Levitt Panel Examines Corruption in Russia

Dr. Gordon B. Smith, the director of the Walker Institute of International and Area Studies, and Dr. Mark D. Welton, professor of international and comparative law at the United States Military Academy, gave lectures on the roots and effects of corruption in Russia and traditional Islamic law as part of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center’s Security Series. They then joined a panel discussion and answered questions from the audience with Government Professors Charlotte Lee and Nathaniel Richmond.

Smith began his talk by explaining the scope of corruption in Russia. He said that Russia has slipped from the 146th least corrupt country to 154th least corrupt country, according to the International Corruption Index. This puts Russia in company with Tajikistan and Papua, New Guinea. He also said that 31 percent of Russian citizens claimed that they had bribed a government official in the past year.

Numerous social and security problems arise as a result of this rampant corruption. Smith said that it is almost impossible to start or run a company without paying government officials to expedite the necessary paperwork. More importantly, Smith argued, official corruption endangers the lives of ordinary Russians. He pointed out that several government officials refused to break up a terrorist cell because they had been paid off. He also said that two Chechen suicide bombers were allowed to board a plane to Russia after they bribed an airline official. In another case, a government official was caught selling Kalashnikov rifles to Chechen rebels.


Smith argued that corruption is in many ways part of the Russian people. He said, “Corruption is linked to the complex social network of behavior.” The law fails to prevent many of the glaring abuses of officials because the “Russian people are skeptical about the law.” Russians have historically seen the law as arbitrary and as an instrument of the ruling class. In fact, there was a Tsarist tradition called “feeding” which allowed nobles to go into the various villages under their dominion and take virtually whatever they wanted.

All of this helps explain Russia’s current paradox: the only way to get a formal legal system is for the state to set one up, unfortunately the people who are benefitting from the lax legal system are the government employees. Smith proposed several ways to solve the problem. He said that if Russia expanded its definition of corruption, prosecutors would have a much easier time winning convictions. He also said that increasing accountability and transparency through Democratic participation would lead to real results. He remains hopeful of progress and ultimately thinks that “the expansion of law is seldom the result of foreign countries or enlightened leaders, it is almost always the result of struggle.”

Dr. Welton began his lecture with a brief overview of the relationship between corruption and traditional Islamic law. Welton said that during the classical era of Islam, about 700-1200 CE, Muslim legal scholars called “jurors” used the Koran and the Sunnah, a collection of works outlining the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad, to say what the law was. Welton said that leaders made alliances with these jurors because they needed legitimacy. In return, the leaders agreed to fund mosques and schools for the jurors. The jurors were seen as the protectors of the people, and when a leader abused his power the jurors would withdraw their support. This system served as a check on corruption.

Welton argued that this system worked right up until the 19th century, when European colonial powers started to re-shape the legal systems of their colonies. European powers thought that traditional Islamic law was too antiquated so they replaced it with their own secular code of law. This gave rise to a new generation of Muslim leaders who were no longer beholden to the jurors. The lack of any check on their handling of power allowed corruption to thrive. Despite this recent growth in corruption, Welton remains hopeful that corruption will be extinguished, saying, “The Islamic world has a tradition of breaking the bonds of corruption.”

After Welton’s lecture, Professor Lee talked about a corruption scandal involving the People’s Liberation Army in China. She said that the government prosecuted those responsible primarily because a lot of factions came together at the right time. Without that sort of social and political unity, it is quite possible that the corrupt officials in the PLA would have gotten off.


Professor Richmond spoke next and echoed some of the findings of Dr. Smith. He did question the level of optimism that existed in Russia and argued that several Russian legislatures do not necessarily view corruption as a bad thing. Instead, these politicians argue that a little bit of corruption is far better than instability. He concluded his remarks by asking Welton whether he thought democracy and traditional Islamic law could be reconciled.


Welton replied that it depended on who you were. He said many conservative Muslim scholars interpret the Koran very strictly and would not allow any democratic changes to take place. More moderate scholars, on the other hand, interpret the Koran far lass literally and use it for spiritual and moral guidance rather than for legal purposes. These moderates would be far more likely to reconcile democracy with traditional Islamic law.

Another student asked Smith about the likelihood of Russia developing into a full democracy. He said that a wholly democratic Russia was a long way off, mostly because Russian politicians like the sound of democracy but they do not want “pesky reporters asking pesky questions.” He does see some improvements though, adding, “The government is outmuscling the Mafia. In Russia, I call that progress.”

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