Is Graft Causing Russian Spacecraft to Fail?

Phobos-Grunt -- coming soon to a continent and/or ocean near you. (Credit: Ralph Vandeberg -- used by permission)

While Roscosmos Head Vladimir Popovkin floats conspiracy theories about foreign weapons taking out Russian spacecraft, his nation has set a new, all-time record for the embezzlement of government funds:

Since 2008 the sums embezzled have grown sevenfold: while back in 2008 the figure was 96.6 billion rubles ($3.2 billion), it is now 718.5 billion rubles ($22.7 billion).

More than 50 per cent of the missing money was wasted on Budget Code violations, with another 35 per cent on violations in state procurements. The underlying reason behind those wastes, the Accounts Chamber head said, is bureaucracy as each governmental order goes through hundreds if legal bodies, which breeds corruption. The functions each legal body performs are often unclear…

However, research published in July 2011 revealed that the average bribe in Russia has increased almost sevenfold – to a whopping $10,000.

So, how is all this graft affecting the Russian space program? Damned good question.

And it’s one that investigators are trying to answer:

The Accounts Chamber says it has identified a possible reason for the spate of costly failures of Russia’s space program. It comes following an audit of the books at the state space agency, Roscosmos.

The Accounts Chamber has been looking into a list of major financial irregularities and misuses of budgetary funds. The chairman of the chamber, Sergey Stepashin, says investigation results are pointing at a direct connection between the embezzlements and recent launch failures. Law enforcement agencies will now be joining the investigation…

The inquiry into the agency’s affairs has been going on since 2010’s incidents with officials within Roscosmos itself admitting more control should be taken over its finances to prevent further launch failures.

The investigation into Roscosmos became public back in September. Hopefully, we will hear more about it soon. If there really is fraud involved, then threats by Russian President Dmitry Medvedvev to launch criminal prosecutions against space officials make much more sense.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tours RSC Energia. (Credit: Russian Federation Government)

Medvedev has been nominally leading the effort to fight corruption in Russia. However, the problem appears to be systemic and, if critics are to be believed, is centered on his boss, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is running for president again on March 4.

Vladimir Putin’s decade in power associates in most minds with two highly negative phenomena – an extraordinary increase in the abuse of power and corruption.

Russia in 2010 managed to rank 154th out of 178 countries according to influential global civil society organisation Transparency International. Our peers in the list are some of the least developed countries of Africa (Congo, Guinea-Bissau) and other countries such as New Guinea and Tadzhikistan. Transparency International considers Russia to be the most corrupt of all the major countries in the world, the so-called G20. Our BRIC colleagues (Brazil, China and India) rate way above us as well in 69th, 78th, and 87th respectively….

Corruption has ceased being a problem in Russia; it has become a system. Its metastases have paralysed the country’s social and economic life. The annual turnover of corruption in Russia now stands at $300 billion [Source: INDEM (Information Science for Democracy) Foundation investigation Diagnostics of corruption in Russia: 2001-2005 which has estimated that between 2001 and 2005 the value of corruption rose from 33 to 316 billion dollars.] This amount is comparable in size to Russia’s budget as a whole and represents 25% of the country’s GNP.

Russia is twice as corrupt as China? That’s hard to believe. And with Putin’s likely return to the presidency, there is little hope for any real change.

Now, this wouldn’t be as troublesome except for one thing: NASA is paying an ever increasing amount of money to Roscosmos to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station. That cost will soon  be up at $63 million per seat. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has attributed this increase to inflation. He’s right to a certain degree: the decline in the value of the dollar and the rise of the ruble probably accounts for some of the increase. But, it’s also Russia taking advantage of its monopoly position.

The interesting question is, Where is all this money going? It’s not going to engineering salaries, which are absurdly low. It’s clearly not finding its way into quality control. And it’s not being spent on improving Russian rocket factories.

NASA has no real control over that. Nor, sadly, does it have any control over what Congress gives it to field replacement vehicles for the space shuttle. Which is a shame, because the solution to ending our dependence on Russia quickly is easily within our grasp. Providing, of course, Congressmen could put aside its narrow interests to do what’s best for the country.