Anti-graft drive stuns Russians as scams pop up

Ripples of scandal are spreading in Russia's Far East, where, auditors say, $472 million in construction financing was misallocated ahead of a government summit meeting. About $200 million in missing funds have led to firings in Russia's space industry. And corruption in the defence ministry has figured prominently in Russia's news cycles since November 6, leaving the fate of its former minister uncertain.

In the past, President Vladimir Putin has always been reluctant to expel or prosecute high-level officials, despite widespread complaints about corruption. So the mushrooming scandals are unusual, raising questions about what has changed.

Political strategists, searching for ideas powerful enough to consolidate the country around Putin, may seize on fighting corruption as a Kremlin effort, and recent steps hint at a populist push to expose and punish guilty officials.

"A tough, uncompromising battle with corruption has begun," announced Arkady Mamontov, a pro-government television host, in a much-hyped documentary titled 'Corruption' that, though it was broadcast close to midnight on Tuesday, attracted nearly 20% of the television audience. "In the course of the next months, we will see many interesting things. The main thing is that we should not stand aside and watch what is happening, but take an active part in it."

Political observers have watched the anticorruption drive curiously, debating where it might be headed, and especially whether, for the first time since Putin came to power, high-ranking officials would face prosecution. On Monday, the newspaper Vedomosti declared that Moscow was witnessing the beginning of a "cleansing of the elite" — a flushing out of a political system that lacks other mechanisms of renewal, like competitive elections. Others were skeptical that the effort would reach beyond midlevel officials.

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