A Bad Blend of Brezhnev and Abramovich
- By Vladimir Ryzhkov
- Dec. 17 2007 00:00
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Putin's regime is the Russian version of the typical authoritarian model. One could describe its foundation in terms of a bureaucratic monopoly. Russia shares the following fundamental characteristics with countries such as China, Pakistan, Egypt, Belarus, Iran and Venezuela: heavy policy control, censorship in the main media channels and the systemic hounding and persecution of nongovernmental organizations, human rights groups and opposition parties. The absence of the rule of law is also a standard for all autocracies. Another characteristic that Moscow shares with other authoritarian governments is the enormous role that the security services, including the Federal Security Service and Prosecutor General's Office, play in society. But in contrast to other autocratic governments, the main source of Russia's authority is the so-called vertical power structure, composed of 1.6 million federal bureaucrats -- a figure that has grown 1.5 times since Putin has come to power. In China and Cuba, for example, the source of power is a monopoly political party; in Chile during Pinochet's reign, it was the army; in Iran, it is the religious leaders; and in Saudi Arabia, it is the ruling dynasty.
In contrast, there was some division of power under President Boris Yeltsin. The main centers of power in the 1990s were:
• the president and his administration
• the ministers in the Cabinet, who had a fair amount of autonomy, particularly under Prime Ministers Viktor Chernomyrdin and Yevgeny Primakov
• governors who were popularly elected
• large business
• mass media
• political parties in the Duma
During the Yeltsin era, political consensus depended on striking compromises among the Duma, Federation Council, Cabinet and even within the Kremlin.
Not a trace of these elements of pluralism has remained under Putin's presidency. For the last seven years, all of the above-mentioned centers of influence have been stripped of their independent authority. Having just become president in 2000, Putin began constructing his vertical power model by taking control of the three largest nationwide television stations. Then, he weakened governors as an independent power base by reforming the Federation Council and by canceling direct gubernatorial elections. Then the Kremlin moved on to destroying the political power of business by targeting Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin severely weakened the autonomy of the Cabinet by appointing weak and compliant technocrats such as Mikhail Fradkov as prime ministers. Finally, Putin used all available administrative resources to make sure that liberal opposition deputies would not get seats in the Duma. He also weakened the Communists, who had been a strong opposition force in the 1990s, and filled the parliament with enough servile United Russia deputies to gain a constitutional majority.
All power is now concentrated in the hands of bureaucrats. Putin's loyal cronies -- above all, his buddies and former colleagues from the KGB and the St. Petersburg Mayor's Office -- sit at the very top of this bureaucratic power base. Then there are the governors, whose fate now completely rests on the presidential administration. The mayors of leading cities are one step lower on the bureaucratic hierarchy; they have been herded into United Russia on "voluntary-mandatory" conditions. In addition, there are bureaucrats who work in various government jobs who understand all too well that the only way to keep their jobs is to constantly prove their loyalty to the Kremlin. The reward for this loyalty is to reap the benefits of a massive system of corruption, where bureaucrats are allowed to abuse their positions to advance the interests of their personal businesses. Corruption has become an acceptable norm and principal motivation for Putin's army of bureaucrats. It runs rampant at all levels of government -- from executives at government television stations to judges, from FSB generals to police officers. One could say the government has been strengthened and reborn, but it has assumed a grotesque and malignant form where corruption and lawlessness have become more important than civil duty among bureaucrats.
The crown jewels of the country's national wealth have ended up in the hands of Putin's inner circle. These close friends of the president now control the most profitable sectors of the economy in oil and gas export and weapons trade, and they include deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin, First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller, Russian Technologies head Viktor Chemezov, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, IT and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman and Gennady Timchenko, co-founder of the influential oil-trading company Gunvor.
Putin has accomplished what would seem to be the impossible. In forming his vertical-power model, he has taken some of the worst elements of Soviet rule and combined them with some of the worst Yeltsin attributes. In such a way, Putin has created a Soviet-oligarchic model: a synthesis of Soviet monopoly on political power combined with the nepotism and corruption from the 1990s. This grotesque amalgamation of Brezhnev with Abramovich constitutes the foundation of Putin's power structure. The Russian elite energetically rallied around this simple idea of seizing and dividing up enormous natural resource wealth among themselves -- and, what's worse, this was accomplished under the bombastic cries of the "rebirth of Russia's greatness."
But you have to give Putin credit. He has been able to gain the support of the majority of Russians even though they generally lose as a result of this political model. For example, Russia is developing a lot slower than it should. The gaps between the rich and poor and the largest cities and the regions are growing. The country is also falling behind the West in the technological sphere, and it is losing its ability to compete on global markets.
Despite all of this, however, Putin's popularity remains extremely high. There are other factors working to Putin's favor besides outright vote-rigging and forcing people to vote for pro-Putin parties. To be sure, some small pieces of the huge oil wealth have ended up in the people's hands, and this has led to a consumer-spending boom. Moreover, the Kremlin mobilized the people against fictitious "external enemies" such as the United States, NATO, Georgia, Estonia and Poland, as well as "internal enemies" such as liberals, terrorists, extremists and oligarchs. Taken together, this has all increased Putin's popularity.
But I am afraid that the time of "stability" is coming to an end. Despite the powerful Kremlin public relations machine and its use of enormous administrative resources, signs of an economic and political crisis are looming. Not only are the people growing more dissatisfied, but there is increasing dissent among the elite as well. The presidential "election" in March will be the next difficult durability test for Putin's political model -- one that is based on a very shaky foundation of bureaucratic monopoly.
Vladimir Ryzhkov was a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007.