Many Russians will no doubt be nursing sore heads this morning following the announcement that the country is to host the World Cup in 2018. But were last night’s revellers at all troubled by Russia’s other big news story this week—WikiLeaks cables alleging that Russia is effectively a “mafia state” run by its corrupt prime minister? Not likely.
While foreign newspapers have filled their pages with tales of corruption and intrigue among Russia’s political elites, few in the country have responded with much more than a frustrated shrug. To understand why the scandal has barely raised eyebrows in Moscow, it is worth looking at these revelations a little more closely.
Take, for instance, the story claiming Silvio Berlusconi profited financially from his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Such a scandal should surely be politically ruinous for both leaders. Worse, we are told that Putin has amassed a vast personal fortune through the secret ownership of foreign companies and offshore assets.
After years of unsubstantiated rumours finally we have firm evidence—sourced from the US diplomatic service no less—that the Russian premier has been hoodwinking his public with phoney patriotism while secretly squirrelling away ill-gotten billions.
By this stage even the most fervent cheerleader for diplomatic secrecy might acknowledge that these leaks—which shine light on the rotten heart of Russian government—aren’t all bad. Seasoned Russia watchers, however, responded mostly with disbelief at the extent to which old gossip has apparently managed to seep into America’s official diplomatic missives.
The sources for these claims are as dubious as the allegations they contain. We are asked to believe that the Georgian ambassador in Rome had detailed knowledge of Putin’s business affairs and that unnamed opposition sources in Russia had privileged access to the prime minister’s private financial dealings.
For an embassy official to liken the president and prime minister of a country to Robin and Batman in an official document is not only unprofessional but also insulting. It was no surprise that Putin greeted the claims with a dismissive laugh and a touch of irritation when they were put to him by Larry King on CNN.
His sentiments will have been shared by many Russian citizens who have become tired with the way the country is presented in the western media. While Putin’s conspiracy theories about western agitation in Russian politics are usually laughed off, these leaks have only given weight to his concerns over America’s attitude to his administration.
This was diplomatic tittle-tattle of the lowest order, akin to asking a Manchester City fan to give an objective analysis of Alex Ferguson’s career. What it betrays more than anything else is an apparent willingness on the part of the US diplomats in question to give credence to stories that would sit far more comfortably in a cold war narrative.
It could have been assumed that the reason for handing WikiLeaks documents to the press prior to mass release was that they could give some analysis and context to add credibility to the proceedings. Unfortunately it appears that scandal-chasing has been prioritised over reasoned discussion.
To criticise international press coverage of the leaks is not to deny that corruption is an enormous problem in Russia. Indeed even the Russian government acknowledges this. The head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, for instance, estimates that the each year Russians spend a sum total of $300bn on bribes.
Nonetheless, publicising idle gossip rather than addressing chronic problems makes for shoddy journalism. In particular, it does a disservice to Russian journalists like Oleg Kashin who risk their lives to actually expose corruption amongst Russia’s rich and powerful. Our media should know better.