Staying focused on the G20 agenda is no doubt difficult, with global leaders and the media distracted by the Syria crisis. Maybe that explains why no one has noticed the irony of priority #2 on the agenda presented by the Russian hosts: “growth through trust and transparency.”
Transparency is diplospeak for fighting corruption, which Russia has a lot of. The global corruption watchdog Transparency International ranks Russia at 133 out 176 nations in its global survey. But it’s not just a businessman’s complaint; it’s a human rights issue. People may be denied their rights to health, education, a fair trial, and many other basic government services if they won’t pay off corrupt officials.
The Russian government knows the public is furious over corruption. “The first issue and first problem is the fight against corruption, which is eating our society and state system,” President Vladimir Putin said last month. A few high-profile cases have made headlines, but the issue goes much deeper. “In our country, corruption is in the center of all other problems,” Elena Panfilova, the head of Transparency International in Russia, told Human Rights Watch (watch this video).
But the Russian government has adopted laws that make it harder to root out corruption, not easier. Since Putin regained the presidency, libel has been re-criminalized and new laws have restricted freedom of expression on the Internet. Civil society plays a key role in ferreting out corruption, but new laws have raised fines on unauthorized public rallies, broadened the definition of treason, and required NGOs that get funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” Putin told the G20 this week that he might reconsider the foreign agents law, but that may be another empty promise.
Meanwhile, the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny is Enemy Number One. After he started leading street protests against Putin in December 2011, the government struck back – accusing him of embezzlement in a politically motivated prosecution. Navalny is now running for mayor of Moscow while his conviction is on appeal.
Panfilova told me last winter that Transparency International was receiving more anonymous, threatening phone calls – but also more public support than ever. “It's no longer possible for the authorities to not fight corruption in the country,” she said at a news conference in December. The question is how. As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. The Russian government still prefers to operate in the shadows.