Common sense suggests that corruption is bad for rulers because it erodes the loyalty of their servants. If this is true, why are Russian rulers generally, and President Putin in particular, so cavalier about corruption?
To start with, corruption is a crucial lubricant in countries with dysfunctional bureaucracy. Well-tuned “deep state” run by politicians accountable to their constituency is a relatively recent invention. Before that, all great empires were run just the way Putin runs his bureaucracy. He walks a tightrope combining corruption at all levels with effective control where most lucrative positions are mostly occupied by people best suited for the job. Putin’s fascination with China stems from the brilliance with which the Chinese have been managing this since the dawn of time.
Corruption secures loyalty among Putin’s power base. It’s so much easier to reign in people with greasy palms. You get a lot of controls on the subjects if and when they get the wrong idea.
Russia has never been run in a corruption-free way. According to an old Russian saying, it’s inconceivable when people “stay thirsty standing at the stream”. We think that Westerners steal just like we do. They are just better at putting a nice face on it. Among the Russian elite to insist that their friends, associates and key assistants stay clean is kind of weird.
“What have I done to you that you keep me thirsty standing at the stream?” This is a question too awkward to ask, and even more awkward to answer. However, it’s bound to hang in the air if you call some of your employees to the carpet to discuss irregularities. Therefore, it’s safer to go the way of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Only when corruption starts posing operational problems, it’s time for plain talk. Even then, it’s often packaged in terms of work efficiency and personal loyalty.
Corruption is a powerful tool of government in Russia. President Putin makes sure to use it efficiently.