Corruption and Transparency: my stories

Fighting Corruption: a project with Russian wood suppliers

Traveling along supply chains

Much of my work since the early 1990s has been travelling along supply chains: from cotton field to T-shirt, from platinum mine to automobile, from palm tree to margarine, or from tree to newspaper. Actually I enjoyed very much walking through African villages in cotton producing regions, visiting Indonesian palm oil plantations or working on ecologically responsible sourcing for a Norwegian paper mill.

The responsible sourcing agenda has been continuously changing over time. In the beginning, it was all about ecological impacts, but gradually labour safety and human rights issues were moving to the foreground.

Including social  issues, labour safety and …. corruption

After doing some ground breaking work for Axel Springer and Norske Skog on responsible forestry and supply chain traceability in Norway, my next contributions were much more related to social issues, including labour safety. Axel Springer took the lead here, not on the basis of huge complex projects but through strategically important small and quick projects –Axel Springer’s sustainability officer, called them “fast horses” – to communicate a simple message and to invite others to follow in the same direction.

Interviewing forest operators in Tikhvin: “Is this wood legal and corruption-free?” (from Florian Nehm’s presentation at IACC Athens 2008)

We made some attempts to work on labour safety with the Volga paper mill near Nizhniy Novgorod, but for some reasons we then increasingly concentrated on anti-corruption issues in close cooperation with the Finnish-Swedish paper company Stora Enso and their wood suppliers in Tikhvin. The leading global anti-corruption organisation Transparency International eventually joined as a critical and independent project partner.


The Tikhvin project: from Russia with Transparency

Kick-off meeting

On March 4, 2004, we met in the St. Petersburg office of Stora Enso: the Russian director, Axel Springer’s sustainability officer, three ladies from Helsinki, some other managers and experts and myself. In close cooperation with the participants, I had prepared the agenda and a presentation.

After agreeing on a project outline and a basic idea of the project budget, we had dinner together. The following morning we drove to Tikhvin, a small town (60.000 inhabitants) somewhat more than 200 km East of St. Petersburg.

On the road to Tikhvin

We arrived at the forest company’s office (Lespromkhoz) around 10 am.

Unfortunately I had to go to the toilet and what I saw there I did not like at all. Apparently, the water flow was blocked and the toilet was filled to the brim with an indescribable brown stinking substance, to which I delivered my modest contribution. Welcome to Russia![1]

After the meeting with the forest people, and the representatives from Stora Enso and Axel Springer, we did some interesting sight-seeing.

Marian Tikhvin Assumption Monastery

We walked through the snow to the beautiful Marian Tikhvin Assumption Monastery and later on we paid a short visit to the house where the composer Rimskiy Korsakov was born in 1844, now a museum. After a visit to the local wood processing company, we concluded the day with a copious meal in a good Russian restaurant. From that moment on, the project was called “From Russia with Transparency”, a variation of the 1963 James Bond film title (from Russia with Love with Sean Connery).

A good restaurant

The next day we drove back to St. Petersburg. After these kick-off meetings, I was not very much involved until I facilitated a meeting at the IACC conference in 2008 in which the results were discussed (see below).

More on the project.

Corruption as a solution: a bribe at the airport

Smelly chairman

In September of the same year, I was participating in a study trip to the Russian forests near Novgorod, 195 km South of St. Petersburg. It was organised by the German Publishers Association VDZ. Representatives of paper companies and environmental NGOs (including WWF and Greenpeace) were among the participants. Before the trip to Novgorod, there was a meeting in St. Petersburg, which I had agreed to chair. I arrived five minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start. Actually, I should have arrived the evening before, but I had terrible problems in Moscow. First I lost my luggage, which had been deposited in a large lost-and-found storage hall (because I did not know that I was responsible myself to take the luggage to the airport where my flight to St. Petersburg would take off) and then the flight to St. Petersburg was cancelled.

Chairing the St. Petersburg meeting

I spent the entire night in the closed airport restaurant together with some Chinese travellers. Later on I discovered that there had been an announcement in Russian only in which a free night in a hotel near the airport was offered. But I don’t understand Russian. Neither did the Chinese. So when I finally arrived at our meeting venue, I had not had a shower, I had not brushed my teeth and I had not had an opportunity to shave. I was so happy that the little table, reserved for the chairman, was at least 2 meters away from the first person in the audience. Most probably, nobody in the audience could smell their chairman, I hoped.

