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In an infamous 2008 article, Alexander Dugin makes the distinction between “patriotic corruption” and “comprador corruption,” or “Eurasian corruption” and “Atlanticist corruption.”
Here are the main features of “Eurasian” (patriotic) corruption:
- Doesn’t damage Russia’s national security;
- Concentrates the proceeds of corruption on Russian territory, or that of allied or strategically important countries;
- Doesn’t put the corruptioneers in a state of dependency on Russia’s enemies;
- Do not try to legitimize themselves through political lobbying and establish themselves as social norms.
And the main features of “Atlanticist” (comprador) corruption:
- Damages Russia’s national interests;
- Concentrates the proceeds of corruption outside Russia, in offshore havens and in countries hostile to Russia;
- Makes the corruptioneer susceptible to blackmail from the governments and intelligence agencies of foreign Powers;
- Attempts to create and empower lobbying structures, such as NGOs and political parties, that could legitimize the positions of Atlanticist corruptioneers in society.
Now okay, this distinction between “patriotic” and “comprador” corruption is trivially fun to make fun of. It is almost self-parodying. It is easy to ridicule whoever is making this argument, regardless of whether or not he benefits from said corruption. Dugin was endlessly ridiculed for it (even though there are no end of other, far more legitimate ways to make fun of him, such as his opposition to Hawking’s physics). No doubt I will be ridiculed for this post.
But for all that, Dugin is not wrong.
If large-scale corruption has to exist – and we know that for most countries outside North/West Europe, it must – it is doubtless better for corruptioneers to invest in their own society, like the American robber barons did in the 19th century and which the Chinese elite mostly do today, than to stash it away abroad, as was typical for Russia in the “roving bandits” era of the 1990s, when Yeltsin’s “family” was ferrying away assets in London and Switzerland like there was no tomorrow.
And the recent revelations about the network of charitable fronts that sustain Medvedev’s property empire prove that at least Russia’s political elites have embraced “patriotic” corruption.
Consider the following:
1. Of Medvedev’s $1.2 billion empire, a good 90% of investments are in Russia itself. And the 10% that is abroad – the Tuscan villa and vineyard – is in Italy, a country that does not have any particular animus towards Russia, unlike the favorite bolthole of corrupt Russian elites, Londongrad. In the 1990s, these ratios would have likely been the inverse.
2. As “stationary bandits” with some degree of interest in preserving the value of their holdings, the Russian ruling clique has a common interest in regulating corruption. Those who overstep the bounds of what is permissible, e.g. by practicing “compador” corruption, such as United Russia MP Vladimir Pekhtin with his Florida waterfront condo; or who end up stealing far too much for their station, such as the former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin and former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, are quietly dismissed. The question of whether or not Medvedev overstepped his station is now on the cards, with the systemic opposition in the Duma, such Fair Russia’s Sergey Mironov, calling on Medvedev to answer the questions raised by Navalny’s investigation.
3. The properties in question do not directly belong to Medvedev, not even to his direct relatives, but to an opaque network of charitable foundations credited with interest free loans by Russian state banks. And since what is given can be withdrawn, and – most critically – not on the whims of Western lawmakers (who in practice only target corrupt Russians who do not serve Western geopolitical interests), but on that of the dozen or so security men around Putin who rule Russia. To be sure, those “silovarchs” like to enjoy la dolce vita themselves, but at least they are not compradors themselves, i.e. they are more loyal to Russian national interests than to foreign ones.
4. “Patriotic” corruption, relative to “comprador” corruption, is closer to how political corruption tends to operate even in Western countries such as the United States. It’s an open secret that the Clinton Foundation has very little to do with charity, and a lot more to do with currying favor with one of America’s most powerful political dynasties. One critical difference, of course, is that it is not American state banks (hence, taxpayers) providing the financing, but private actors, companies, and foreign governments that expect to get some return on their investments. Now on the one hand, personally financing the lavish lifestyle of your elites is more directly insulting. On the other hand, having the likes of George Soros and Saudi Arabia do it for you is perhaps not an altogether superior alternative.
5. To end on an especially whimsical note: Although Navalny in his video criticizes Medvedev for owning Russian vineyards while also pushing for lower excise taxes on wine, one cannot judge him too harshly for it, since it would be a great boon for public health in Russia for alcohol consumption to shift from vodka to wine. To be sure, Medvedev – or rather, the charitable funds who finance the properties and vineyards he occasionally stays at – monetarily benefits from that, but then so does the life expectancy of Russians. Perhaps former Finance Minister Alexey Kudrin, one of Putin’s few confidantes who still enjoy respectability in the West, is personally less corrupt than Medvedev, but he has also gone on record calling for Russians to smoke more to benefit the Treasury; his fiscally hard-headed lack of concern for the social good was one of the reasons why he fell out with, and was eventually sacked by, Medvedev. Which of these two would be the better choice as PM for the average Russian? It is not clear that it would be Kudrin.
Well, that’s my strained defense of Russia’s corrupt thieving elites out of the way. They should pay me for the PR, or something.