Same corruption, though far apart
January 18, 2007
Somewhere in between the haze of jet lag and the days of non-events that have occurred since my arrival back in Champaign from my beloved and wintry birthplace of Moscow, something deeply profound occurred to me.
All of the things wrong with Illinois politics, all the indictments, the dirty Chicago money and the attempts at grassroots novelty outside the most populous metropolis: Russia, in its path to democratization, has been trying to emulate Illinois all along!
Well. Probably not. However, the parallels are dangerously prescient. And in my three-week immersion into the internal reality of Russian politics, I realized that while things are different everywhere, they are also quite depressingly the same.
Consider the entities of Russia and Illinois. Some differences are obvious: language, cultural history, age. Russia is a far cry from a developed western democracy, this goes without saying. However, in reflecting on the past century and decade of Illinois and Chicago politics, it seems that even we have some work to do.
Governors, congressmen, aldermen and secretaries of state of the state of Illinois have embezzled, laundered, bribed and racketeered their way into a seemingly unending series of scandals.
From 1920 to the very present day, big government officials and their staffs are routinely indicted for and convicted of crimes.
Usually these crimes involve money. Former Illinois congressman Dan Rostenkowski used state money to fund personal events and trips for friends in the 1990s. Otto Kerner, former governor, was convicted of tax evasion and bribery. Orville Hodge, state auditor in the mid-20th century, went to jail for embezzling millions of dollars.
The list goes on, with Chicago aldermen misappropriating city funds, former Governor George Ryan and the license-for-bribes scandal, and most recently Tony Rezco, a man with close financial ties to our Governor and to Illinois politics, was indicted for extortion.
In Russia, the scene is similarly bleak and disenchanting. Power, it seems, corrupts on all continents. What’s more though, both Illinois and Russia are large political entities whose money and political power rests in one central urban area which dictates, financially and politically, the allocation of funds and resources to the rest of the state or nation.
In the last midterm election here in Champaign County, both Democratic and Republican nominees for state positions were routinely accused of using “Chicago” money, that makes candidates partial to donors’ interests, to run their local campaigns.
In Russia, Moscow acts in much the same way, controlling with the exception of a few wealthy oligarchs the larger course of politics for a nation much vaster than the city of Moscow.
In both cases, we see large principalities mired in corruption scandal after corruption scandal. In both cases, money and power have a symbiotic stranglehold on civic life.
The large speculation in Russia is that Vladimir Putin will take over the fast-growing and vastly wealthy national gas company GazProm when he steps down as president.
If my dreams of alternative energy sources become a reality, Illinois, too, could become a central force in the production of E85 and biofuels given its vast corn and soy fields.
So, what’s the point of such a comparison? As bad as it may be over there across the big Atlantic pond, America faces serious barriers to transparent politics at home. Illinois in particular remains mired in cash-fueled corruption.
One of the only solutions, it seems, is massive statewide campaign finance reform. In Russia, the solution is a great deal more complicated, and that’s about the saddest part of it all.
I shouldn’t even be able to make such a comparison of a barely Democratic former communist nation to a free state in the Union. But I can.
I can because the same thing that causes corruption all over the world is continuing to cause it here.
Politics should be revered as an area of life that should not answer to moneyed interests, because in such a state, money and politics become one.