Russian realities
Meeting with forest workers (1-9-2004)

After this memorable opening session, we left for Novgorod. It was a highly interesting trip, not only showing problems and solutions for environmentally responsible forest management, but also the absurdities of Russian forest law and its implementation.

Publishers in the forest (2-9-2004)

I wrote an earlier blog about this subject (Stories from Russia).

After visiting the Novgorod forest, we were invited by an Austrian company that had started some operations in the wood processing industry in the region.


Meeting at the Austrian company

We learned a lot about doing business in Russia and about the unavoidable risks. Our Austrian friend told us that there are many factories that employ far more people for security than for production.


He then asked whether anybody of us knew why the shops are all open day and night. Nobody knew. The answer was simple: unattended shops will be robbed immediately. As there should be somebody in the shop at all times, why not keep it open?

The next day I had an appointment in Moscow. My colleague from the World Resources Institute in Washington, his assistant and I would meet with Greenpeace people there.

I went to the St. Petersburg airport, but when I tried to check in, I was told that the flight was fully booked and that I had to wait for another flight several hours later. I did not like it at all. I was desperate to meet my Washington and Moscow friends for discussing a very interesting project on ecologically responsible forest management in the Kirov region and FSC certification.

Socialising in Russia: a bribe at the airport
Finally: a flight to Moscow

So I went to the check-in counter again and I only saw only one option to get on the reserved Moscow flight. I folded two € 20 banknotes into my passport and asked the guy in the check-in office whether he could organise a place for me. He did not look at me, but saw the Euro notes, which he immediately took from my passport. Two minutes later I had a boarding pass. I was well aware that someone else who had booked on this flight had now lost his or her place. So be it. After receiving my precious boarding pass, I quickly looked into the check-in office again. Behind the check-in guy’s computer, I saw a huge pile of banknotes. I suddenly realised how quickly I was socialising in Russian society. A little bribe here and there makes life bearable.

In the Greenpeace Moscow office

Almost two hours later, I arrived at the Greenpeace office in Moscow. I told my Greenpeace contact my story. He seemed to have mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was not surprised. This is the way it works in Russia. On the other hand, he did not entirely agree. The only thing he said was: “You should not have paid € 40. The current rate is € 20.” So even in bribery, there are transparent markets and fixed prices.

Corruption: an expression of intelligence

As mentioned, in the beginning of 2004, I played a role during the kick-off meetings of the Tikhvin project. Initially the project included many aspects of responsible sourcing. Gradually, especially after agreeing with Transparency International on their critical role, the emphasis shifted towards corruption and the private sector’s role in fighting it. Axel Springer’s sustainability officer started to frame the project in terms of ‘corruption free paper’. In 2008, Transparency International was planning their big international conference on Transparency and Corruption, which was going to take place in November of that year. The title was: “Global Transparency – Fighting corruption for a sustainable future.” In April, Transparency International’s EU Liaison office, with strong input from some German people, organised a discussion in Brussels to provide inputs into the November event.

I was invited as an expert on supply chains, private sector and sustainability. Half an hour before the meeting, I was asked to prepare a presentation about ‘sustainability’ and its potential links with Transparency International’s work, which perfectly made sense given the theme of the November conference.

The discussion at TI Brussels

At hindsight, I can say that I gave a pretty good presentation in which I stressed the utopian nature of the sustainability concept and made clear that there is no simple and obvious link between ‘sustainability’ and ‘anti-corruption’. The only linking pin I saw (and still see) is ‘good governance’. I don’t know how useful my contribution actually was at the time. I myself was deeply impressed by Albena Azmanova’s contribution. Professor Azmanova was (and still is) a professor in political science. She was strongly involved in the political transition in her home country (Bulgaria) and published her work, originally refused in Bulgaria, in the US and Europe.

The discussion at TI Brussels

Her presentation and her discussion contributions during our Brussels meeting were real eye-openers for me. In discussion the nature of corruption, she emphasised its intelligent nature. Corruption is of course a problem, but it only exists because it provides intelligent solutions to problems inherent to non-functioning social and political systems. My own translation: if you don’t know the problems for which corruption provides a solution, you won’t be able to effectively fight it. At least, my act of bribery had corrected my problem that was caused by the bad Russian booking and check-in system.

