Drew Sullivan: "When a system is built on corruption, it cannot be controlled"

Mentality, corruption and investigations in Russia through the eyes of the co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)

The head of the Eurasian part of the Panama Papers investigation and co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) talked with Russiangate about Putin, the Baltic states and why not all high-profile investigations force people to take to the streets. 

– How did you start investigating corruption in Eastern Europe?

I always thought that the corruption stories are the main thing in investigative journalism: this is one of the few ways to bring authorities to justice. In the United States, where I started, corruption problems are less interesting. This does not mean that there is no corruption in America: it’s just there it’s a question of the quality of life, and here – of life and death. This is typical of regions where there is a strong link between business, power and organized crime. To Russia, of course, this also applies. Vladimir Putin rules the country, using corruption as a lever of control – primarily over business.

– Has Putin's regime always been so corrupt?

It evolved. Putin is a mysterious figure, and I do not know what is going on in his head. But I can assume that he believes that Russia should be managed in a certain way, and this implies authoritarianism and corruption. I think this perception is conditioned by the principles of work in the KGB: he understands the idea of ​​power as a system of internal levers for pressure on people. Every year, the number of such levers increases – Putin gradually replaces the rudiments of democracy with elements of such a system. Corruption is the main lever: everyone is tied up, everyone depends on each other. Therefore, under the existing power, the problem of corruption in Russia, in my opinion, cannot be solved.  

– There is an opinion that there is a kind of Russian mentality for which corruption is a regular everyday normal thing. Do you agree with this?

I would say that in Russia and Eastern Europe, there is a tradition of corruption – but not a corruption mentality. People change with the system. In any country, 20% of the population will never be corrupted, another 20% will always be corrupted, and the remaining 60% will do exactly what is needed for survival – depending on the rules of the game.

They are dictated by people who rule the state, and not those who live in it. So if a person gives a bribe, for example, to a doctor so that his relative receives adequate treatment, this is not a sign of a corrupt mentality, but a survival instinct. The same formula applies when necessary: if the system requires it, 80% of the population will participate in corruption, and only 20% will continue to resist. And vice versa: if the system changes, the balance will shift towards the non-corrupt majority.

– Which of the post-Soviet countries is the most successful in fighting corruption?

Perhaps, the Baltic States are the best. They made a fundamental decision: they allowed the business to compete freely. The tangle began to unravel: for competition, it is necessary to create a transparent environment – so that the business understands with whom it works. Next step is to make sure that it trusts the judicial system, otherwise people will be afraid to invest serious amounts.

The worst situation is in post-Soviet Central Asia: it slips into primitive, almost tribal structures that hardly resemble modern states. In Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, an authoritarian clan system that engenders corruption has been formed.

These are two scenarios according to which Russia can develop. It seems to me that it is not too late to follow the path of the Baltics – it's just necessary to say: “No, we will not give this contract to Rothenberg, we will let business compete freely.” Business is the key that will trigger the entire mechanism.

–  And Ukraine? Has it become less corrupt after the Maidan?     

Both Yanukovych and Poroshenko are corrupt. The current Ukraine is very similar to Russia. Poroshenko uses the same methods as Putin: he appeals to national feelings, tries to concentrate control over national resources in his hands.

Drew Sullivan, co-founder of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). OCCRP was engaged in the most high-profile international investigations, one of which – the Panama papers – received the Pulitzer Prize

— You conduct dozens of investigations per year, and only a few cause a decent reaction – like, for example, Navalny's films. Does this fact upset you?

Absolutely not. I am a journalist, not an activist, my job is to give people information, and they should act on it, be guided by it. It seems to me that political action requires confidence that your answer is the only true one. But this approach fundamentally contradicts the journalistic: I must always doubt to be objective.

If you are not an activist, not a politician, but nevertheless you tell stories in great detail, with documents backing them up, people will believe you. And the more they believe, the higher the chance that the changes will be achieved. There are examples of how information becomes a trigger, and already activists launch a protest mechanism. We released an investigation into the Prime Minister of Bosnia, who received an apartment from the state for a symbolic $ 800. After that, activists placed advertising on Sarajevo billboards with apartments for $ 800 with a phone number – well, you understand – the premiere, not the real estate agent. The prime minister began to fight back: he banned the billboards, and they really disappeared – but only those where there were protest statements. Soon, against the premiere a case was initiated. He was never imprisoned – but his own party forced him to resign.

