But considering the scale of the corruption in Russia, Putin also can't afford to let it fester anymore. It has become a major liability. In the latest Corruption Perceptions Index, which Transparency International released on Dec. 5, Russia improved slightly from last year, but still ranks near the bottom of the list, on a par with Guyana and Honduras, and well below Sierra Leone and Niger. According to data from the Levada Center, an independent pollster, corruption is now third in the ranking of public concerns, up from tenth in 2005. Only poverty and inflation worry Russians more. "At this point corruption is dangerous not just because [officials] steal, but because all they do is steal," says Zlobin.
"They have stopped carrying out their basic responsibilities. They don't listen to anyone, not even Putin. This compromises the stability of the state."
The best way for Putin to bring them into line, Zlobin suggests, is by making an example of someone at the very top, much like he did in confronting the country's oligarchs during his first presidency. In 2004, the richest and most powerful among them, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was put in prison, where he remains. Soon after his conviction on fraud and embezzlement charges, Russia's other oligarchs either emigrated or pledged allegiance to Putin. But this time, the president seems reluctant to choose a sacrificial lamb. Serdyukov, the sacked defense minister in the middle of the scandal, has not even been interrogated, let alone charged, even though several of his direct subordinates are already in jail. On Nov. 16, Putin even shielded him from criticism. "No investigators and no courts have made any claims against Serdyukov personally," Putin said in response to rumors that the fallen minister had been appointed to another post. "If he wants to find work and someone takes him in, I don't think we should prevent that."
Evgeny Minchenko, a Kremlin-connected spin doctor, says that is when Putin's war against corruption "ceased to be very convincing" for the people watching at home. Serdyukov was the only man from Putin's inner circle who was in the line of fire, and with investigators recently saying that they are not even interested in questioning him, the purge suddenly seems to be running out of steam. "People have begun to question how serious this is," Minchenko says. "So far only the lackeys seem to be taking the heat."
And this seemed to make the public restless. In a nationwide survey released on Dec. 3, the Levada Center found that 80 percent of respondents consider the Defense Ministry probe a sign of "all-encompassing degradation and corruption of power." Only 12 percent said the graft at the ministry was "atypical." Meanwhile, Putin's ratings have also begun to suffer, falling last week to their lowest level since last December, when massive street protests erupted against him.
"The people demand blood. And if they allow this bloodletting, that demand will only grow," says Zlobin. "Once you devour one very senior person, the question immediately arises, why is he the only one?"