. Which means, the problem lies in a combination of factors: in certain political system and institutions, but most importantly - in the absence of conscious and consistent activity aimed at its eradication. There is also lack of understanding that it is not enough to talk about corruption - one must act.

— But there is some progress – now officials declare their income and property, national plans to combat corruption are developed since 2008... 

— Yes, five already. But the problem of corruption cannot be solved just like that. I must admit that a number of positive decisions - such as Russia's accession to international anti-corruption conventions (in particular, the UN Convention against Corruption, ratified by Russia in 2006, is the basis of the Federal Law "On Combating Corruption") and the existence of relevant pressure groups -  help us move in the right direction, even though at snail's pace. But for now we are very far from successful fight against grand corruption. Today we are only digging trenches for a future war. Declaration and national plans are the legal bits and pieces, which at present do not yield any results. Still, after some time, they may well become the key to a life in a changed country. For now we are only laying the stones for a better tomorrow.

— What legal initiatives have already led to concrete results?

— At the time, a certain event passed almost unnoticed. In 2009, the Federal Law "On providing access to information about the activity of state bodies and municipal government" was adopted. We had no parties on that occasion, people were not clapping in the streets. Although this law became a tool for today’s investigations carried out our organization, by Aleksey Navalniy’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (the FBK), and by individual activists. We could hardly imagine the landscape of our present civil activist movements without it.

— What strategies do Transparency International and other organizations employ to influence the development of the Russian legislation in the field of combating corruption?

— Compared with the FBK, we have completely different agenda. The Fund's activities are focused mainly on grand investigations and notable personalities. We have four priorities. Firstly, we propose institutional initiatives and try to convince other parties to the process in their necessity. This was the case, for example, with the Federal Law on access to information about the activities of state bodies, as well as the introduction of informative declarations about the income of the officials. Our own  Declarator project is a single database, which collects information from the websites of various departments. This is our goal even today, we are defending the need for a law on the protection of those inform about corruption. Our second priority is the anti-corruption education. We establish summer and winter schools, and we also read lectures to students and officials. The third area of work for Transparency International – Russia is an organization of anti-corruption reception offices in all regions of the country, which is where people are concerned the most about this problem. The country is vast, it cannot be all about federal corruption, and everywhere it takes its own form. In  Barnaul it is the road (in 2013, almost 1.4 billion rubles were spent for the road repairs, half of which went to the three largest contractors - Ed.). In some places it is the misuse of budgetary funds. Investigations often result in media publications. Finally, we conduct research: people want to see the fine-looking numbers and infographics.

— Which of your investigations has caused the greatest interest among Russian citizens?

— Once we have calculated how much corruption is contained in a liter of milk. For instance, you have a milk yield worth 17 rubles, then why it costs 90 rubles in the shop? What was the reason why it rose in price by almost five times? We have traced the entire production chain and found that, in addition to the standard value added to the price of a product, at each stage the manufacturers and processors have to pay bribes and kickbacks for intermediaries and retailers. The price increases each time because of these charges. As a result, a liter of milk on the table of every family in Russia has from 15% to 30% of corruption. A cow wins nothing from that, nor the milkmaids, nor the sellers – only some unknown people.

— What is the main agenda for Transparency International – Russia today?

— This year we are actively reporting a conflict of interest - unfortunately, the officials do not understand their gain in the disclosure of data and hide their ties with affiliates, which is the main cause of corruption in the country. Another challenge today is to get all the officials to publish their declarations, and to prosecute those, who refuse to do it. Finally, a very important topic is budget transparency, especially in the critical areas, such as healthcare, education, and roads. Corruption in high places is very cool, but when people die because of the holes in the road, which was allegedly repaired, according to the documents... Of course, you do want to put a major corrupt official behind bars. But for me the most important thing is to reduce corruption in this country to that kind of social minimum, at which it will cease to be a threat to personal safety and national security of Russia. Corruption cannot be allowed to kill people. The barracks cannot be allowed to fall on the heads of recruits. Grandmothers cannot be allowed to die because of bad medicine, because the drugs have been stolen. I am a patriot, and my ambition, as well as the ambition of our center, is just like that, it is pretty straightforward.

— At the same, Transparency International has recently been labeled as "foreign agent." Does it interfere with your work?

— It is infuriating. When I and Nastya Kornienko opened the Russian office of the organization in the late 1990s, we did it not for the foreign money or for the title, but because we believe in the idea. It is utterly crazy when you are being called who you are not. It is as if someone approached me and said: "You are a zombie." But I know that I am not a zombie, that I am not a foreign agent. As a result, we are having problems with financing. For instance, a lot of people who have previously supported us, are now afraid and do not do that anymore. For example, we have traditionally applied for funding from the European Commission. But they decided not to venture in such a politically sensitive direction.

— At the same time, Moscow itself is quite actively cooperating with foreign partners in the fight against corruption. Russia is an active member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO). How does this cooperation contribute to national progress in the field?

— As Mikhail Zygar rightly noted in his book – there is no Putin, only "a collective Putin." Just like that, there is no Moscow, only "a collective Moscow." On the one hand, the guys from the Ministry of Economic Development, Ministry of Finance, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are working fine with the OECD. But some agencies do not respond at all. The main problem is that Russia's national agenda is blurred: the elite, the officials, the citizens – we are all separate.

— As for the last group - the citizens - how interested are they in the issues we are discussing?

— On the one hand, the most active members of the association, which conducted the sensational investigation of the Panama Papers, were our journalists - Roman Shleinov, Roman Anin, and their colleagues. On the other hand, the result of their heroic activity is not is not exactly the one we expected. This country is engulfed in apathy and fatigue with the corruption exposures. This went as follows: the information was released, it was quickly reposted, received 100 thousand likes, and then - zero social and legal response. We need to look for innovative ways to stir the pot and encourage people to react to the investigations.

— There was an impression that some Russians even thought of the Panama Papers, to some extent, as a way to justify the scale of corruption in Russia. Like, everyone is stealing, nothing can be done about it...

— I do not care that thieves can be found anywhere. Everyone must mind its own business, without sticking their noses and checking in on the neighbor. Meanwhile, we are neck-deep in vile. All of it must be cleansed. Surely, corruption has always been present - in Ancient Rome and in the Middle Ages, and it will not go away until there is a state. After all, corruption occurs at the intersection of three components: greed, opportunity, and lack of control. That means corruption happens when greed, inherent to everyone in varying degrees, meets the capabilities of public office in the absence of real civilian control. To cope with it, you have to start with education, with the fight against greed, and most importantly, with the introduction of the concept of public service. After all, if the rules contained in the UN Convention against Corruption concern public officials, meaning those who serve the public good and are accountable to the society, we have a completely different subject-object relationship: the Russian public officials serve exclusively for the government. And in general, the anti-corruption fight is not a result but a process. We just need to work. 

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