Another story is about the daughter of the Uzbek President, Gulnara Karimova. As a result of our investigation, the company that bribed her was fined $ 1.8 billion. In just 11 years, we forced various companies around the world to pay $ 5.2 billion. Our annual budget is about $ 2 million, so we paid off with interest. Business sees these penalties and cooperate with corrupt officials less willingly – this is also our merit.

— Is it important how the story is packed? Many explain Navalny’s success by the format of his uses to reach out to his audience.

We are investigators, not storytellers, and this, of course, is a problem. Our content, probably, does not look as exciting as it could. First of all, because beautiful packaging takes time and is expensive. Navalny has time and people to do it. He publishes two or three stories a year, whereas we publish about 70. At the moment, we decided to focus on just publishing the investigations, make people aware of what’s going on, although it would be great if they could look better.

But generally it's not just the packaging. Navalny is a charismatic politician: he offers not only information, but also a way. The media’s work is to inform, and Navalny has to offer specific solutions, and they resonate with what people think. Such people are a minority, and it is not surprising that this is mostly young people. They understand that corruption severely limits their prospects, first of all, the career ones. There are actually much more of dissatisfied in Russia, it’s just Navalny does not appeal to them, nor does Putin. Therefore, most are silent. But I don’t think that it will be like this forever: Russians, of course, have the highest degree of patience, but there is a limit to everything.

– How will society react if someone manages to find something on Putin personally?

I do not think that this is possible: like the most officials of his level, Putin does not put his signature anywhere; I even doubt that he has a bank card. But in the context of investigations it does not matter: there is enough data about his immediate surroundings, in particular Sergei Roldugin. It is obvious that his entourage could not get rich without the direct participation of the president.

The other thing is that people who support Putin are unlikely to believe that he is to blame for anything – no matter how convincing the evidence is. And vice versa: those who oppose him will not believe that he is innocent – even if the facts speak in his favor. That’s just who we are.

— Then why investigate at all?

It sounds pretentious, but that’s just our job: to tell the truth. And the effect it will have – for me personally it does not really matter anymore.

I do not think that journalists themselves should come up with any tools to strengthen the influence of their investigations on society. It makes no sense to attach the voting button “guilty” or “innocent” to the texts we publish. Our business is simply to tell everything as it is. The fewer anonymous sources, the more documents and testimonies, the greater story is.

But we as journalists cannot influence the reaction that will follow in society in any other way. And we must not.

— Now in Russia there are many high-profile anti-corruption cases under consideration, for example, the case of Ulyukaev. What’s the reason for the authorities to initiate them?

Putin is an intelligent man, and he understands that people see corruption as a real problem. So it's partly a marketing company – he wants to show that he's also fighting it. But at the same time, he himself can consider it a problem. Putin deliberately created a certain system that allows corruption – but some people, in his opinion, abuse their opportunities. He wants to get rid of the kind of corruption that seems to him inexpedient or even dangerous.

But there is no corruption for good. When the system is built on corruption, it cannot be controlled. It engenders an endless chain of people who take and give bribes. Putin can sincerely believe that someone has gone too far, and he must be removed from the office. But the one who replaces him will be just as corrupt. A a person who is not ready to play by such rules will not fit into this system – he will build a career somewhere in another field.

— The Russian authorities intend to use crypto-currencies at the state level. Is this a step towards transparency, or is there another loophole for corrupt officials?

On the one hand, concealing corruption will become more difficult. On the other – there will be many more tools to deal with it. Russia has just announced the launch of its own crypto currency, and it will obviously become an instrument that the Putin circle can use to launder money. The fact is that if you use any international currency, it's easy to track: for example, if you have a dollar account, the US authorities know about it and see the transactions – wherever the bank is. Its own crypto currency gives Russia the opportunity to exit this system and will allow to conduct any transactions so that the West does not know about them. Of course, cash flows will become much more difficult to track – the starting point of many of our investigations was precisely the fact that Russia siphoned money abroad.

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