Only action against corruption can solve the world’s biggest problems I Alexei Navalny

In a mes­sage from his prison cell, the jailed Russian oppo­si­tion activist calls for the west to take sanc­tions against oligarchs

‘The sad fact is that even west­ern law enforce­ment agen­cies treat cor­rupt for­eign offi­cials with kid gloves.’ Graffiti depict­ing Alexei Navalny in St Petersburg Photograph: Anton Vaganov/Reuters

Exactly one year ago, I did not die from poi­son­ing by a chem­i­cal weapon, and it would seem that cor­rup­tion played no small part in my sur­vival. Having con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed Russia’s state sys­tem, cor­rup­tion has also con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed the intel­li­gence ser­vices. When a country’s senior man­age­ment is pre­oc­cu­pied with pro­tec­tion rack­ets and extor­tion from busi­ness­es, the qual­i­ty of covert oper­a­tions inevitably suf­fers. A group of FSB agents applied the nerve agent to my under­wear just as shod­di­ly as they incom­pe­tent­ly dogged my foot­steps for three and a half years – in vio­la­tion of all instruc­tions from above – allow­ing civ­il inves­ti­gat­ing activists to expose them at every turn.

To be fair, a regime based on cor­rup­tion can per­form more ele­men­tary tasks to per­fec­tion. The judi­cial sys­tem – the first thing auto­crats intent on rob­bing their nation take con­trol of – func­tions per­fect­ly on a quid pro quo basis. That is why, when I went back to Russia after med­ical treat­ment, I was tak­en straight from the plane to prison. There is not much to cel­e­brate in that, but at least I now have time to read the mem­oirs of world leaders.

In those books, the world’s lead­ers write ter­ri­bly inter­est­ing­ly about how they solved the main prob­lems fac­ing humankind: wars, pover­ty, migra­tion, the cli­mate cri­sis, weapons of mass destruc­tion. These are the issues on the “big agen­da”. The fight against cor­rup­tion, on the oth­er hand, rarely fig­ures as part of what they hope will be their lega­cy. This is not sur­pris­ing; it is a “sec­ondary agen­da” item.

Amazingly enough, though, cor­rup­tion near­ly always mer­its a men­tion when the world’s lead­ers are describ­ing fail­ures – whether their own or, more com­mon­ly, those of their predecessors.

We spent years, hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars and thou­sands of human lives in Iraq [or Afghanistan, you name it] – but the cor­rupt gov­ern­ment of al-Maliki [or Karzai, you name them] alien­at­ed the peo­ple with its thiev­ing, open­ing the path to vic­to­ry to rad­i­cals armed with slo­gans about hon­est, fair gov­ern­ment and RPGs.”

This leads to an obvi­ous ques­tion. Guys, if cor­rup­tion is pre­vent­ing us from find­ing solu­tions to the prob­lems of the “big agen­da”, has the time per­haps come to raise it to a pri­or­i­ty on that agenda?

It is not dif­fi­cult to see why that has not already been done. Corruption is a tricky issue to dis­cuss at glob­al sum­mits. Suppose you are dis­cussing Syria and cyber-attacks with Vladimir Putin. Everyone finds that inter­est­ing, every­one knows where they are. At the con­clud­ing news con­fer­ence every­one will have some­thing to say.

Now imag­ine a meet­ing with Putin on the issue of cor­rup­tion. The very fact it has been raised rep­re­sents a move to per­son­al­i­ties. The whole thing, from start to fin­ish, is awk­ward. The rich­est leader in the world, who has fleeced his own coun­try, is being invit­ed to dis­cuss how to deal with the prob­lem of him­self. Very tricky, very awkward.

Now turn on the news. It is pre­cise­ly the fact that the west “failed to notice” the total cor­rup­tion in Afghanistan – that west­ern lead­ers pre­ferred not to talk about a top­ic they found embar­rass­ing – which was the most cru­cial fac­tor in the vic­to­ry of the Taliban (with the sup­port of the pop­u­la­tion). The west did not want to dis­cuss the plun­der­ing of the bud­get; it was much bet­ter to focus on peo­ple being stoned to death or exe­cu­tion by beheading.

