Kremlin control v grass-roots modernisation

Nikolai Petrov
8 May 2009

In mid-April,while it was still cold in Moscow, Dmitry Medvedev was giving out a number of signals.  Among these were the interview he granted to the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, his meeting with liberal economists at the Institute of Contemporary Development, and a meeting that was charged with strengthening the institutions of civil society. There was harsh criticism of the authorities. 

Medvedev also ordered a number of amnesties, including release on parole for Svetlana Bakhmina,  sentenced in connection with the "YUKOS case". Some would say that the fact that the opposition politician Nemtsov took part in the Sochi mayoral elections was another of these liberal signals. Although Nemtsov was not really allowed to run an electoral campaign, and the elections were rushed, the very presence on the electoral ballot of a politician who has been openly critical of the federal authorities (and Putin personally) has prompted talk of new tactics by the Kremlin.

This was all taking place against the background of an attempt to re-brand Medvedev's personal image by launching his blog on LiveJournal, a new form of communication between the president and citizens...

This prompted yet more talk about a "Medvedev thaw", liberalisation etc. We should note that this is by no means the first time that such expectations have been raised, both before and after Medvedev's election as president. Each time they proved groundless. Let us see whether it is any different this time.

Tandemocracy = managed democracy + tandem

The Kremlin's style has indeed changed recently, becoming somewhat more complex. In the livelier atmosphere of Russian politics today, publicity, competition and discussion play a greater role. But so far these external changes do not suggest any substantive change.

When Medvedev was elected, the word "tandemocracy" was coined to describe the Russian political system.  This is by and large the regime which took its final form in the course of Putin's second presidential term. It has only been slightly adjusted now, in the form of MP-3 (Medvedev-Putin-3). It is no coincidence that Putin is part of both components.

Other than a few purely decorative features, there is no "democracy" at present. The dismantling of elements of democracy has continued throughout the last, "Medvedev", year. If a few years ago, the "glass was half-empty, and getting emptier", in Michael McFaul's colourful expression, now it is three-quarters empty. The Kremlin has moved from the model of "managed democracy" to the model of "super-managed democracy", i.e. an attempt to manage beyond reasonable limits and possibilities.

Putin told Sarkozy once that Medvedev was the good cop, and he, Putin, the bad cop. Medvedev's response, in an interview with the BBC, was that both he and Putin were good cops. In fact, there is only one cop here, Putin. The other is a mask. The reins of power, both in terms of finance and the security elite, remain in Putin's hands. What's more, they have become more important as a result of the crisis.

What does Medvedev have?

Does he have a team? Medvedev did have a team of several people, mainly from his university circle, and he still does. It has not grown in numbers or influence over the last year. Medvedev never did have his own power base, and still does not. He has a borrowed power base, as he has borrowed popularity. Since it all comes from Putin, his chances of deploying it to go against Putin's wishes are extremely limited.

Does he have a programme or idea?   He did not before, and he still doesn't. Medvedev's links to the Institute of Contemporary Development, notionally a presidential think tank, are nominal and very sporadic. So even if Medvedev wanted to develop a power base, he has no strategy, no team and no tools to do so.

It would be extremely simplistic to see the transfer of power in 2008 merely as a replacement of the head of state. The personified system of power with weak institutions which Putin created made this impossible. It had to be somewhat modified. There were three aspects to this:

  • the model of state corporations controlled by Putin's people was adopted as the basis for managing the key branches of the economy and industrial modernisation
  •  "siloviki" politicians had to be distanced from siloviki operatives, in order to cut off influential siloviki from power
  • Medvedev as successor. Kremlin logic regards Russia as a major corporation and Medvedev has been allocated the role of the head of the PR department. The role of the chairman of the board of directors and CEO is still held by Putin.

The transfer of power, or at least of some of its symbols, may have been carried out calmly and according to plan. But the system then came up against the economic crisis, which was absolutely unforeseen.

Impact of the crisis

The crisis has exacerbated the system's shortcomings:

  • lack of a normal feedback between government and people, as between different levels of government (federal, regional and municipal)
  • the interests of various elite groups (corporate and regional) are not transparent. There is no clear system of co-ordination between them
  • there is little co-ordination between different levels of power and decision-making is poor and unsystematic. There is also no means of reconciling the private dealings of the power groups with the common interest of the system.

These and other shortcomings are aggravated by the weakness of the "fail-safes". The main elements of these - an independent parliament, independent media, and strong regional leaders - were gradually destroyed by the Kremlin.

So weak are the institutions that the system's only basis for stability is Putin's popularity rating, or more recently Putin and Medvedev.  Russia is currently expending colossal resources on keeping the rating up, preserving as best they can paternalistic relations with its subjects. But when resources run out, the rating may suddenly collapse. This would be much more dangerous than if it drops gradually.

