Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Analysis of Russia

Joshua Tucker, a political scientist at New York University, points us to an article by Stephen Holmes of the NYU School of Law, that suggests that common (and journalistic) analyses of Putin's Russia are on the wrong track.

Tucker wrote, "In this piece, Holmes is directly responding to a recent book by Luke Harding, the former Guardian correspondent in Russia, but he is also addressing a more general conception that Putin’s Russia has turned into a reprise of the late Soviet period: a relatively stable soft-authoritarian regime, where some individual freedoms are permitted but in general the state… remains firmly in control."

Holmes' analysis is in the London Review of Books and is well worth the time for teacher background material.

Fragments of a Defunct State
Putin’s clumsily announced but not unexpected decision to have himself re-elected to the presidency provides a clue about the way the system works, or rather doesn’t. If you take it that a credible succession formula is one of the key components of any political system, Putin’s stage-managed self-coronation makes it clear that Russia doesn’t have one. To leave the decision about one’s successor to the unpredictable outcome of a genuinely competitive election is acceptable only when incumbents don’t expect to lose too much if they lose. In established democracies, soft landings await electorally ousted politicians. In non-democratic systems, former rulers can sidestep unwelcome surprises if the succession process is managed by a core group within a ruling party, as in the Soviet Union after Stalin and in China today. But this alternative is not available in Russia. For one thing, the increasingly unpopular Yedinaya Rossiya is not an organised governing party but a ramshackle vote-rigging machine run by Putin loyalists and opportunists whom no one, least of all Putin, would trust to choose the country’s next ruler…

Putin’s remaining supporters constantly trumpet the ‘stability’ he has brought to Russia. But no system… can be stable if it depends on the well-being and survival of one man… The most striking illustration of the negligible role they play in Russian political life is not the rubber-stamp Duma but the presidency itself. Assigned nearly unchecked powers by the 1993 Yeltsin constitution, the office lost both its authority over foreign policy and the power to dismiss the prime minister when its shell was rented out for four years to Medvedev, whose inability to hold on to the job makes it clear that the presidency itself is not a source of power…

Escaping the draft, registering a company, buying an apartment, getting into school, passing an exam, being acquitted of criminal charges, trumped up or valid, receiving medical treatment may all require the bribery of public officials. The kickback plague is endemic, inflating by as much as 50 per cent the cost to the state of everything from weapons to highway construction. That the principal players in ‘the greatest corruption story in human history’, as the economist Anders Aslund puts it, include the fabled siloviki – the ‘heavies’: the army, the intelligence agencies etc – is the strongest sign of the absence of a hierarchy. In a hierarchy, local officials would answer to their Moscow superiors: but they don’t…

the historically unprecedented nature of the Putin system comes into focus only when we remember, as Harding himself urges us to, that ‘the Soviet-era KGB was subordinate to the political will of the Communist Party.’ When the CPSU collapsed, it left behind not only the FSB and its associated agencies but a constellation of other ‘orphans’, highly developed and now essentially autonomous fragments of a defunct state. In a desperate but ultimately successful endeavour to survive in an unforgiving environment, various former subsidiaries went in search of new sponsors. Soviet psychiatric facilities, for example, that were once used to torment dissidents, now receive cash-filled envelopes from younger Russians eager to dislodge elderly in-laws from desirable apartments…

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