The need for transparency: the Athens conference


The International Anti Corruption Conference (IACC) is generally being held every two years. The 2008 conference, held in Athens, emphasised the need for good governance and building institutions that can be trusted. It explicitly formulated expectations to the private sector’s role.

“To restore peoples’ trust and rebuild the credibility of institutions, governments must move beyond expressions of political will to concrete action; private sector must put a check on bribery and fulfil their obligations as corporate citizens and civil society must demand accountability.” (from , my underlining).

During the conference, several workshops addressed the private sector’s responsibilities for fighting corruption. I happened to chair workshop 4.4: “The Private Sector’s Role in Fighting Corruption in the Wood Supply Chain: An Example from Russia”, which was entirely built around the experiences of the so-called Tikhvin project as mentioned above. After my introduction, Florian Nehm (Axel Springer) and Pirjetta Soikkeli (Stora Enso) were on the speakers list, followed by some critical remarks by Elena Panfilova from Transparancy International Moscow. In my introductory remarks, I stressed the business risk of weak governance in supply chains and optimistically said “fighting corruption is becoming part of supply chain management.”

From my presentation

Practical limits to transparency: getting things done in Athens

After my presentation, Florian Nehm wanted to show a video that was made in the context of the Tikhvin project. During our preparatory discussions, the conference management made clear that they were not in favour of showing the Tikhvin film. They thought it would not fit into the character of the conference. Maybe they suspected it to be too commercial or too superficial. In any case, the video proposal was declined and Florian Nehm was kindly asked to show a classical PowerPoint instead. In the morning before the presentation, the PowerPoint was delivered to the central conference desk, as agreed. However, one hour before the start of the workshop, Florian Nehm and I sneaked into the workshop room where we met the technical staff responsible for projecting slides and videos. We gave them a memory stick with the video and the instruction to disregard the material coming from the central conference desk.

After my introduction, Florian Nehm, much to the surprise of the conference management, showed his film. It proved to be a very good introduction into the subject, which was then further elaborated by the Stora Enso and Transparency International people. That particular day in 2008, we again discovered something everybody already knows. Sometimes, you cannot be too transparent about what you are doing or what you are planning to do. Even at the Transparency International Meeting, there were practical limits to transparency.


[1] I am not sure whether this experience was in the Tikhvin Lespromkhoz building or in Kovernino (Koverninskiy Leskoz, March 2003). Wherever it was, it was pretty awful.

Een weekje Rusland

Reizen naar Rusland

OAO Volga (2003)
OAO Volga (2003)






Mijn eerste Russische reis was toen ik in opdracht van een Duitse uitgever naar Nizhny Novgorod reisde om een mogelijke samenwerking met de Volga-papierfabriek te onderzoeken en om met een Russische NGO over dwangarbeid in de Russische bossen te praten.

Reizen in 2004

Tikhvin, maart 2004
Bezbozhnik, mei 2004






Novgorod, september 2004
Vlag halfstok na Beslan drama 6-9-2004

In 2004 reisde ik driemaal naar Rusland, eenmaal naar Tikhvin in het kader van een project met Axel Springer en Stora Enso, eenmaal naar Nizhny Novgorod en Bezbozhnik met John Park en eenmaal naar St Petersburg en Novgorod met de Vereniging van Duitse uitgevers. Ik maakte van deze reizen ook gebruik om een paar keer naar Moskou te gaan.

Nizhny Novgorod en Bezbozhnik

De tweede reis, naar Nizhny Novgorod en Bezbozhnik, heeft in termen van zaken NIETS opgeleverd, maar is een van de meest interessante reizen van mijn hele carrière.

Ik heb mijn ervaringen in deze blogs opgeschreven.



Stories from Russia

Don’t ask them, tell them!

Balakhna, May 2004. I was sitting at a long table in the main meeting room of a Russian paper company. Volga paper in Balakhna, near Nizhny Novgorod. They used to deliver paper to Pravda, ‘The Truth’, at least the officially approved truth. Now they delivered paper to many clients, including clients in Germany. Opposite to me a handful of Russian managers, who only spoke Russian. Left to me my Scottish friend and colleague, who had worked for the Volga company and spoke enough Russian to do the translation during this meeting. I was asked to present my idea to the managers. It was about corporate social responsibility and communication to paper clients in Western Europe. I started to explain what our proposals were and formulated some questions for discussion. At that moment, I felt, coming from the left, a painful kick against my legs under the table. My colleague explained why he did that. With his charming Scottish accent, he whispered in my ears: “Reinier. For God’s sake, do not ask them questions! Tell them what to do! We are in Russia here, not in Holland”.

