Full (un-)disclosure
March 2, 2023
Russian officials have for years been required to disclose their income and assets to the public. But recent changes to anti-corruption laws bring a near full stop to this transparency measure.
Each year, millions of government officials in Russia must report on their income, expenses, and property, as well as those of their spouses and dependent children. A portion of these declarations is published online for the general public to access. But right before the turn of the new year, Vladimir Putin signed a decree that waives the requirement of making officials’ financial disclosures publicly available.

As written in the December decree, the policy change will remain in effect for the entirety of the “special military operation” in Ukraine. In addition, several categories of officials will not only be exempt from having their financial disclosures made accessible to the public, but also from providing disclosures all together. This new rule applies to officials and military servicemen involved in military operations in eastern Ukraine, parts of which Moscow annexed last September.

Meanwhile, on January 25, the State Duma passed a bill allowing deputies at all levels of government – from municipal deputies, all the way to the federal level representatives, which includes both the State Duma members and Federation Council senators – to publish financial disclosures anonymously. The bill states that “generalized data” will be made available online. However, financial disclosures for individual deputies will no longer be published.

The changes represent a major blow to government transparency. As part of a nationwide anti-corruption campaignlaunched back in 2008, the Russian government began requiring top-level officials to file financial disclosures each spring. At first, most of the information was classified based on privacy grounds, available only to law enforcement authorities working to combat corruption. But a series of amendments shortly following the first disclosure law ensured that part of every official’s disclosure would be released to the general public online.

While most federal elites skirted scrutiny, enforcement did happen at the local level, even against members of the ruling United Russia party. According to research by the political scientist David Szakonyi, who studies corruption in Russia, the law led to hundreds of legal actions taken against municipal deputies for hiding assets and failing to explain how they could afford extravagant lifestyles. At the same time, when disclosures became mandatory candidates with suspicious financial histories were found more likely to avoid politics. On the whole, the disclosures increased the costs of engaging in corruption.

Szakonyi told Russia.Post that the most likely explanation behind the recent decision to limit public access to officials’ disclosures is that the regime needs to both retain and recruit officials at a time when working for the government comes with serious downsides.

“Sanctions play a role here, as some Russians may be wary of serving in government if it might close off opportunities down the line in the West. But more broadly, elites have complained for years that having to file information on their personal wealth is an intrusion into their privacy and opens them up to media scrutiny of their financial activities,” he said.

The disclosures helped journalists and activists convey how much wealthier Russian government officials are than the people they serve. Using these publicly reported data, opposition activist Alexei Navalny and the Anti-Corruption Foundation he founded produced scores of in-depth investigations into the luxurious lifestyles of government officials, many of whom, as the independent investigators found, owned sumptuous mansions and foreign properties that they failed to indicate in their financial disclosures. Officials quickly realized that a wrongfully filled out declaration – in many cases deliberately so – could also be used against them.

“As the regime grows more concerned about attracting competent policymakers into government, as well as possible elite defections, removing the requirement that these disclosures be posted online may help resolve some of these staffing problems, but at considerable cost to anti-corruption efforts,” said Szakonyi.

In other words, some of the last remaining guardrails on public corruption are being dismantled. There are fewer obstacles now for anyone, no matter their criminal or corrupt past, to enter government. Szakonyi said it is unclear whether the disclosures law had led to better qualified people going into political office, but that it did make some of the most blatantly corrupt think twice.

“These policy changes insulate officials from external criticism while also freeing their hands to abuse their power for personal gain. Governance will most likely get even worse,” said Szakonyi.

Disclosures are useful not only for investigating an official’s finances, but also just as a record of knowing what officials work for which government agencies. In that sense, the absence of publicly available disclosures will negatively impact both scholarship and journalistic work that rely on these data. In particular, Szakonyi noted, it will become more difficult to track careers and office-holding farther down the bureaucratic chain since government websites only provide a top-level picture of public employees. The disclosures helped fill in the full picture.

“Journalists and academics are going to have to get more creative to learn about government personnel going forward, perhaps becoming more reliant on leaked datasets. But thankfully we still have a decade's worth of disclosures to analyze for insights about how the government has operated in the recent past,” said Szakonyi.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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