In Russia, meanwhile, old-new President Vladimir Putin has just seen fit to fire his minister of defense, Anatoly Serdyukov, over allegations that the disgraced official used his privileged position to reap profits from the Russian arms trade. (Apparently Serdyukov was found cavorting with his mistress in a home crammed with ill-gotten luxuries when the police raided her place. They led her away in handcuffs.) The scandal now appears to be widening.
Here, too, though, the government's account of its own actions has a distinctly selective feel to it. Serdyukov's plans for reforming the military made him plenty of enemies within the army, so his foes may have used his lavish spending as an excuse for getting rid of him. It's certainly true that equally ostentatious corruption by Russian officials -- not to mention leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church -- has met with little or no reaction from the Kremlin. Indeed, the authorities seem to have spent most of their time lately rounding up anti-sleaze activists like Alexei Navalny, whose public criticisms of malfeasance don't play to the government's script.
It should be pointed out that corruption mega-scandals are not restricted to the authoritarian countries. Brazilians have been watching in astonishment as dozens of officials from the administration of still-popular ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have been tried and convicted for their involvement in a vast vote-buying scheme known as the mensalão (Portuguese for"big monthly payment"). In Indonesia, the national Anti-Corruption Commission has been embroiled in an epic battle with the notoriously rotten police force. And in India, activists are once again mounting a nationwide campaign against ubiquitous graft that many cite as a major drag on economic growth.
For that matter, even in the United States -- whose citizens are now congratulating themselves on the end of a hard-fought presidential election -- there are plenty of worries going around about the extent to which money and politics have become fused at the hip, from lobbying to the nefarious role of political finance. (I'm not sure we can console ourselves with the fact that some of the sleaziest practices don't technically qualify as corruption because they're allowed by law.)
It's not a terribly inspiring picture, and Cockcroft, for his part, deserves points for his frankness in admitting that there are no easy fixes. He notes that some of the most dramatic successes in fighting corruption have come in small places like Singapore and Hong Kong, where enlightened but undemocratic leaders managed to put in place strong graft-fighting institutions as well as instilling a genuine anti-corruption ethos among the population. But those lessons don't necessarily transplant well to big, messy places like Russia or Indonesia.
But he finds some hope in growing global awareness of the scale of the problem. During the Cold War, there was little willingness to address it as a global plague, since communist countries forbade its discussion and western governments feared that prying into the foibles of their authoritarian allies against the Soviet Union weren't worth the ensuing complications. But the frenetic expansion of the global economy over the past two decades has made corruption too big to ignore -- as well as far harder to track.