The great political gamble

Vladimir Gelman
2 March 2009

A recent article in the Financial Times (reprinted by the Russian newspaper Vedomosti) paints a hypothetical picture of the world in 2012.   Sarah Palin has been elected US president, Nicolas Sarkozy marries Madonna, and Dmitry Medvedev resigns as president of Russia, handing over the reins of power to his predecessor.  Shortly afterwards he is arrested. 

Sometimes, such predictions do have the power of self-fulfilling prophecies. But it would not be out of place to propose a different possible scenario for our country.

It goes like this: in the summer of 2009, faced with popular dissatisfaction with government policies, President Medvedev announced that he was reforming Russia's political system. He dismissed the cabinet of Vladimir Putin, appointed Igor Shuvalov acting head of the government, then announced the dissolution of the State Duma and regional legislatures. In the autumn of 2009 free and fair elections were held in Russia: all parties and candidates were able to participate, and the campaigns and vote counting were transparent. The political parties that won formed a new federal and regional government. The effective appointment of governors was abolished.

Not even the most fervent members of Russia's opposition have imagined such changes to the political landscape, it would seem. 

Now let's see what happens if we replace the word "Russia" with the name of any modern democracy, (even if it doesn't have the strongest institutions), and the names of Russian leaders with the names of political figures in the said country. The scenario looks quite trite. One need not be a serious pundit to see that there is a high chance of this actually happening in a number of European countries, including our formerly socialist neighbours.

The main difference between the way democratic and authoritarian regimes react to a crisis seems to be in the political sphere, rather than the economic. Democracies change more quickly than usual during crises. New governments and prime ministers come to power (sometimes very suddenly, as in Iceland).  Those who disagree with the government's policies take to the streets of Paris, Riga and Vilnius. There are heated discussions in the press and an increasing number of scandalous revelations and subsequent resignations.

Authoritarian states, by contrast, react to crises by trying to preserve the status quo at any cost and to prevent changes which threaten not just to replace the people in power, but to undermine the regime itself. Willingness to change is no guarantee of a more successful solution of economic problems than rejecting any changes whatsoever. But preserving the political system unchanged does sow the seeds of instability.  Analyses of the economic aspects of the crisis tend to underestimate this.

In recent weeks politically concerned Russians have seen hitherto unprecedented levels of activity by Dmitry Medvedev, who had until then remained in his predecessor's shadow. The heads of a number of regions were dismissed and the President addressed the nation on television, admitting that the crisis would be severe and prolonged.

He has made overtures  towards liberals too. He met Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the USSR, and the editor of Novaya Gazeta. He also included a number of prominent human rights advocates in one of his recent council meetings.  Lastly, he published the list of the one hundred candidates in the "golden hundred" talent pool that will be available to him in future appointments.  These developments are all portrayed as moves by the government towards greater openness and transparency.

However, none of this affects the Kremlin's core political and economic monopoly.  Indeed, it only serves to support it, as a kind of adjustment on the part of the authoritarian regime to crisis conditions. In fact, it goes no further than the presidential address of November 2008, when the term of the head of state and parliament was extended (the preservation of the status quo).  This was accompanied by cosmetic alterations, such as providing one or two seats in parliament to small parties, or reducing the threshold for party members from 50,000 to 40,000 people.

All this is quite understandable: the Kremlin didn't go to the trouble of building those difficult political structures in the 2000s only to knock them down with its own hands. It is much easier to bring in temporary crisis managers from the qualified and loyal presidential reserve list and to allow the liberals to let off steam at their get-togethers.  That way everything will remain as it was, as soon as oil prices return to the longed-for three-figure mark.

But the longer and deeper the current economic crisis, the more likely it is that the desire of the Russian elites to preserve the status quo, without changing anything in politics, will face serious obstacles.

Firstly, in a country where the primary feature of state management, and its main goal, is extracting revenue, a recession is bound to intensify the struggle between competitors. Recently, for example, the Investigative Committee of the General Prosecutor's Office rapped the knuckles of the Finance Ministry. This is just a prelude to new battles over reallocating revenues, which may only become more serious as the situation deteriorates.

