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No, Russia is not decriminalizing bribery

Source: Meduza

The claim

This is how Russian- and English-language headlines have been covering a new proposal from the Russian Justice Ministry that would regulate when citizens would be held responsible for corruption-related violations. News reports have paid particular attention to a line in the bill that says it may be impossible to avoid certain instances of corruption “due to circumstances of insurmountable force.”

Will government officials really be allowed to take “unavoidable” bribes?

No. Giving or receiving bribes is a crime in Russia that legally constitutes corruption in and of itself. The Justice Ministry’s proposal is about something else: regulations that were established “with the aim of resisting corruption.” In other words, the bill deals with preventative measures that regulate officials’ actions at various levels of government in order to bring corruption to light early or prevent it from happening in the first place. Officials who fail to follow these regulations only face disciplinary measures up to and including losing their jobs. After initial press coverage of its proposal, the Justice Ministry confirmed that these laws, not the Russian criminal code, would be affected by its current bill.

What regulations do officials have to follow?

  • a prohibition on holding accounts and stocks abroad (this also holds for officials’ spouses and minor dependents)
  • a reporting requirement for income, property, and expenses (this applies to spouses and minor dependents as well)
  • a prohibition on handling cases that include relatives and might cause a conflict of interest
  • a prohibition on managing a business
  • an obligation to yield control of important papers to a secure agency (to avoid conflicts of interest)
  • a prohibition on working in government agencies after being fired for corruption (i.e. after being registered as an offender of corruption regulations)

What are the extreme circumstances that might allow officials not to follow these regulations?

That’s hard to say. The Justice Ministry’s announcement uses maximally broad language to describe the reasons an official might refrain from adhering to preventative regulations: “circumstances of insurmountable force.” The agency has promised to enumerate those circumstances, but only after the public comment period for the proposal will come to a close on February 8. Kirill Kabanov, who leads the nonprofit National Anti-Corruption Committee, gave two examples of potentially “insurmountable” obstacles:

  1. An official cannot close a foreign bank account because they cannot leave Russia due to sanctions.
  2. An official is getting divorced but still has to report on their spouse’s income and expenses. The spouse refuses to fill out the necessary paperwork, and the official can’t force them to do otherwise.

In a subsequent press release, the Justice Ministry offered one more example: in one-factory towns or certain regions in Russia’s far north, it may be difficult to follow prohibitions on conflicts of interest because populations are small enough to force government officials to work on cases that involve their relatives in some capacity.

All that said, the phrase “circumstances of insurmountable force” is legally very broad. Russian civil law defines these circumstances only by specifying that they should be exceptional and unavoidable. The Ministry of Economic Development uses a more specific definition.

  • earthquakes
  • volcanic eruptions
  • floods
  • droughts
  • hurricanes
  • tsunamis
  • mudslides
  • military activities
  • epidemics
  • mass worker strikes
  • the aftermath of accidents

The Justice Ministry’s proposal was developed on presidential orders as part of a national effort to combat corruption. As a result, it is very likely that the proposal will successfully pass through the State Duma and ultimately become law.

Mikhail Zelensky

Translation by Hilah Kohen