Bribes drive corrupt Russian system

March 21, 2012


— Two weeks ago, during a trip to Moscow, I visited an amazing family that symbolized the dynamism of the new Russia. On Thursday the husband, Alexei Kozlov, was sentenced to five years in prison.

The story of Kozlov and his journalist wife, Olga Romanova, is one of hope that Russia can change, and of despair that the old order will crush reformers. His case is a grim reminder that Russia will never reach its full potential as a developed nation until it institutes the rule of law.

We met in the couple’s comfortable Moscow apartment, where china cabinets and bookshelves lined the walls. As we sat at the kitchen table, the tall, boyish Alexei (who spent a month at Penn State in 1994) pored over legal papers while the short, vivacious Olga told me their story, interrupted by frequent phone calls from supporters.

Money trumps justice

In 2007 she published an unflattering newspaper article about a Russian oligarch who was close to the Kremlin and also knew her husband’s business partner. The partner argued with her husband about the article. Shortly afterward, Alexei was arrested and jailed on charges of money laundering and fraud; he believes the business partner paid someone to have charges brought against him.

Sadly, in Russia’s weak court system, where police, prosecutors and judges are susceptible to bribes, this kind of story is all too common.

Olga fought back, using her journalistic skills to embarrass officials by writing story after story. She and Alexei passed through the many stages of hell that compose the Russian prison system: She had to shell out thousands of dollars in bribes in order to visit him or get him moved to a decent cell.

“If the head of the jail saw a businessman, he put him in very bad conditions,” she told me, “because he understood that his relatives would pay to transfer him.” Olga had to get Alexei transferred 11 times, paying around 100,000 rubles ($3,300) every time; a visit cost $2,000.

Infamous case

At one point, Alexei shared a cell with Sergei Magnitsky, a tax lawyer who had discovered that officials had stolen tens of millions of dollars from the international firm he worked for. In this infamous case, the officials then accused Magnitsky of stealing the money and had him jailed for fraud. He later died in agony when officials failed to get him medical treatment for pancreatitis and the effects of a beating in prison. His relatives may not have realized, says Alexei, that a huge bribe might have gotten him medical care.

Ironically, the head of the Interior Ministry “investigative team” that prepared the case against Alexei was the same woman who investigated Magnitsky, Col. Natalya Vinogradova. She is one of 60 officials now banned from entering the United States for their role in the Magnitsky case.

Alexei’s case appeared headed for a happier ending. Due to Olga’s efforts, it went all the way to Russia’s Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction last September. It then set him free, and sent the case back to the lower court for reconsideration. Despite the absence of new evidence, he was sent right back to jail.

When I met Olga and Alexei two weeks ago, they were apprehensive, but hopeful about the way things were changing in Russia.

Olga told me that while waiting in endless lines to visit Alexei, she had met desperate families of other prisoners, some of whose relatives had also been railroaded; most wives despaired of ever getting to see their husbands. She began to organize meetings for relatives of prisoners, spreading the word by the Internet. These groups spun off to other prisons until around 6,000 family members were involved. In Moscow, the core group meets every Wednesday night; many wives also joined in protests during the last four months against rigged elections.

Women in red

The women all dress in red, said Olga. A red dress is a reminder that if you must go to the prosecutor, you have to be strong and not beg. That confuses the prosecutors, she says, “because it is new for them that you don’t beg.”

Alexei talked of the positive changes in the Russian system of arbitrage courts, a separate court system that handles business cases and has become much cleaner over the last five years. Unfortunately, those who seek to bring fraudulent charges against businessmen now bribe the police to switch the case from arbitrage to criminal court. That is what happened to him.

Young people offer hope

Yet he was heartened by the new civic activism of young Muscovites. Olga’s 18-year-old student daughter was closeted in a bedroom with a group of young friends, all planning to work as election monitors in the presidential elections the next day. Olga’s 25-year old journalist son had just returned from an assignment in Africa because “it’s more exciting now here.”

“Businessmen want change, too,” Alexei told me passionately. “If they would all stop paying bribes, this system would collapse.

“We should teach the generation who comes after us not to make the mistakes we made.”

