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Russian Bloggers Expose Corruption, One Top Official at a Time

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Can a businessman who is connected with organized crime, banned on these grounds from entering a country where his business is located, and has foreign citizenship be a senator? In Russia, the answer is yes. At least, this is the result of an investigation made by the country's No. 1 blogger, Alexei Navalny. On March 14, he published documents that prove that Senator Vitaly Malkin not only runs business in Canada (which is against the law in Russia), but he has been denied a visa to that country because Canadian authorities suspect him of links with money laundering networks. Moreover, Malkin has (or had) a double Israeli citizenship, which is prohibited for members of either house of the Russian Parliament. Besides, Malkin was a member of a delegation of Russian parliamentarians last year who toured Washington, D.C., attempting to prevent passing of the Magnitsky Act. The blogger demanded that Malkin's appointment be invalidated. The senator's spokesperson denied the accusations but failed to comment on the documents.

In recent months, similar reports of corruption in the highest ranks of the government have become almost a daily routine. Last week, the Chairperson of Duma Anti-Corruption Committee Irina Yarovaya was accused by Navalny of living in an undeclared $2,900,000 flat in downtown Moscow. The week before, the blogger found that the Governor of Pskov Andrey Turchak owned a luxury house worth 1,270,000 Euro in Nice, France. And it's not just Navalny; other bloggers are also discovering transgressions of members of Parliament, governors and other top officials. Most investigations deal with undeclared property or illegally acquired academic titles.

Bloggers even coined a humorous term for this activity -- pekhting -- after a veteran MP, Chairman of Duma Ethics Committee and Putin loyalist Vladimir Pekhtin. Earlier this year Navalny published documents indicating that the deputy owns two expensive apartments in Miami. After initially denying the accusations, Pekhtin eventually had to resign from the Parliament. His act sent shockwaves through the ranks of bureaucrats who had become used to impunity in exchange for loyalty.

This wave of investigations against important figures of Vladimir Putin's system has created a difficult dilemma for the regime. Ignoring the accusations, which had been their normal course of action in the past, will further undermine legitimacy of the government and demonstrate its unwillingness to fight corruption. On the other hand, going after the perpetrators will destabilize the "vertical of power" and create dangerous cracks within the regime.

Consequently, the government's reaction has been erratic. While Pekhtin was told to quit the Parliament, he is still a prominent member of United Russia and no investigation was opened into his transgressions. Many other officials accused of similar wrongdoings simply brushed off the accusations and carried on with their business. This approach isn't going to work in the long run as more and more cases of corruption become known and more people become aware of this. But Putin's space for maneuver is very limited. He also tries to preempt new accusations by passing a law that prohibits public servants from having bank accounts abroad, but it will most likely only lead to them hiding their money better.

What the government can do, and started doing from the beginning, is retaliating against their critics and stopping news from disseminating. The powerful Investigative Committee, whose Head Alexander Bastrykin was himself accused by Navalny of having real estate, business and residence permit in the Czech Republic, opened three criminal investigations against the blogger. A law re-criminalizing libel against public officials was enacted last year in an effort to stop the media from spreading corruption-related information. Another new law authorizes creation of black lists of websites that offer "prohibited" information (the official goal of the law is, of course, protecting children). But all these measures have so far been unable to prevent new corruption scandals.

This sudden wave of revelations was helped by two factors. One is greater availability of open government data, both in Russia and in the West. The investigators don't need hidden microphones or hacked emails to discover evidence of corruption: Everything is already on the Web, just Google for it! There are even online "pekhting manuals," which tell you step-by-step how to find real estate belonging to an official and how to prove information.

The other factor is the growing interest within the society itself to the issue of corruption. While the fact that many officials routinely violate laws and accumulate illegal wealth is common knowledge in Russia, it was only after the anti-Putin (and inherently anti-corruption) protests erupted in December 2011 that people started actually doing something about it. As a result, most of the investigations that Navalny and others publish are in fact crowd-sourced by dozens, sometimes hundreds of bloggers and whistleblowers who got fed up with corruption. "Pekhting" has become a kind of sport for Internet-savvy Russians (although unlikely to be present in the official Sochi Olympics program). By hitting the Achilles' heel of the Russian political regime, it challenges the status quo and Putin's grip on power.