DCF 1.0
OAO Volga


It’s in Russian Forestry Law!

Novgorod, September 2004
We were walking in the forests of Novgorod, 200 km South of St Petersburg. The issue was ecologically responsible forestry. With us were representatives of NGOs, including WWF and Greenpeace, people from the forestry industry, paper users from Germany and some Russian forestry experts.

DCF 1.0
In the Novgorod forest (September 2004)

One of the Russian forestry experts hinted at a row of rather young spruce trees.

“Look, he said, they have been planted on a low ditch. The problem here is that water levels can be rather high, drowning the young trees. So we plant them on those ditches.”

I said: “Yes, that looks like a sensible solution to the problem.”

The expert: “No, there is a severe problem. We save them from drowning, but with the first storm – there are many storms here in October and November – at least half of them will not survive. They will fall over. The ditches don’t give them enough support with these strong winds.”

My reply: “But why are you continuing to use this method then? It apparently does not work. They may be protected against the water, but they become much more vulnerable to strong winds …”.

The expert: “Why should we change it? It is in Russian forestry law! This is the way we do it.”

Eind goed, al goed

Dinsdag 18 mei

Отель Советский

Na de avond in het mooie hotel en de dansvoorstelling met de mooie dames loopt ons verblijf in Rusland ten einde. John en ik kunnen concluderen dat we vrijwel niets bereikt hebben. We hebben weliswaar een kleine bijdrage aan de duurzaamheidscommunicatie van een papierbedrijf aan de Volga geleverd, maar weten niet of die door het management echt serieus genomen zal worden. De gesprekken met Maiskles in Bezbozhnik zijn een beginnetje, maar of er werkelijk een vervolg zal komen, hangt van te veel factoren af buiten onze invloed. In ieder geval zijn we in de sauna geweest, hebben kogels het bos ingejaagd en hebben een autorit door de natte sneeuwstorm overleefd.

Rode Plein

Ik ben nog een dagje toerist hier in Moskou. Toen ik John zei naar het museum te willen, vond hij het prima om niet mee te gaan. “I am not interested in all that old crap”, zei hij nog ter verduidelijking.

Moskou is een intrigerende en ook wel angstaanjagende stad. Dit is de stad van macht en geweld. Niets klopt hier. Hier rijden verlengde limousines, die op geen enkele normale parkeerplaats passen, met zwaailicht over de brede boulevards. Wie genoeg geld heeft, kan zo’n zwaailicht monteren. Dat rijdt heel prettig. Probeer niet naar binnen te kijken bij zulke auto’s, want ze zijn volledig geblindeerd. Wellicht is het glas ook kogelvrij.  In de dure koffiebars van de stad, zit de dure jeugd met dure mobieltjes te bellen en te spelen.


Jongeren met genoeg geld lijken het hier best naar hun zin te hebben. Als toerist loop ik hier als een blinde. Ik weet niet wat hier aan de hand is. Ik hoor verhalen, maar ik weet niet of ze waar zijn. Ik zie de buitenkant van alles, maar ik weet niet wat erachter zit. Ik hoor verhalen over politieagenten die zo slecht uitbetaald worden dat ze winkels beroven.  Ik hoor verhalen over winkels die nooit sluiten omdat ze anders ’s nachts leeggehaald worden. Zou allemaal waar kunnen zijn.

Кафе Мания – kafe manya

Ik loop nog eens over het rode plein. Ik zie de gebouwen van het Kremlin. Ik vraag me af wat daar allemaal in die grote oude gebouwen gebeurt. Ik loop tussen de Russische dagjesmensen. Ik geniet van een dure cappuccino en loop door winkels. Dan moet ik terug naar het hotel en door naar het vliegveld. Ik ben blij als ik door de grenscontrole heen ben. Geen angsten meer om verlopen of ongeldige visa. Ik mag weer naar mijn eigen wereld.

