Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Baring gifts- Can Russia stop its officials taking bribes?


The government has prepared a draft provision on the receiving of gifts by officials which they hope will be adopted as law by the end of the year.

The provision would require officials to declare any gifts received on business trips or at events within three days. The gift will then be appraised by experts. If the gift is over 3000 roubles in value the official will have a first choice chance to buy it back at auction.

This new draft applies to all Russian government officials whereas it seems that before there was a mess of different regulations in Russia’s civil code, the law on the civil service and the law for servicemen. Russia’s civil code allows legal entities or individuals to give gifts whereas federal laws forbid officials to receive them. The Labour ministry says these contradiction make it hard to enforce the law.

It’s a classic case of more law doesn’t mean good law. However the Labour ministry has decided that until the contradictions can be sorted out its best to add more rules on top. Officials will now be allowed to accept gifts under 3000 roubles as long as they declare them. Experts will then try and assess what the gift is worth if not declared or if it seems to be of unique cultural worth. If the gift turns out to be worth less than 3000 roubles it will be returned the official. If more it will be auctioned. If an animal is given, like the puppies, horses or even the Tiger given to Vladimir Putin and it is not bought back it will be given to a zoo.

The complexity of the new law being added on top of the existing mess has been criticised by the head of Russia’s anti-corruption committee, Kirill Kabanov. He says the document is complex, adds to the existing complexity and has holes in it. So an official could take a bribe, say it was a gift and he was going to declare it in three days.

Far better, says Kabanov would just be to ban accepting all gifts for all officials, bar the free pens. Everything else should be put up for auction, and officials not given special priority.

These rules already exist, says Oleg Mitvol from Rosprirodnadzor, but nobody followed them. He says it would be shocking to see the amount of expensive watches for example to come out of the woodwork if everything had to go to auction.

The Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov laughed at the proposals. Honest  officials would be happy to receive a bottle of perfume for example. But those who take hundreds of thousands of dollars, do you think will put them off?

Its part of Russia’s anti-corruption plan for 2012-2013. Russian government officials have a poor reputation both in Russia and abroad when it comes to corrupt behaviour. Despite many announcements about combating corruption in Russia in past years there has been little progress in achieving it.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

A toxic legacy- Russia’s struggle to dispose of its chemical weapons


Years after the cold war in which they were readied to be used, Russia and the USA still have tonnes of chemical weapons. They are now nearing the end of the process of dismantling them, or at least they should be. In Russia problems with ageing stockpiles have started a race against time to dispose of the deadly weapons before it might be too late.

Most of today's destruction of old stockpiles of chemical weapons goes back to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) ratified in 1997. Although various agreements had essentially made chemical weapons unusable some years before then, that agreement really spelled the end of chemical weapons stockpiles in many countries, including the old cold war rivals Russia and the USA. In 1997 Russia declared an arsenal of just under 40,000 tonnes of chemical weapons, that was more than the rest of the world combined. The U.S. declared just under 31,000 tonnes.

To date Russia says it has destroyed 66% of its stockpile. The U.S. has destroyed 90% of its stockpile as of last January.

The declared intention was to have them all gone by the agreed CWC deadline of April 2012. But even that had been an extension. Now they've missed that deadline, apparently due to the environmental difficulties of disposing of these chemicals, which range from irritating to lethal, safely. 

Russia has said that many of the casings these chemicals are kept in, either containers or artillery shells are now in such poor condition it's slowed the task down. 

With these disposal problems remaining it seems likely it could take another four years, until 2016 for them all to have been destroyed. Chemical weapons, like many chemicals, have expiry dates. The trouble for Russia is that the remaining stockpile expires on January the 1st 2013. That makes everything more dangerous and urgent. Expiry dates indicate when chemicals might start to become unstable and when their containers become too old.  At a conference held by the news agency Interfax on Tuesday General Vladimir Mandych said the numbers of Russia's chemical weapons on the 'urgent' list is growing by the day. 

For some it's already too late. There have been reports of leaks of some of Russia's chemical weapons. Among them are three 2-tonne aviation bombs that starting leaking though it wasn't said what was inside them. Some 6 tonnes of the deadly nerve gas VX started leaking back in July, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports. VX is the most toxic nerve agent ever synthesised so far as has been tested. Even worse there were no experts there in time so soldiers rushed to the scene equipped only with gas masks and not the full isolation suits necessary to protect from this deadly chemical weapon. The lethal dose is estimated at just 10 milligrams.

And the task ahead only gets worse with the remaining weapons the most complex to dismantle, which is more costly and dangerous to do, while all the time the weapons pass their intended storage life.

The countries involved actually do seem to want to get rid of this remaining bulk of weapons, if a few years late. And this is an example of an area of post cold war cooperation. It's an international operation, with the U.S. and EU providing Russia with equipment and helping to build disposal and storage sites. Security remains high against the risk of theft of any of these chemical agents. Remember there was a Sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by a cult in 1995.

Russia is also trying to make a thorough job of it. They first chemically deactivate the agents, usually breaking them down into less harmful compounds, then burn that matter until it is safe. 

Of course this also ties into this week's row over the threat Syria may use it's chemical weapons. The only three countries in the world that were thought to have VX nerve gas were the U.S., Russia and....surprise, surprise....Syria. The U.S. finished destroying all of its VX in 2008. Although the general wouldn't comment on it, it's almost certain that Syria's chemical weapons were supplied by the Soviet Union. Russia's is now close to closing this dark chapter in the history of warfare on its own territory, and hopefully they will never be deemed necessary again. However, in Syria, there is the chance that chemical weapons might have a last, dreadful sting in their tail.