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Europe Russia’s president

Alone at the top

Vladimir Putin has initiated some high-profile battles against corruption. But to many he seems increasingly isolated and out of touch

STATE-RUN television is not usually the place to find news of corruption scandals involving officials close to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Murky business dealings have never been a bar to government service. When high-level bureaucrats fall, they usually go quietly. But viewers have recently been treated to quite a spectacle on Channel One: evening broadcasts full of current and former ministers, their lovers, their expensive homes and millions in misappropriated funds.

This nascent anti-corruption campaign began in October with the dismissal of Anatoly Serdyukov as defence minister. He was fired after investigators linked a company spun off from the ministry to a $100m fraud. That a high-level official with ties to Mr Putin could be so publicly dumped was unprecedented. But since then, a $200m embezzlement case over a satellite-guidance system has threatened Mr Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. And on November 27th Rossiya-1 channel aired a documentary linking a former agriculture minister, Yelena Skrynnik, to a reported $1.2 billion fraud.

For Mr Putin, taking on graft in his own circle has several benefits. It is popular: between 2005 and 2012, corruption rose from tenth to third in the concerns of ordinary Russians. It is also an issue that unites his opponents. Mr Putin may dismiss democratic worries, but he sees himself as a popular leader, responsive to the national will. Legitimacy of a kind matters deeply.

Eight months after his election to a third term, Mr Putin’s support looks shaky. The polls give him some of his lowest approval ratings ever. So he feels “compelled to carry on a populist course, as if the elections were still ahead of him,” says Nikolay Petrov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. Fighting corruption also defangs the most resonant complaint of the opposition.

Launching corruption cases against his inner circle can also rein in excesses that make Mr Putin politically vulnerable and the state ineffectual. In his 12 years in power, bureaucratic corruption has gone “unpunished, unattended, and uncontrolled”, says Elena Panfilova of Transparency International, a lobby group. Worse, state employees now feel emboldened to siphon off resources even without sustaining social stability. Targeting a few high-profile officials can be a way to “introduce a certain level of fear,” Ms Panfilova notes.

A disruptive public war on corruption also can create more infighting among political and business clans. That seems to be happening at Rostelecom, where two managers are being questioned about a $225m fraudulent loan from VTB, a state-run bank. Control over lucrative telecoms licences may be the real point. Yet an anti-corruption purge can also take on its own uncontrolled momentum, which could make Mr Putin weaker, not stronger.

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