This spring has been almost eerily calm in Russia. The protest movement, which coalesced after the rigged parliamentary elections in the autumn of 2011, has all but disintegrated, and hopes for substantive political opening have faded. High-profile liberals are in retreat or retirement, a dozen opposition activists are in jail, and President Vladimir Putin’s will is unchallenged. Even the weather has been nice, perhaps lulling the Kremlin into believing that it has little to fear. In fact, it does: unwittingly, Putin’s recent anti-corruption campaign has set the stage for the system’s collapse.
The anti-corruption campaign was a choice. In April, the lower house of the Russian legislature passed a law that bans members of both houses from holding foreign bank accounts. The prohibition was extended to include all public servants, including central bank officials and functionaries of state-owned corporations. Three months after Putin signs the law, government officials will be barred from opening bank accounts abroad, even to pay for educational or medical expenses.
Putin has pledged that this is only the beginning. He and his advisers know well that attacks on corruption are popular with the public. They are counting on the campaign to shore up support after the protests and to mobilize Putin’s supporters. What the Kremlin is neglecting, however, is that the campaign could be a double-edged sword that ultimately delegitimizes the regime, as Putin’s own acolytes are swept out while the government’s house is cleaned.
FROM GORBACHEV TO PUTIN
The fate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign in the last years of the Soviet Union should have provided a warning. By the 1980s, alcohol had become a major cause of death, absenteeism, and low labor productivity in the country. Its cost to the Soviet economy totaled no less than 10 percent of national income. When Gorbachev launched a program to end alcoholism in 1985, he was celebrated across the country for his courage and strategic vision. The campaign did succeed in reducing alcohol consumption,