The problem is that there is too little money to compensate for the increasing levels of management inefficiency. The crisis is also developing too fast. So it is no longer possible to drag out decision-making, as they used to do, as a means of controlling the different interest groups. As a result, the decisions being taken look increasingly unbalanced.

The regime is reacting to the crisis like a fire brigade.  It is concentrating on the socio-economic aspects, while the real problems lie in the management of a flawed model of political organisation. As the momentum of events builds up,the gap between reality and this flawed political and management system is yawning dangerously wide.

There are, alas, no signs that the regime realises this and is prepared to react. Until the money which the regime is using to buy time runs out, we are unlikely to see a review of economic strategy, let alone domestic and foreign policy.

Medvedev's much-vaunted liberalism consists primarily of declarations and signals, which do not translate into action. His role is to improve the image of the system as much as possible, to ensure its positive acceptance among the most varied social groups within the country and abroad. It is no coincidence that in the year since his election, Medvedev has behaved not so much as a head of state as a candidate during an election campaign.

Medvedev may sound tough and the political diagnosis he offers in his presidential address may be correct. But his solutions are utterly inadequate to deal with the problems and challenges he has himself formulated.

Thus, in Russia today, political parties are failing to act as channels of direct connection and feedback between government and society. Their role in the political system is insignificant, including that of the so-called party of power United Russia. Rather than strengthening the institutional role of the political parties, Medvedev has proposed legislative amendments which are merely decorative, if not derisory.  He slightly lowered the number of members required to register a party. He also offered 1-2 consolation seats in the Duma to parties which did not reach the 7% barrier, but exceeded 5% (we would note that at the last election in 2007 there were no such parties).

The staffing crisis.  The curtailing of public engagement in politics, above all the rejection of free elections, as well as the direct appointment of governors, has resulted in a staffing crisis. Restoring free competition could solve this problem.  Instead, at Medvedev's suggestion, the Kremlin has set up the so-called "presidential personnel reserve":  anonymous "authoritative" experts compile their own lists which are later reduced to a "presidential" list.

Regional interests. These are crucial in light of the enormous socio-economic and ethno-cultural diversities in more than 80 Russian regions. The 2000-02 Kremlin reform of the Federation Council almost destroyed the system whereby regional interests where represented at the centre. Instead of restoring this, Medvedev's "political package" has replaced one set of formal requirements of senators with another, even more formal.

And finally, elections.  Electoral legislation being as harsh as it is, the only function left for elections is to legitimize power. But as participation in elections decreases, managing even this becomes more difficult. At a time of crisis, elections should facilitate the dialogue between government and society in drawing up an agenda.  They should also strengthen the social basis of power and make possible the selection and training of the most effective managers and the removal of ineffective ones.  Finally, they offer an opportunity for letting off steam. But the Kremlin, far from strengthening the institutional role of elections is increasing its control over them. For parties and candidates can no longer register by paying a cash deposit, but only bycollecting signatures.

Some positive signs

Presidential addresses became something of a feature during the Yeltsin years.  Their purpose was not to outline future tasks, but to make a good impression, in Russia and abroad. To a certain extent, this is what all Medvedev's image-making is about. But he is sending signals to a wide social spectrum, not only to the liberal intelligentsia. Apart from creating a good impression, Medvedev's recent spate of activity could result in the deft substitution of apparent dialogue and co-option for the real expansion of the social power base.  

The conclusions to be drawn from the above are complex. On the one hand, the election of a liberal ruler in Russia offers no hope of liberal modernisation, and never has done. Those who see the situation differently are, wittingly or unwittingly, confusing wishes with reality.

But on the other, there are grounds for qualified optimism. Large-scale changes in the political system in the near future are not only inevitable, they are already happening. Despite everything, there is a revival of public engagement with politics. Political competition is hotting up, so far mainly within United Russia. And civil servants and United Russia party functionaries in the regions are increasingly showing signs of open defiance towards the federal leadership. Political organisation is itself becoming more complex, as can be seen in an increase in effective centres of influence.These are positive changes, but they are fragmentary and unsystematic. Their accumulation may soon lead to evolutionary changes. But does the system have the time to wait for them to accumulate?

Kremlinologists (both in Russia and the West) who pore over the declarations and actions of the Kremlin for signs of "positive signals" are looking in the wrong place. There are signs of positive change, but they are in everyday life, not in the Kremlin. The system is being modernised, but not because someone at the top wants this to happen.  An instinct for self-preservation and the desire to survive in changing conditions is prompting these developments.  Instead of top-down modernisation, it is a reactive, grassroots process. The only problem is that this process is very fragmented and has so far been unable to keep up with the mounting challenges.

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