After the implo­sion of the USSR and the end of the glob­al ide­o­log­i­cal con­fronta­tion, it was cor­rup­tion – in its clas­si­cal def­i­n­i­tion, “the exploita­tion of an offi­cial posi­tion for per­son­al gain” – that became the uni­ver­sal, ide­ol­o­gy-free basis for the flour­ish­ing of a new Authoritarian International, from Russia to Eritrea, Myanmar to Venezuela. And cor­rup­tion has long ceased to be mere­ly an inter­nal prob­lem of those coun­tries. It is almost invari­ably one of the main caus­es of the glob­al chal­lenges that face the west.

A new “hot” war in Europe with the use of airstrikes and artillery? That is Putin tak­ing revenge on Ukraine for the anti-cor­rup­tion rev­o­lu­tion that deposed his pro­tege, Viktor Yanukovych. Religious extrem­ists of all stripes find it eas­i­er to con­duct pro­pa­gan­da when their oppo­nents are dri­ving Rolls-Royces through the streets of pen­ni­less coun­tries. Migration crises are caused by pover­ty, and pover­ty is almost always caused by corruption.

It’s just as well cli­mate change is unre­lat­ed to cor­rup­tion!” you may iron­i­cal­ly reflect. I invite you to say that in the face of the mil­lions of hectares of Siberian for­est that burn every year because of bar­bar­ic total clear­ance, vio­lat­ing the fire reg­u­la­tions for for­est man­age­ment. I am reluc­tant to make this pre­dic­tion, but fear the next big ter­ror­ist attack will not be just anoth­er bomb blast by reli­gious fanat­ics but, for exam­ple, a chem­i­cal weapon in the water sup­ply net­work of a major city or a dev­as­tat­ing attack on the IT infra­struc­ture of an entire coun­try, and that those com­mis­sion­ing the ter­ror­ism will be one or oth­er of the peo­ple in pos­ses­sion of a gold­en palace. The rea­son for per­pe­trat­ing it will be to divert the world’s atten­tion from gold­en palaces to glob­al secu­ri­ty issues.

So it is not we who should feel awk­ward about con­fronting cor­rupt author­i­tar­i­ans with tough ques­tions and get­ting per­son­al but, on the con­trary, they who should know that their shady deal­ings will invari­ably be the main focus of dis­cus­sion at world sum­mits. That would be a cru­cial step towards elim­i­nat­ing the root cause of many “big” issues.

OK, but what are we sup­posed to do? Surely there isn’t much that peo­ple in Washington or Berlin can do to com­bat the cor­rup­tion of offi­cials in Minsk or Caracas?

True, but it is also the case that an impor­tant aspect of cor­rup­tion in author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries is the use it makes of the west’s finan­cial infra­struc­ture – and in 90% of cas­es, what has been stolen is stored in the west. An offi­cial work­ing for an auto­crat knows bet­ter than any­one how impor­tant it is to keep his cap­i­tal well away from his col­leagues and boss.

All it takes to get start­ed is for west­ern lead­ers to show deter­mi­na­tion and polit­i­cal will. The first step is for cor­rup­tion to be trans­formed from a source of lim­it­less oppor­tu­ni­ties into an oner­ous bur­den for at least some of the elites sur­round­ing auto­crats. That will split them, and increase the voic­es in favour of mod­erni­sa­tion and scal­ing back cor­rup­tion – who will be strength­ened and pro­vid­ed with new argu­ments to put for­ward in elite circles.

The fol­low­ing five steps are entire­ly real­is­tic, easy to imple­ment, and can make a high­ly effec­tive start to com­bat­ing glob­al corruption.

First, the west should for­mu­late and recog­nise a spe­cial cat­e­go­ry of “coun­tries that encour­age cor­rup­tion”, which will enable the tak­ing of uni­form mea­sures against groups of coun­tries, rather than impos­ing sanc­tions on par­tic­u­lar states.

Second, the main sanc­tion – the main tax on cor­rup­tion, if you will – for this group of coun­tries should be “enforced trans­paren­cy”. All doc­u­men­ta­tion relat­ing to con­tracts con­clud­ed between west­ern com­pa­nies and part­ners from coun­tries rep­re­sent­ing cor­rup­tion risks should be pub­lished if the con­tracts are to the slight­est degree con­nect­ed with the state, its offi­cials, or their relatives.

