Three Obstacles to the Change of Putin’s sistema


Putin’s regime has been commonly referred to as neo-Soviet, competitive-authoritarian or post-modern dictatorial. I argue that Putin’s system of governance – sistema – goes deeper and far beyond the Soviet system of governance. It may function with some elements from the ‘administrative-command’ system of Brezhnev’s socialism, effective for mobilising elites, electorate and allocating resources, but is adjusted to present-day objectives and priorities. There are also significant differences: the party ideology has given place to market interests, state property to privatised assets, informal exchange of favours to monetised kickbacks, planning to the constraints of global finance, local-bound infrastructure to hi-tech technologies and overtly command methods to more subtle informal signals. Hence, although the collapse of the Soviet Union provides a starting point for assessing continuity and change in sistema, practices of informal governance at its foundation have been known and reproduced for centuries: feeding (kormlenie), joint responsibility (krugovaya poruka), and creation of formal façades (potemkinskie derevni). These patterns continue to be used and function effectively for the purposes of co-optation, control and camouflage in sistema reproduction.

In the late middle ages the term feeding (kormlenie) was used to describe a method by which Russian rulers rewarded the military and government elite with exclusive rights to temporarily exploit regional constituencies for private needs. Usually the rewarded official spent a few years running the constituency (the size and wealth of which reflected the person’s closeness to the Moscow ruler), filled his coffers, and returned to the court to resume military or administrative service. Although the official had almost unlimited power over the constituency there were some unwritten rules that regulated the types and amount of ‘feeds’ he could extract from the managed territory. As a Russian joke has it, state officials are caught not for stealing but for stealing too much for their rank. The legacy of feeding as the life-support system for officials—who quite literally ‘fed’ from their place in the state hierarchy—lasted well beyond the 1555 decree on the abolition of feeding and other land reforms initiated by Ivan IV (the Terrible), which made the practice illegal but did not eradicate it.

On the individual level, the logic of giving (being given an opportunity to feed) merged with the logic of taking (taking an opportunity to feed), especially under socialism, where the give-and-take practices were exercised at the expense of state property or public resources. The personalized system of allocation, the culture of privileges, and the Soviet-style centralized redistribution principles have promulgated free-riding, which became most pronounced in Putin’s Russia in the form of kickbacks and sistema raiding (acts of depriving business owners of their business using threats of state persecution, often covered with the rhetoric of patriotism), as well as dynasties of power succession.

Joint responsibility (krugovaya poruka) is yet another traditional form of governance in Russia, where one is responsible for all and all are responsible for one. The Russian state used krugovaya poruka for tax collection, army conscription, and crime control. Whenever the peasant community was not able to deliver payment, a recruit, or a criminal, the whole community was punished. Pressed together vis-à-vis the state, peasant communities enforced vigilance, informal punishment, and peer control that limited individual rights for the sake of collective well-being. Krugovaya poruka was formally abolished as part of the liberal reforms by Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin in 1903 (in effect from 1905), yet in practice it continued to mould people’s strategies of survival in the face on an oppressive state, on the one hand, and rulers’ reliance on traditional forms of control in unmanageable or unstable settings, on the other.
The use of the gap between the formal façades and the informal workings of power, known as Potemkin villages, is the third feature of traditional governance. Historically, Potemkin villages are associated with the legend of creative accounting by Count Potemkin, who built façades of fake villages along the journeying path of Catherine the Great, as well as with the virtual nature of postcommunist reforms and privatization. In preparation for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, one can trace similar façades around the football stadiums, built and re-built again with yet additional budget. But there are serious implications of such scandals for the society’s tolerance of such practices. The competence of distinguishing façades from what is behind them is an important practical norm grasped in such popular wisdom as “Russia is a country of unread laws and unwritten rules” or “the imperfection of our laws is compensated for by their nonobservance”. Russian cultural tradition separates the concept of justice from that of formal law, which is highlighted by the diverging connotations of spravedlivost’ (justice) and zakonnost’ (lawfulness). The duality of norms, the gap between the formal and informal, and the arbitrary nature of their application make such practical norms an indispensable know-how of understanding not only Russian domestic, but now also foreign policy.

To sum up, Russia cannot modernise its full potential unless these issues of informal governance are articulated and reformed. Modernising leaders’ networks by gradually reducing their use, or even by self-awareness of informal governance, has a theoretical potential of changing sistema from the inside. In practice, however, standing up for integrity and universal values does not make a viable position in Russia, where ‘beating the system’ and ‘privileged access’ remain both national sport and survival strategy. It is essential not to overstate the personalisation of sistema as it is not really controlled by Putin, even though he helped shape it by mobilising his personal networks.

Leaders are ‘locked’ into their networks while relying on them in performing their public functions and satisfying their private needs. The leader of sistema therefore is also its hostage. It is important that the so-called ‘non-system’ opposition propagates an elimination or replacement of Putin’s networks, rather than rejecting the network-based system of governance as such. The protests are pitched more against Putin than against the time-tested foundations of sistema.

Russian history teaches us, however, that gaining power within sistema is not in itself a guarantee of future positive  change.

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