Vlad Sobell mentioned two theories: Putin might be seriously attacking corruption or it’s only inter-clan fighting.
“Clannology” has been a popular notion for years. In the early Putin years I remember an intelligence agency proudly presenting its typology. Three clans were fighting: “Family”, “Siloviki” and St Petersburg? – I can’t recall now. Unimpressed, I asked: What have we learned from this? What is explained? What is predicted? “Clannology” has nothing to offer: it has Popper’s fatal sin of not being falsifiable. Whatever happens will be fitted into the theory: Putin and Medvedev fall out, different clans; they don’t, same clan. A theory that explains everything, explains nothing.
So we must (Popper again) make a falsifiable hypothesis that Putin really is making a serious attack on big scale corruption and ask what would be the evidence that he is. Let us consider three hypothetical corruption examples. A hospital exists, but the staff demand bribes to do their jobs. The hospital exists, but the money for many items was stolen. No hospital exists because the money was stolen before anything happened. Arresting the bribe-taking staff is not evidence of a serious anti-corruption drive: they’re little guys and easy to catch. Arresting the locals who divert some of the money is better but the real effort must be getting the big thieves – the connected people who can make money disappear before it appears. Big Russian corruption – vide the OboronServis case – resembles the third example: money allocated for some public purpose is diverted to private benefit by people at the top of the money flow. This is much more serious than some traffic cop scoring a free lunch: more money is stolen, further up the power chain and it therefore corrupts the body politic more. Putin has to bite into this layer to reverse behaviour and send the message to the big thieves who think they are immune.
In short, someone high up must be arrested; otherwise thieves just learn that it’s better to steal big than steal small. No such arrest has yet been made although the dismissal of Serdyukov has put us within sight of one. (And, pace the clannologists, Serdyukov, appointed and retained by Putin in a very important ministry, would surely have been considered a member of Putin’s clan). Former Moscow Mayor Luzhkov’s fate, or his wife’s, while they are a few orbits away from the inner ring, is also something to watch. Talk about their malfeasances has quieted but the Prosecutor General’s Office moves slowly. And investigations must be done properly, with evidence, otherwise it’s not a real campaign.
Can we put a time limit on this? I would suggest, given that Putin recently described corruption as “the biggest threat to our development”, that we should see someone in the inner ring, or an orbit away from it, charged before the end of Putin’s current term. (Unless they are all pure. Which no one believes.)
But it’s possible Putin will try but fail: in 2007 he was asked “How can you control corruption?”, “Unsuccessfully” said he, “We are addressing this issue unsuccessfully.” It won’t be easy to take a bite out of people who have been stealing for years.
Medvedev recently said that there were about 50,000 corruption cases being investigated. If half of these go nowhere and 90% of the rest are small fry, that still leaves several hundred potentially big cases that we may hear about. I believe that an effort is indeed being made, but it has not yet passed the test of one of the inner ring being punished.