Secondly, the deepening crisis puts on the political agenda the issue of identifying those responsible for the crisis, and punishing them publicly. It won't be enough to go on blaming falling living standards and increasing unemployment on the hated "Yanks" alone. No political regime could get away with that. Public opinion may need targets outside the country, but it also needs internal culprits on which to focus its profound dissatisfaction with the economic situation. For this reason the competition among the elites in Russia is probably bound to increase, whatever the leaders try and do to avoid this competition. To paraphrase the (sadly) well-known saying of the Soviet era, we can assume a law of the intensification of clan struggles during the period of transition to a crisis.

In democratic regimes elites compete through the agency of free and fair elections - voters punish some parties and political leaders, and support others. The most popular definition of democracy belongs to the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter.  He sees it as an institutional system in which the problem of power is solved by the competition of the elites for votes.

However, in undemocratic regimes, the rivalry between elites (which can never be dealt with completely) is played out with entirely different rules. The results are sometimes much more unfortunate than in a democracy. Our country witnessed this rivalry (on the "bulldogs fighting under a carpet" principle) during the Stalinist era. This led to repression (the "Leningrad case"), and later, to the "palace coups" under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. This competition finally came out into the open under Gorbachev, when it became clear that winning in Russia's institutional system did not depend on votes (Gorbachev himself was certainly not elected president of the USSR in a competitive election).

So it is hardly surprising that dissatisfied segments of the elite have not merely begun to "desert" to the opposition camp. They have started to break up the very institutional system of the country that hinders competition.  We should bear in mind that the consequence of the conflict of Soviet elites was the liquidation of the status quo.

In the Putin era, open competition between elites was taboo: those who tried to go against the flow learned a bitter lesson from the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Until recently it has been possible to resolve underlying rivalries by doling out revenues: some elite factions "milked" Gazprom, and others Rosneft, while others were rewarded with other resources. Additionally, rapid economic growth and the resulting high level of mass support for the country's leaders made it more difficult for the elites to compete for votes.

The temptation to formalise this status quo into an institutional system for the long term proved too great: the principle of elections was taken off the agenda, replaced what was effectively the appointment of deputies, governors, and finally the president of the country.

But the crisis has revealed the problems inherent in an authoritarian institutional system. It soon became clear that in the conditions of an authoritarian regime in Russia there is:

  • no effective system for replacing "weak links" in the machinery of government (hence the urgent need for  the presidential "personnel reserve" to fill gubernatorial and ministerial vacancies)
  • no effective "feedback" system (in a country where the entire elite drives foreign cars, the campaigns to support the national car industry only had a negative effect)
  • no effective means of resolving unavoidable conflicts between the elites (in the eventuality that the president or primes minister were forced to resign, the main institutions and mechanisms for running the country would be unlikely to remain unchanged).

Thus, increased competition among the elites is inevitable, under an unchanged institutional system. This may have far-reaching consequences. Russia's authoritarian adjustment to the crisis may well mean that after six months of recession a large number of Russian officials and businessmen might follow Mikhail Khodorkovsky and find themselves working as sewing machine operators in not so distant labour camps, having lost the battle between competing factions to survive.

However, in actual fact, the deepening crisis gives Russian leaders the opportunity of starting a  political process that would lead to democratisation. This could involve more than cosmetic gestures: it could mean a fundamental reform of the political system.

It is only fair to say that the initiators' chances of benefiting from such reforms are fairly slim. Such reforms are more likely to be unsuccessful. But still, if these steps are taken today, there is a chance that the Russian president (whose level of popular support is actually very high) will remain "afloat".

Some of the present satellites can be sacrificed, but only with the support of a large part of Russian society, and of foreign countries that mean more for the future of Russia than its present allies from Nicaragua to Belarus. The problem for them, and for the country as a whole, is that the present regime's attempts to adjust its authoritarian model to the economic crisis will make it even more difficult for Russia to emerge from an already difficult economic situation. In short, by trying to avoid any changes to the status quo in politics, the leaders of the country are walking into a trap.

Of course, Russian elites - and indeed most people - are used to going with the flow passively, and continuing to maintain the status quo.  It is so much easier than trying to change the political system of the country during a recession. Countries that choose to effect political change during an economic crisis, or are forced to try to, may gain in the end. But they might lose too. However, those countries whose main aim in the crisis is to preserve their political systems and resist change at any price are probably doomed to bitter defeat.

It will soon become apparent whether Russia is going through its own fault to end up in the "losing camp".

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