Of bees, bribes and bureaucrats

September 15, 2009

Russian banking and aviation magnate Alexander Lebedev, owner of London’s Evening Standard, estimates that Russian bureaucrats have pocketed $500 billion in bribes in the past four years and corruption and red tape make Russia one of the worst places to invest on earth.

On the scale of bureaucratic outrages, Lebedev hit a personal low when the authorities asked him to produce a 100 page report on bee poo. They claimed to be concerned about the excrement produced in the hives at one of his farms.

“The conditions for entrepreneurship in Russia are simply horrible,” Lebedev told the Reuters Russia Investment Summit.

Lebedev has plenty of suggestions how to cure the disease. One of them would be to fire at least half the bureaucrats. “They are wealthy people. Let them go to Saint-Tropez,” he said.

One could wonder how billionaire Lebedev gets away with criticism of the Kremlin while his peers who had dared to challenge authorities had to flee to London or are serving prison terms in Siberia, like the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Lebedev, a former KGB agent like Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, says Putin is open to criticism and these are mainly mid-level bureaucrats who are causing trouble. “Putin is a hostage to the tradition of a corrupt country,” says Lebedev.

But he says Khodorkovsky must be freed and often repeats “God Forbid” when mentioning other fallen oligarchs.

Perhaps having a critic like Lebedev is valuable for Putin — if the prime minister does launch a fresh crackdown on corruption or major regulatory reforms, he will immediately have a cheering section. And without Lebedev, the Russian corporate landscape would be too dull.

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