Skip to main content

Opinion: Russia's invulnerable state officials How new revelations about corruption at the highest levels of government expose a broken social contract

Source: Vedomosti
Photo: Pomegranate Wellness Spa Hotel / YouTube

Anti-corruption activists in Russia have published startling evidence that the sons of Attorney General Yuri Chaika and family members of multiple senior staff in the Attorney General's Office are business partners with infamous mobsters. A documentary film summarizing these allegations has attracted more than 1.2 million views on YouTube in less than two days. Despite the public resonance created by this investigation, there has been almost no response from Russian officials (and one seems increasingly unlikely). Vedomosti columnist Nikolai Epple addressed this disparity in an opinion piece published on December 3. Meduza translates that text here.

Alexey Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) and the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an investigation on Tuesday, December 1, revealing the systematic corruption of members of Attorney General Yuri Chaika's family and senior staff at the Attorney General's Office. The documents and information released uncover a business empire owned by Chaika's sons, Artem and Igor, and multiple episodes demonstrating how it came about through the patronage of district attorneys throughout Russia (which is itself a crime). Particularly shocking are materials showing the co-ownership of a company called Sugar Kuban between the ex-wife of Deputy Attorney General Gennady Lopatin and the wives of Kushchevskaya gangsters Sergei Tsapok and Vyacheslav Tsepovyaz. There is also evidence that Artem Chaika illegally seized the Upper Lena River Shipping Company in Irkutsk (whose former CEO was found strangled to death).

The materials published by FBK and Novaya Gazeta need to be verified, but they're hardly unsubstantiated. By all accounts, the investigation is well documented. It's worth pointing out that these very serious allegations address not just corruption, but the criminal entanglements of a whole prosecutorial clan—the most senior member of which appears to be Yuri Chaika, Russia's Attorney General and a Security Council member. In a normal society, such public allegations would beg a public response—and not just from the individuals accused of wrongdoing, but also from their employers.

After more than a day since the investigation was published, there's been only a single response: Olga Lopatina, the Deputy Attorney General's ex-wife, said the documents showing her participation in Sugar Kuban are forged (though the government's registry of legal entities says otherwise).

According to Vladimir Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin hasn't yet had time to familiarize itself with the investigation.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office told Novaya Gazeta that "all information about the earnings, spending, property holdings, and liabilities" of staff members is available on the agency's website, adding that the Attorney General is not required by law to publish or verify "information about the property of staff members' adult relatives." 

Like all citizens, individuals serving in high public office are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. In the public space, however, basically the opposite is true: society has entrusted special authority to these people, and in exchange it has the right to demand transparency. The convention of "reputation" is a common tool to protect the public and ensure the observance of the law.

It's typical to say that officials in the West resign from office more often than in Russia because Western political culture is simply different. "That's just their way," and here in Russia we have another. For instance, in October, when FBK published a report claiming that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu's relatives illicitly own real estate, the Federal Service for State Registration simply hid from the public the information about this property.

Officials in the West don't resign out of scrupulousness, but because such scruples are necessary to sustain an equilibrium across society. FBK's investigation says an entire state institution—one charged with defending human rights, no less—is working with criminals. If the state doesn't respond to these allegations, what can citizens be expected to think about the Attorney General's Office?