What counts as corruption?

Nicole Disser is a graduate student in Russian & Slavic Studies and Journalism at New York University.

While visiting friends in Mexico this past summer, I had my first experience with blatant bribery. Esteban, a Mexican national and my personal cultural guide for the summer, was pulled over by a cop after midnight with a car full of intoxicated friends after having a few himself. I sat hunched over in the front seat, suddenly more terrified of the Mexican police than the rumored Narcos who hung around in the cantinas on the city outskirts. I waited patiently to be arrested or taken for all I was worth. However, what happened next surprised me. Esteban casually jumped out of the car, smiling and relaxed, and began joking with the cop in Spanish. What the conversation amounted to was a very willing and natural exchange of around 100 pesos, a password given by the cop in case we were pulled over again to demonstrate we had paid the toll, and a friendly wave goodbye.

Though technically what I was witnessing was corruption, it certainly didn’t feel that way. It felt like the cop was doing his job, making sure we weren’t too drunk to drive, making a judgment call by letting us off the hook, and in exchange we gave him money. Esteban was bewildered by my fear—there was nothing unusual going on here, he assured me.

The Corruption Perceptions Index, or CPI, is a dizzying sort of measurement. Once a year Transparency International, an international organization that seeks to address the negative effects of corruption throughout the world, releases a score for Russia, amongst other nations, falling somewhere between the numbers 0 and 10. Though well intentioned, the index fails to capture actual corruption and instead aims to measure the perception of corruption. Perhaps this is because corruption is something that eludes precise definition, especially in the context of cross-cultural analysis.

Certainly there are much more damaging forms of corruption that take place far beyond the petty bribery I witnessed in Mexico. But I think it’s important to note that the CPI doesn’t distinguish between these smaller acts of corrupt behavior and larger, more destructive forms of corruption.

It would be difficult to argue that the Russian political system is squeaky clean. However, the ways in which the media defines corruption are skewed to classify what may be elements of long embedded cultural practices within Russian political cultural as injustices that necessarily need adjusting. It’s possible that the Western-centric definition of democracy and “freedom” overshadow what are equally as meaningful and legitimate routes of political maneuvering.

That’s not to say that Russians themselves are somehow numb to the concept of corruption, or that Russia is free from all forms of corruption. Much of Gogol’s work pokes fun at corrupt officials within what is perceived to be an enormous, less than effective bureaucracy, replete with petty, stupid civil servants who are only interested in the personal benefits they reap from their position within the system.  Today, protestors and anti-Putin activists in Russia often cite corruption as one of the many failings of the administration.

Western media portrayal of the Russian government and society echoes the commonplace of Russia as a nation replete with corruption. Journalists often cite continuity from the corrupt and dysfunctional Soviet bureaucracy to the headaches caused by the maladies of the system today. Corruption is something also present in the United States. It goes without saying that for journalists, when American politicians are found guilty of corruption, it’s much like discovering a goldmine. Yet Western media portrayal of corruption differs greatly between coverage of Russia and the United States.

Because of corruption’s nebulous definition, the seeking out of corruption itself can be politically useful. Officials in the U.S. are certainly guilty of such manipulations. Following the veritable waterfall of corrupt Illinois based leaders accused of corruption in the 2000s, which culminated in former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s sentencing to a 14-year prison term in 2011, Illinois Democrats have pushed for the enactment of new ethics laws. Yet such anti-corruption campaigns are, more often than not, taken at face value in the United States. Rarely are the possible deeper political motives of such anti-corruption legislation discussed. Saving face for the Democratic Party in Illinois, anyone?

Yet media coverage of attempts to redress corruption in Russia, however manipulative such campaigns may be, are sharper in addressing the utility of anticorruption efforts in “elite cleansing.” Early in November, Putin dismissed Defense Minister Anatoly E. Serdyukov, a powerful official and pro-Putin ally—something quite unusual. The New York Times picked up on the various motives that could be at play outside of acting in accordance with the law by punishing officials for abuse of power. Ellen Barry’s November 17th article suggested Serdyukov’s dismissal was a way for the Putin administration to win over the opposition, “The firing was particularly popular among prosperous urban males — a population that has turned away from Mr. Putin in recent years, and which he is no doubt eager to win back.”

What’s to say that anti-corruption legislation in the United States isn’t equally as pandering to a constituency or the result of one group trying to solidify its power?

Another article appearing in the Times pointed out that corruption cases in Russia “are sometimes opened as a way of settling scores.” This is equally true of American political scandals, yet not so much reflected upon in the American media. Take for example the widely covered downfall of General Petraeus.

The FBI investigation which led to the discovery of the General’s affair with his biographer, was taken on by an FBI agent who was, arguably, out to settle a personal score. Yet most coverage of the scandal has focused on the wrongdoings of Petraeus and the journalistic lament at having fallen for the General’s charms. Though some writers have wondered how such an investigation could have even occurred in light of the right to privacy, few have phrased it as the result of “corruption,” rather citing systemic disregard for civil liberties in a post-9/11 world.

If corruption and the abuse of power are common stories in media coverage of the American political landscape, one might wonder what the overall perception of corruption is in United States. According to Transparency International, the United States scores a 7.1 on the corruption index scale. Keep in mind that a score of 10 indicates a “very clean” nation. Russia lies on the opposite end of the spectrum with a score of 2.4– much closer to the score of 0 indicating a “highly corrupt” nation. This presents a huge gap between the United States and Russia in terms of in-country perception of corruption.

Western media certainly have a less than forgiving view of corruption in Russia—even to the point where addressing corruption by Russian officials is seen as obviously corrupt. Though corruption is surely an issue in Russia, it is clearly approached differently by the Western media when it takes place in Russia, where it is attributed to an inherent flaw in Russian culture. Perhaps American media reluctance to recognize certain mishaps and wrongdoing on the part of officials at home as “corruption,” contributes to a view that the U.S. is a nation fairly innocent of corruption.