You work for a state-owned com­pa­ny in a coun­try at high risk of cor­rup­tion and want to buy a vil­la on the French Riviera? Fine, go ahead, but you should know that all the infor­ma­tion about the deal will be pub­licly avail­able. You want to have deal­ings with an offi­cial in Minsk or the aunt of a Russian gov­er­nor? No prob­lem, but you will have to pub­lish the entire paper trail of the trans­ac­tion, and will no longer be able to con­ceal the bribe you pay through that “region­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive” or “local partner”.

Third, com­bat­ing cor­rup­tion with­out com­bat­ing cor­rupt indi­vid­u­als is the mer­est hypocrisy and under­mines vot­ers’ trust. Until per­son­al sanc­tions are imposed on oli­garchs, pri­mar­i­ly those in the entourage of Putin – the role mod­el for all the world’s cor­rupt offi­cials and busi­ness­men – any anti-cor­rup­tion rhetoric from the west will be per­ceived as game-play­ing and hot air.

There is noth­ing more frus­trat­ing than read­ing the lat­est sanc­tions list, replete with the names of intel­li­gence ser­vice colonels and gen­er­als nobody has ever heard of, but metic­u­lous­ly cleared of the peo­ple in whose inter­ests these colonels act. The west needs to free itself of a seman­tic mind­set where the label “busi­ness­man” acts as an indul­gence, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult for them to fig­ure on sanc­tions lists. Putin’s oli­garchs, those head­ing “state-owned” com­pa­nies and com­pa­nies that are for­mal­ly pri­vate but whose pros­per­i­ty is linked to Putin’s group, are not busi­ness­men but lead­ers of organ­ised crime groups. At present, alas, the west­ern estab­lish­ment acts like Pavlov’s dog: you show them a colonel of the intel­li­gence ser­vices and they yell, “Sanction him!”; you show them the oli­garch pay­ing the colonel, and they yell, “Invite him to Davos!”

Fourth, the US, UK and Germany already have excel­lent tools for com­bat­ing for­eign cor­rup­tion, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Bribery Act, and so on. Guess how many cas­es have been brought fol­low­ing reports by our Anti-Corruption Foundation, now cat­e­gorised as an extrem­ist organ­i­sa­tion by Putin’s government?

That’s right, none. The sad fact is that even west­ern law enforce­ment agen­cies treat cor­rupt for­eign offi­cials with kid gloves. With a lit­tle polit­i­cal will on the part of the gov­ern­ment (and pres­sure from pub­lic opin­ion) that sit­u­a­tion can be put right.

Fifth, obstruct­ing the export of polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion clear­ly deserves the estab­lish­ment of an inter­na­tion­al body or com­mis­sion. Take a look at what is going on right now. By invest­ing rel­a­tive­ly small sums of mon­ey, the redoubtable Putin is buy­ing up extreme-right and extreme-left move­ments through­out Europe – turn­ing their politi­cians into oli­garchs and agents of his own. Legalised bribery is flour­ish­ing, often in the form of board mem­ber­ships at state-owned com­pa­nies. A for­mer German chan­cel­lor, or a for­mer Italian prime min­is­ter, or a for­mer Austrian for­eign min­is­ter, can act as back­ground dancers for the Russian dic­ta­tor, nor­mal­is­ing cor­rupt prac­tices. All con­tracts link­ing for­mer or cur­rent west­ern politi­cians with busi­ness part­ners from cor­rupt author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries should also have to be open to pub­lic scrutiny.

These are first steps, but even they will have a sig­nif­i­cant impact, cre­at­ing elite groups with­in author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries for whom cam­paign­ing to reduce lev­els of cor­rup­tion will become a ratio­nal choice.

No mon­ey, no sol­diers, no recon­fig­u­ra­tion of indus­try or world pol­i­tics are need­ed in order to start tak­ing action. Only polit­i­cal will – which, unfor­tu­nate­ly, is often in short sup­ply. Public opin­ion and the wish­es of vot­ers are what can final­ly get things mov­ing. Then some day world lead­ers will be able to write in their mem­oirs that they solved many major prob­lems on the “big agen­da” sim­ply by elim­i­nat­ing their root cause – with­out troops, with­out bil­lions of dol­lars, and with­out wast­ed decades.

Translated by Arch Tait

  • Alexei Navalny is a Russian lawyer and polit­i­cal and finan­cial activist

The Guardian by Alexei Navalny