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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Multi-Level Explanations

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Last week's government shuffle and removal of Alu Alkhanov as Chechen president demonstrated yet again the lack of connection between the abilities and accomplishments of government officials, their career-growth paths and appointments to senior government positions.

Issues of administrative reform, downsizing government and establishing criteria for effectiveness on the part of ministers are all interesting, but they go right out the window when it is time to actually appoint or promote someone. This process follows its own, particular logic.

The government has already publicly given itself good marks for its work last year and, just before the New Year, President Vladimir Putin said he was happy with the work of his ministers. All of this, of course, following a year that brought increasing problems in immigration and interethnic relations and continued problems with hazing in the army. Corruption remained a major issue in 2006 (one case surrounding the Health and Social Development Ministry involved bribes totaling, according to the Prosecutor General's Office, $240 billion) and increasing incidence of crime (and, according to Interior Ministry statistics, with regard to murders in particular). It was the year of an alcohol crisis caused by the government itself, a slowdown in reforms to the residential service sector and a full halt to pension reform. The list of mistakes and mismanagement could go on. According to the government's own statistics, almost 40 percent of all objectives set by Putin or Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov were either not met or were not carried out in a satisfactory manner. This number is up from 2002, when only 27 percent of these targets were missed.

All of this discussion about how effective officials are sounds a bit naive. Appointments and dismissals are determined by entirely different factors. What we generally hear are explanations at two different, entirely unrelated levels. Level A represents the official justification: Ivanov was promoted to allow him to work on diversifying the economy. "One of the main objectives is to support innovation in our economy K this will be Sergei Ivanov's role in the government," Putin said while appointing Ivanov to the post of first deputy prime minister.

The second level -- we'll call it level B -- involves the explanation we get from the talking heads. Here, Ivanov has finally been freed from a collapsing ministry and put on an equal standing with the other potential presidential "successor" (although, officially, there is no successor). "The most important thing with this decision is to make Ivanov and [First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev figures of the same stature," Dmitry Orlov, general director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, told Rosbalt news agency. It's the same with the change of leadership in Chechnya. "Alu Dadashevich, I have reviewed your appeal ... to be transferred to a different position," Putin told Alkhanov in nationally televised remarks on Thursday. "I want to express my hope that in your new job -- and it is an immense and difficult field of work --you accomplish just as much for Chechnya and for the country as a whole as you have already done." The explanation from level B follows a different logic: "This is a big success for Ramzan Kadyrov in the political battle with Alu Alkhanov. He has maximized his influence and scored a victory in interclan conflict," Politika Fund president Vyacheslav Nikonov told Rosbalt. "Kadyrov has realized his presidential pretensions and the government structures there are now ready to fulfill any order."

So the official justification involves an attempt to improve the government's effectiveness and Alkhanov's personal desire to change jobs. At the analytic level, it all comes down to "operation successor" and a personal agreement between Putin and Kadyrov. The media just follow the analysts in laying bare these secret motives. It's hard to imagine what would have happened if Putin had just gone on television and told Alkhanov, "I am removing you from this post because Ramzan should be president, so you have to move over to the Justice Ministry for a while."

The only places levels A and B run into each other are news conferences where Western journalists take part and ask Putin questions about democracy, civil society, high-profile murders and so on. All of the answers are clearly understood by Russians interested in politics, who explain them at level B (political expediency, pre-election alignments). The answers the foreigners hear at level A (democracy here is no worse than there, nobody is stifling non--governmental organizations and the murders will be solved) don't do much to convince, occasionally leading the president to abandon his normal state of calm.

This, of course, is not a problem peculiar to Russia. There are official and unofficial explanations just about anywhere when things like this happen. Differences between an official's professional abilities and his or her ability to rise above more deserving rivals is also common worldwide. The difference here is magnitude of divide between levels A and B.

In Russia, level A is strictly ceremonial and virtual. Any real competition between political players probably doesn't even occur at level B, but at some unseen level C, which we might deduce involves the struggle between power groupings for influence in the Kremlin. All kinds of experts analyze what is happening and sell their secret knowledge, but this is all speculation. We can never know what is really going on because all facts are filtered and interpreted at levels A and B. There could be multiple other levels -- the level at which Putin justifies his political decisions to his closest friends, for example.

This comment was published as an editorial in Vedomosti.