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RUSSIA

Moscow anti-corruption drive spreads to Far East

Missing funds fuel talk about whether Putin will allow high-ranking officials to be prosecuted

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 3:39am

Ripples of scandal are spreading in Russia's Far East, where, auditors say, US$472 million in construction financing was misallocated. About US$200 million in missing funds have led to firings in the space industry. And corruption in the defence ministry has figured prominently in the media since November 6, leaving the fate of its former minister uncertain.

In the past, President Vladimir Putin has always been reluctant to expel or prosecute high-level officials, despite widespread complaints about corruption. So the mushrooming scandals are raising questions about what has changed.

Political strategists, searching for ideas to consolidate the country around Putin, may seize on fighting corruption as a Kremlin effort, and recent steps hint at a populist push to expose and punish guilty officials.

"A tough, uncompromising battle with corruption has begun," said Arkady Mamontov, a pro-government television host, in a much-hyped documentary titled Corruption that attracted nearly 20 per cent of the television audience even though it was broadcast close to midnight. "In the course of the next months, we will see many interesting things. The main thing is that we should not stand aside and watch what is happening but take an active part in it."

Political observers have watched the anti-corruption drive curiously, debating where it might be headed, and especially whether, for the first time since Putin came to power, high-ranking officials would be prosecuted.

"It cannot become an overall ideology, because Putin's system is dependent on corruption - as a form of management and a guarantee of loyalty from officials," said blogger Alexei Navalny. "They will not kick out from under themselves the stool that they are standing on."

Last week, it seemed the Kremlin had not decided how far to take its anti-corruption drive. On Wednesday, news agencies reported that the highest-level official to be implicated - former defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov - had been offered a comfortable new job as an adviser to the director of Rostekhnologii, a firm that produces and exports high-technology equipment.

The news prompted angry comments from those who had hoped Serdyukov would be prosecuted, including Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, who heads the parliament's defence committee.

"There is a signal in the navy that means 'man overboard'," Komoyedov said. "We all thought the former minister had fallen overboard, and his fate would be sorrowful. But it turned out he was still inside the submarine."

Officials the next day denied that Serdyukov had been offered the job. At a news conference, Putin said it would not be a problem if Serdyukov was given a new position, since he has not been formally accused of wrongdoing.

After Corruption was broadcast, Igor Bunin, the director of the Centre for Political Technologies, said he believed fighting corruption would "become one of the elements of the regime's ideology".

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