One of the problems about institution building in non-accession countries which I haven’t touched on is the weakness of the our understanding of the way power in many post-communist countries. Because countries quickly introduced elections and have open, competition between parties, the word „democracy” is used – and the imagery associated with this word therefore governs our choice of intervention mechanisms for administrative reform. Azerbaijan was a seminal experience for me – when I realised that it had the inverse of the „normal” political-civil service relationship. I was used to a system where Ministers temporararily occupy positions of power – and civil servants were the more permanent system whose perceptions and behaviour needed to be challenged. In countries like Azerbaijan it was (and is) the other way around – the Ministers were the permanent feature (except for the Minister of Economic development in 2006 who was thrown into prison for being too ambitious!) and the civil servants who were there at their whim. There was therefore no challenge. Too many western experts are taken in by the terms and language they and others use – and assume they are dealing with systems similar to those at home.
I referred recently to the typology of the 1996 book by Linz and Stepan which suggested the term „Sultanistic” for one type of post-totalitarian regime. The word did not, sadly, catch on. A new article on the Russian situation suggests the term „neo-feudalism” for the system there.
The Russian system is fundamentally far more solid and durable than most Western comment allows. Its strength emanates from a basic principle: It is much easier for subjects to solve their problems individually than to challenge national institutions collectively. This is because what Westerners would call corruption is not a scourge of the system but the basic principle of its normal functioning. Corruption in Russia is a form of transactional grease in the absence of any generally accepted and legally codified alternative. Built under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s “power vertical” provides a mechanism for the relatively simple conversion of power into money, and vice versa. At every level of the hierarchy a certain degree of bribery and clientalist parochialism is not only tolerated but presupposed in exchange for unconditional loyalty and a part of the take for one’s superiors. The system is based on the economic freedom of its citizens, but cautious political restrictions on these freedoms generate the wealth of the biggest beneficiaries. There is a cascade of floors and ceilings to the restrictions on freedom, so it is a feudalism with more levels than the old kind. But it works fundamentally the same way: The weak pay tribute “up”, and the strong provide protection “down.”
The Putin phenomenon reflects the fact that Russian leaders of the 1990s preferred a mediocre officer with no noteworthy achievements to become the new President instead of, for example, experienced if imperfect men like Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov, both of whom were quite popular at that time. The rise of Putin, who barely progressed to the rank of lieutenant colonel in Soviet times and who later became famous only for his corrupt businesses in the St. Petersburg city hall, became typical of personnel choices in the 2000s. Inefficient bureaucrats by the hundreds recruited even less able people to occupy crucial positions in their ministries and committees, content in the knowledge that such mediocrities could not compete with or displace them. As a result, Russian governance suffers today less from a “power oligarchy” than from a dictatorship of incompetence.
On the one hand, Russia has built a system in which the execution of state powers has become a monopolistic business. It is controlled mainly by friends and colleagues of the system’s creator, Vladimir Putin, and faithfully operated by the most dutiful and least talented newcomers. All big national business is associated with the federal authorities or controlled by them; local entrepreneurs still try to bargain with regional bureaucracy. All of the new fortunes made in the 2000s belong to Putin’s friends and people who helped him build this “negative vertical.” Therefore, in the coming years, competition inside the elite will diminish, the quality of governance will deteriorate further, and what is left of effective management will collapse. Yet to change these trends would nevertheless be a totally illogical step for the political class.
At the same time, a huge social group wants to join this system, not oppose it (in contrast to the final years of the Soviet Union). In a way, this is like wanting to join a Ponzi scheme at the bottom in hopes that one may not stay at the bottom, and that in any event one will be better off than those left outside the scheme altogether. As the de-professionalization of government advances (along with the “commercialization” of state services) competition among non-professionals will grow, since these have never been in short supply. Therefore, in the future a less internally competitive ruling elite will be able to co-opt any number of adherents.
The Russian elite has essentially “piratized” and privatized one of the world’s richest countries. It is so grateful for this privilege that it may insist on Mr. Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 for 12 more dismal years. By then the young liberal cohorts on whom so many Western analysts pinned their hopes for change will have grown up. The mediocre among them will be part of the system. Most of the best of them, no doubt, will no longer reside in Russia.