But it takes immense courage to buck the system in Russia. Now Alexei is back in prison, where his very survival will depend on bribes. Opposition leaders believe his second arrest is payback to Olga for her activism in organizing demonstrations against rigged elections.

By returning him to jail, Russian authorities have put on display a corrupt legal system that undermines their economy and their children’s future. That system imprisons not only Alexei Koslov but the whole of Russia as well.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


jaywalker 6 years, 2 months ago

I we I me.........typical Trudy, always the most important factor in her columns.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

Good points. Corruption is as old as our complex organizations. The Russians are pretty blunt; we are more subtle here in the USA. Look up, for example, the history of employees here who were dumb enough to believe the whistleblower law was serious. I am not aware of many who were not punished and often fired for their honesty. Russia will get interesting and Putin, after he slaughters and jails many, will have to confront this reality:

Dalai Lama "Although violence and the use of force may appear powerful and decisive, their benefits are short-lived. Violence can never bring a lasting and long term resolution to any problem, because it is unpredictable and for every problem it seems to solve, others are created. On the other hand, truth remains constant and will ultimately prevail."

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

Might I make a couple of assumptions about those behind bars. 1. They have admitted guilt and were sentenced for their crime. Or 2. They were found guilty in a court of law. Or 3. They are awaiting trial.

Perhaps the reason we have so many behind bars is because so many have committed crimes, especially the types of crimes that get people put behind bars. Maybe we should re-define what crimes should get a person put behind bars. But until we do, just saying that they are there, without saying they committed the crime, leaves one with the misperception that they were put behind bars without having committed the crime. That's simply not true.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

Any human endeavor involving millions of people making judgements will have flaws in it. The question is, are those misjudgments common or are they rare. While we can continue to improve the system, trying to minimize the mistakes, we have to come into it knowing that some rare mistakes will happen. The alternative is to open the doors to every jail, let everyone out. I'd feel much safer living in a society where the rare mistake is made than in a society that punishes no one.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

The same could be said of the social service system. Or the health care system. As you pointed out, mistakes have happened and as I've conceded, future mistakes will happen. The question is can we minimize them. If it's shown that the for profit sector makes more mistakes, perhaps we should eliminate that part of the equation. Of course, the for profit sector only gets involved after the person has had due process in the judicial system, which again, will make some small number of mistakes. That's what happens when you have 300 million people, a million will commit crimes and be sent to jail.

jhawkinsf 6 years, 2 months ago

Not necessarily. There would be many historical and cultural differences that could explain why one society is more or less prone to crime or how they deal with their criminals. All that can really be said for sure is that China's population is greater than our own.

Flap Doodle 6 years, 2 months ago

The Russian corruptocrats would feel right at home in Chicago.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years, 2 months ago

(This is portions of a comment I made on March 3, 2012) This is something one of my aunts told me about after she had spent some time working as an exchange teacher in Russia. What she did was spend six months in Russia a few times teaching the high school students that were studying advanced English, and she was the very first native English speaker that any of them had ever met. Later, a few Russian teachers came to the U.S. and taught advanced high school students to speak Russian, and in most cases, those teachers were the first native Russian speakers they had ever met.

New: When my aunt visited in the late 1990s, she told us something very depressing. She said, "The older people say right in front of the kids, "There is no hope for Russia.""

voevoda 6 years, 2 months ago

"The Anointed One" is the sacred title of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ does not take sides in the US political system, its_just_math. You should not use his title as a term of political abuse. It is blasphemy. It is taking the name of the Lord in vain. Clearly you have even less respect for God than you do for the president.

tbaker 6 years, 2 months ago

Russia is a third-world country masquerading as a first-world country. Criminal patronage networks are the inevitable substitute that always fills the void left by the lack of legitimate government functions. The majority of the planet runs this way to one degree or another.

George Lippencott 6 years, 2 months ago

Kind of like our system where we use campaign contributions and board membership to buy our politicos of both parties.

Paul R Getto 6 years, 2 months ago

+1. Good point. Remember the old joke? What are the differences between the government and the Mafia? The Mafia is actually organized and they keep good books, at least the ones they have only for themselves. There's another set for the accountant and yet another for the taxman.

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