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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

POWER PLAY: Putin Trumps Society With State Might




The state has won over society. Whether that victory is final or not - and whether it can be reversed - remains to be seen. But for now, the latest decisions made by the new administration look exactly like that.


A long-needed and long-expected reform of the government has signaled the priorities of the new president. For the first time since the beginning of "reforms" nine years ago, institutional changes are coming first, leaving the economy behind. And that is good and rational: Part of the failure of those reforms should be attributed to a lack of concern about institutional changes in general, and a lack of attempts to change the system of governance and its key monster, the bureaucracy.


However, the way in which the system of governance is to be transformed excites much less optimism. The major aim is to use an iron hand to throttle the institutions of civil society, replacing them with ones that report directly to the Kremlin and give lip service to the public.


The first move in that direction was made by dividing the country into seven federal districts that were ostensibly to free the courts and law enforcement bodies from the power of the regional barons. But the fact that these districts are replicating former military districts suggests that the army - not the populace of those expanded districts - has been chosen as the base for the Kremlin. The selection of the president's appointees - of whom two are army generals; two, career KGB officers; and one, a representative of the police - leaves few illusions about whom the Kremlin has chosen as its allies in the regions. But unlike the current regional leaders, who are accountable to their constituencies at least every four years through elections, the Kremlin nominees are accountable to no one but the president.


No doubt, President Vladimir Putin's statement that the "paternalistic state" is in the Russian genetic code will be fully reflected in the actions of the new governors-general. But, judging by history, that does not necessarily mean that widespread corruption and privatization of governmental duties will be cured. The current state of affairs in the army, Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service, or FSB, does not allow for such optimism.


The next step in this general direction will be made after parliament passes new laws written from inside the Kremlin. Even though some amendments to existing legislation seem reasonable (e.g. depriving governors of their immunity, because governors accused of misconduct can only be brought to justice after their term has expired as matters now stand), other amendments such as abolishing the system of self-governance would lead to the reestablishment of Soviet-style nomenklatura rule.


The formation of the new/old government demonstrates the same "give lip service to the public" approach. A move in the right direction, toward cutting the size of the state apparatus and the number of ministers, has meant cutting off such institutions as the Committee for the Environmental and Goskino, the Committee for Cinematography. The abolition of the environmental committee can be construed as revenge by the FSB for its loss in the case of Alexander Nikitin, and leaving Goskino on the cutting room floor was a decision made despite the objections of the professional filmmaking community and its repeated appeals to the president.


Watching the first steps of the new administration, I cannot help but suspect that Putin is picking his methods out of the same toolbox once developed by Augusto Pinochet. It is true that the general helped create the basis for what is now known as the "Chilean economic miracle." But the human costs of that miracle are hard to appreciate. Will the price paid by our society be as high? And will it lead to a miracle?


Yevgenia Albats is an independent journalist based in Moscow.