Putin grants white-collar amnesty to boost a flagging economy

Russia frees its criminal class

(Sasha Mordovets/Getty)

(Sasha Mordovets/Getty)

When people talk about freeing business from the shackles of government, they aren’t usually talking about literal shackles. But in Russia, where thousands of business people are arrested every year—some for actually breaking the law, but often on trumped-up charges—getting entrepreneurs out of jail has recently become a top economic concern.

In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed a plan that could stem that tide by freeing some of those in jail on white-collar charges. Speaking to an audience of global CEOs, Putin billed the amnesty as a uniquely Russian stimulus. For the past decade, Russia has relied overwhelmingly on natural resources to fuel its economy. But with money from exports slowing, the country now needs business to pick up the slack. Letting some entrepreneurs out of jail, and allowing them to commit relatively unencumbered commerce, could be a way to do that.

Many, however, are skeptical of just how far Putin intends to go. It was under his watch that charges of fraud and tax evasion were allowed to so flourish. What’s more, the president himself has often used economic charges to crack down on his foes. The amnesty Putin endorsed, meanwhile, is less sweeping than originally envisioned. Under the plan he supported—which was passed into law in July—only a small group of convicts are eligible: in the first weeks of the program, fewer than 20 prisoners—out of more than 100,000 originally considered for release—were let go.

The current plan is weak. But even a even a broad amnesty wouldn’t make the rent-seeking and official extortion that Russian businesses face disappear. “This is a systemic problem,” says Matthew Light, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto who studies justice issues in the former Soviet Union. And even Putin may not have the power to solve it, at least not without trying a lot harder than he already has.