Woensdag 19 mei

Petra’s verjaardag

Op woensdag is Petra jarig. Ik geef haar 41 mooie rode rozen, waarvoor ik een nieuwe vaas heb aangeschaft. Fijn om met z’n allen Petra’s verjaardag te kunnen vieren. Drie dagen later zit ik weer in het vliegtuig. Naar New York deze keer, maar dat is een ander verhaal.

Later die maand vraagt John mij om heel snel een rekening te sturen voor mijn werk in Rusland. Hij maakt op 26 mei een bedrag van € 2,750 over, mijn reiskosten en een symbolisch bedrag voor het werk. Niet veel later vlucht het management van Volga naar Zwitserland, waarschijnlijk met een hoop geld. Waarschijnlijk had Putin ze anders om een of andere persoonlijke reden in de gevangenis gegooid. Het bedrijf waarvoor we gewerkt hadden, bestond niet meer. Met mijn werk is daarom ook nooit iets gedaan.

[geschreven 2017]

In 2020 hoorde ik tot mijn grote verdriet dat mijn collega en vriend John bij een noodlottig skiongeluk om het leven was gekomen. Ik had hem nog wel eens in Zwitserland, waar hij al geruime tijd woonde, op willen zoeken.



Vierentwintig mooie benen

Maandag 17 mei

Een half uur voordat de trein het station van Nizhniy Novgorod binnenrijdt worden we vrijwel tegelijk wakker. John en ik kijken elkaar aan en zeggen precies tegelijk: “that was terrible!”. We praten nog even over de gevaarlijkste autorit in ons leven. Wat waren we blij veilig aangekomen te zijn en gewoon te kunnen gaan slapen.

OAO Volga

Een auto haalt ons af en rijdt ons naar  de Volga-fabriek in Balakhna. Daar maken we nog een paar afspraken over de vormgeving van de website over ‘corporate social responsibility’. Wij hebben de Engelse teksten geleverd. Zij moeten er iets moois van maken.

Later die dag rijden we naar het vliegveld van Nizhniy Novgorod. We vliegen met een ouderwets vliegtuig naar Moskou.

Niet neergestort

De bagage gaat niet onderin het ruim, maar in een soort net bij de ingang. Onze stewardess is jong, mooi en lijkt onschuldig. John zegt dat hij er niets op tegen zou hebben samen met deze aantrekkelijke vrouw neer te storten. Zij zou het laatste levende wezen zijn dat hij zou zien voor het afscheid van deze wereld. Wij krijgen van de mooie stewardess iets te eten en te drinken. Vervolgens storten wij niet neer, maar komen veilig in Moskou aan.

John heeft kamers geboekt in het schitterende hotel Советский (Sovietsky), ooit het luxe-hotel voor apparatsjiks van de communistische partij, nu een toeristische bezienswaardigheid. Het is een gigantisch gebouw in de stijl van het sovjet-classicisme met meer dan 100 kamers en vele luxueuze zalen. In het hotel bevindt zich tegenwoordig ook het beroemde Yar-restaurant (Ярь). In het oorspronkelijke Yar (toen nog in de Kuznetsky Most) kwamen beroemde Russen zoals Pushkin, Chekhov en Gorky.

Legendarny restoran Yar

In het huidige Yar komen wij in 2004 een avondje plezier maken. Na al die ellende in afgelegen bossen en in gevaarlijke auto’s hebben wij wel wat verdiend. Wij eten in het prachtige restaurant en laten ons verwennen met een flitsende dansshow. Een groep slanke danseressen danst dan weer op mystieke oosterse melodieën, dan weer op Zuid-Amerikaanse ritmes of gepassioneerde Russische muziek vol balalaika’s. Op een bepaald moment zijn we in Moulin Rouge, Montmartre:  vrouwen met lange pluimen aan hun kont. De dames verschijnen steeds in andere kleren en soms in veel minder kleren. Ze zijn niet alleen mooi. Ze kunnen ook dansen.

Omdat de bewegingen zo snel zijn, is het niet zo eenvoudig, maar toch het lukt me om het aantal vrouwen dat tegelijk op het podium staat te tellen. Ik roep enthousiast tegen John: “twelve beautiful ladies!”.

John maakt even een snelle berekening. Hij denkt na en zegt: “twenty-four beautiful legs!!”.

[geschreven in 2017]