Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is headed for victory in Sunday's presidential election in Russia. The ballot's been set, so he's all but certain to win a majority, without facing an embarrassing run-off against one of his much weaker rivals.
Putin's also certain to face growing anger from an educated, urban middle class that's been demonstrating on the streets of Moscow.
They first came out to protest apparent vote rigging, in December's parliamentary election. But many see electoral fraud as part of the wider problem of corruption and abuse of power in Putin's Russia.
Contracts Won With Kickbacks
Dmitri is a 29-year-old financial adviser for an oil company. He didn't want to give his surname, but he did want to explain why he came out for a protest last weekend in Moscow: "Corruption and unequal position of citizens in front of the law."
Sergei Vorobyov is another businessman who's itching to talk about corruption. He's the financial controller for a medium-size firm that imports video equipment for conferences and exhibits. His customers are mainly government agencies.
"We cannot win a state contract unless we promise to pay a specific person a specific sum, in cash," he says in Russian.
The blond, trim-looking 47-year-old is emphatic. "Our company has not won a single major contract without paying a kickback", he says, "generally not more than 10 percent of the cost of the project."
The extortion, as he describes it, doesn't begin or end when he gets to the office. There are the constant stops by traffic police who, he says, are more interested in enriching themselves than ensuring road safety. A few years ago, Vorobyov resolved not to cough up — and at one point had his license suspended.
'None Of The Institutions' Work
Acquaintances in the traffic police have told Vorobyov that supervisors set quotas for safety stops — and quotas for bribes. Part of each cop's haul gets passed up the chain of command.
Vorobyov regales a reporter with tales of ambulance drivers extracting bribes to pick up patients, doctors demanding something extra for anything beyond minimal treatment, educators who admit students to universities for a price.
"I think none of the institutions in this country works," says businessman Alexander Lebedev. "I think the judges are not the judges, the police are not the police, the central bank inspectors are not the central bank inspectors, and finally, the bureaucrats are not the bureaucrats, they're after quick profit, through corruption."
Lebedev is perhaps an unlikely anti-corruption crusader. He's on the Forbes list of billionaires, though he protests it's an honor he neither deserves nor wants. His holdings include a Russian bank, parts of Aeroflot, and The Independent newspaper in Britain. The Russian paper he finances, Novaya Gazeta, has been calculating the cost of corruption to Russia.
"In the recent eight years, say from 2003 to probably 2010, this country has been deprived of over ... $500 billion, which money misappropriated inside the country, mostly in the state sector," he says, "this are state corporations, state banks, state companies — this is exactly what we investigate."
Lebedev says the paper's investigative reporting has led inspectors to tie up his bank's assets with audits, so he can no longer pay the salaries at Novaya Gazeta.
'Mostly About Unfair Treatment'
He is careful to say he doesn't think Putin himself has amassed a huge fortune. Like Putin, he was a Soviet spy, and he has this intelligence tip for his former colleague about the recent street protests:
"They are not as much about the rigged election. They are mostly about the unfair treatment by the state and about corruption."
Lebedev also warns Putin the protests will continue.