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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Is Just Part of the Story

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Watching the transformation of all our national television channels into state-controlled channels and the increasing dominance of positive coverage, many see in this the main distinction between the present epoch and the Yeltsin era. However, the torrent of dumbed-down entertainment programs and optimistic news reports issuing forth from our television sets is but the tip of the iceberg.

In reality, as Joseph Stalin once said, "cadres decide everything," and it is in the area of personnel that fundamental changes have occurred.

It is worth recalling the heroes of the epoch of "democratic muddle," such as Sergei Shakhrai, Sergei Stankevich, Anatoly Sobchak, Gavriil Popov, Ruslan Khasbulatov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Shumeiko and Sergei Filatov. All these and many others launched their political careers via the ballot box: In an instant they were transformed by the will of the electorate from completely unknown Komsomol activists, academics, etc. into national politicians.

It is enough to look at the current composition of the country's leadership to understand that the time of "uncontrolled" elections has past, and that the "recruitment process" has undergone cardinal change.

The modest, colorless Putin-type official has replaced the diverse heroes of the Yeltsin era who tended to say whatever came into their heads and to act without restraint.

If you look at just about any high-ranking official in the current government or presidential administration, you will find that they started their career in the bureaucracy, not in public politics, and occupy their current position exclusively by virtue of their good relations with the "right" people. What we have is an executive chain of command at the pinnacle of which sits its embodiment -- a softly-spoken bureaucrat who not that long ago was plucked from obscurity.

The process is not dissimilar to Stalin's "apparat revolution," which in the 1920s replaced the heroes of the revolution with faceless bureaucrats, or "young conformists with quiet step," as Vladimir Mayakovsky described them in one of his poems.

Are these developments good or bad? Of course, the muddle and mess of the Yeltsin era were extremely destructive and the restoration of a normally functioning bureaucratic machine, in which officials not only work on lining their pockets but also do something for the public good, is very important.

However, the country's leadership seems to forget that the bureaucracy is supposed to be confined to the executive branch of government and that in order for it to work effectively and be kept under control there should be an independent, popularly elected legislature, independent judges and independent media.

The current wave of bureaucratization has unfortunately overrun these institutions. The so-called judicial reforms boil down to limiting the independence of judges and "well-organized elections" simply means that politicians are not so much chosen by the people as they are selected by the powers-that-be.

Members of the Federation Council are no longer elected officials but unelected appointees. And it is becoming increasingly clear that in the next State Duma election, the "wrong" candidates and parties will not be elected. Rehearsals for this have already been conducted in municipal and regional elections in Moscow and elsewhere.

The bureaucratic dictatorship which is being established is not only dull but also dangerous, although that is not to say that we are on course for Stalinist-style repressions.

The fact is that by emasculating state and public institutions that are independent of the executive, the authorities are closing those outlets that can act as a safety valve for public discontent.

Today, the president is popular and discontent is not widespread, but Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin in their heyday were also popular. The people's love is inconstant and popularity is not necessarily linked directly to the economy, as expectations tend to outstrip even the fastest economic growth.

If, by the time the public tires of its new idol and starts to blame him for its woes, there are no civilized means left of expressing discontent and disapproval, then it should come as no surprise if people get out onto the street or start blocking the railroads in order to make their feelings known.

Whether Russia will follow the path of South Korean-style or Argentinian-style authoritarianism makes little difference. The theoreticians of political stabilization and fans of tsarist Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin in the president's entourage are preparing the ground not for Stolypin's dream of a "Great Russia," but for his nightmare of "great disturbances."

Alexander Lukin, associate professor of political science at MGIMO, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.