KAZAN — A Kazan city official takes a seat in a nondescript office and watches with bewilderment as sensors are strapped around his chest and wrists. A book called “The Psychophysiology of Lie Detection” sits on the table beside him.
The city government of Kazan has been quietly administering lie-detector tests to bureaucrats for over a year now as part of its effort to come to grips with rampant corruption.
Oleg Novikov, head of the anticorruption department of the municipal administration, administers the tests personally and has faith in the results.
“Someone might be impulsive, someone might express their thoughts. So you can deceive, but it is impossible to deceive yourself,” Novikov says.
“This machine is impassive. It doesn’t care if you are a man or a woman, a senior official or an ordinary worker. It simply records the physiological reactions to the answers to my questions.”
Discussions surrounding the possible use of lie detectors in the battle against corruption in Russia have been going on for years. Polygraph tests are commonly used by police and other law enforcement agencies for screening new hires.
The national reform of the police that was pushed through by President Dmitry Medvedev earlier this year includes provisions for mandatory lie-detector testing throughout the Interior Ministry, and earlier this month Medvedev dismissed six high-ranking ministry officials, reportedly for failing their tests. Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has told journalists that he himself passed such an examination.
The Moscow city government announced earlier this month that it is also considering mandatory testing for all public officials.
But efforts to put other state bureaucrats to the test have never really gotten off the ground. A draft law mandating polygraph examinations for senior officials was presented in the Duma in 2009, but has not been passed.
“In Russia, despite the quite frequent use of lie detectors, its legal status is not regulated in any way,” says human rights activist Pavel Chikov, who heads the Agora center in Kazan. “There is not one law that describes and regulates this process or establishes its legal status or establishes the legal weight of the conclusions of the polygraphist.”
‘A Two-Way Street’
Nonetheless, the program in Tatarstan’s capital continues apace, even though the key question of mandatory versus voluntary remains very much up in the air.
Novikov tells RFE/RL that dozens of officials have been dismissed because of failed tests. A former deputy head of the city Land Committee and a former head of the Property Committee are currently under criminal investigation.
Novikov says the Kazan polygraph tests are not mandatory, but that his department asks officials to submit to them voluntarily when they come under suspicion. “When the rumors started that this kind of checking would be done, of course, everyone was skeptical, thinking it was just some sort of threat,” he says.
“And when they really set up the department and bought the equipment and began testing people, there was some fear and dissatisfaction among the employees,” he continues. “A lot of people refused — since it is a voluntary procedure — but each agency has its own rules of the game and, naturally, everyone has to take them into account.”
He adds, however, that bribery is a two-way street, a phenomenon that is far broader than just some corrupt officials, and that ordinary people are also to blame.
“Parents are willing to give everything to improve the fate of their child, to get them into a good kindergarten, school. As far as medical care is concerned, everyone is ready to show their gratitude to a doctor for good attention. That is considered obligatory, of course,” Novikov says. “The only consequence for this kind of violation on the part of an official is a simple warning.”
More Than Just PR?
Rights activist Chikov says the lie detector is just one of the tools available to fight corruption. He fears the Kazan government’s program is more show than substance:
“Managers, as a rule, know who among their workers has clean hands. The managers very often have connections with the workers that take bribes,” Chikov says, which is why he’s afraid the tests are “just another short-term public-relations project aimed at the public, to boost the appearance of legitimacy of the authorities in the eyes of the public. It is nothing more than that and has nothing to do with combating corruption.”
Having passed his test, Roman Fatkhutdinov, the deputy head of an office in the Kazan administration, disentangles himself from the polygraph’s sensors and pats down his neat, white shirt.
“It was OK. The polygraphists didn’t smile,” he says. “I think this is necessary. It is unpleasant — I felt that myself. But it should be done.”
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report