Worldpress.org

The Putin Imperatives: Managed Democracy and Unmanaged Authoritarianism

How the Oligarchs Helped Create Russia's Managed Democracy...and Learned to Regret It

Vitaly Tretyakov, Literaturnaya Gazeta (literary weekly), Moscow, Russia, Nov. 5-11, 2003

Khodorkovsky
Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former chairman of the Russian oil company Yukos, addresses reporters in Moscow, Sept. 27, 2003 (Photo: Denis Sinyakov/AFP-Getty Images).
What is the normal way to replace the ruler in power—the monarch, the general secretary, the president, the prime minister? Usually, all members of the government, the entire administration of the previous leader of the highest body of authority, follow the ruler into retirement; this is almost a law. Moreover, the same, entirely predictable fate usually awaits the heads of the security services, the chiefs of the armed forces, the state business administrators, and the heads of the diplomatic missions in countries abroad.

Inevitability of the Norm
That is the way the changeover takes place in democracies and the way it takes place under authoritarian and even despotic regimes. That was the way it was done in Russia: under the czars, under the emperors, under the Bolsheviks. This is what happened even with the transfer of power from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin.

Yet since 1991, we have been living, to put it mildly, in an anomalous period in our history. Let’s put it charitably and call this a “transitional period.” The transfer of power from Yeltsin to Vladimir Putin did not take place according to political tradition. We all noticed this, but we didn’t focus special attention on this anomaly in the transfer of power. Thus, the most unpleasant thing we most feared did not happen, and the transfer of power occurred in an entirely peaceful and ostensibly democratic manner.

A man of the “Family” [Yeltsin’s relatives and close associates], the choice of the Family: that was the main accusation first flung at Putin, mostly by those who in 1999 had exposed the Family and Putin as one political clan. Actually, today those people are among the first to blast Putin for departing from Yeltsin’s policy, that is, from the policy of the Family, whose “foreign bank accounts” they once exposed on television.

Back then, in the spring of 2000 to be more precise, such critics cited as the main evidence of Putin’s dependency [on the Family] the fact that he did not change the chief of the presidential administration and barely touched the rest of the government. Furthermore, they waited with interest for March 26, 2001, and then March 26, 2002, real or virtual deadlines by which Putin was “permitted” to change his team. And each time this didn’t happen, commentators sounded a note of disappointment.

Putin did put his own people into the “power ministries.” He installed a new defense minister and interior minister. Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), is Putin’s man. But he left most of the key players from Yeltsin’s team intact. The question of why is a topic for another story. I will note only the way in which he began. It was a departure from all norms and all traditions of politics. And sooner or later the norm had to be reestablished.

Between Prokhanov and Berezovsky
By 2003, Putin had a double political stigma: “successor of the Yeltsin cause” Gennady Zyuganov, [head of the Russian Communist Party], and Aleksandr Prokhanov, [an ultra-conservative writer and publisher of Zavtra] charged. “Betrayer of the Yeltsin cause” exiled “oligarch” Boris Berezovsky charged. It was strange. It was stranger that Prokhanov, a reviler of Yeltsin, and Berezovsky, an admirer of Yeltsin, were united in an ecstasy of hatred for Putin.

Really though, it was not so strange. Both were unhappy that Putin went on being half-Yeltsin. It’s just that one of them wanted the second half to fall away from Putin, and the other wanted the first half to disappear.

A radical change in the Kremlin’s team was the chief way of satisfying the wishes of both Prokhanov and Berezovsky—or, to put it more accurately, of either Prokhanov or Berezovsky. Because by 2003, it was clear that to go on half-satisfying and half-frustrating both antagonists, and both halves of Russian society (which basically consists of Prokhanovs and Berezovskys), would no longer be possible. A choice had to be made.

A battle for the president’s sympathies ensued because he was so ambivalent. Putin put off his selection for a time. At first, that suited everyone, but the Duma elections grew rapidly and catastrophically near. And that meant that even with all the supposed ephemerality of contemporary Russian parliamentary democracy, Russian society would make the choice. And the real political players, ahead of the majority of clever political analysts, who had spent all of 2002 and the spring of 2003 complaining that the Duma elections weren’t important, realized that someone’s victory in the Duma elections would determine Putin’s choice, and that would mean their fate as well. The stakes were sky-high. As a result, everything we observed in 2003 happened, the apotheosis of which was the jailing of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Everything Was Clear Even Four Years Ago
Right after my Jan. 13, 2000, article, “Diagnosis: Managed Democracy,” appeared, this term took root in the political, analytical, and journalistic lexicons as the most precise and popular definition of Russia’s political regime. The article was written immediately after Yeltsin’s clever, voluntary transfer of power to Putin, almost three months before Putin legitimized it with his victory in the March 26, 2000, presidential elections. That was the crucial moment, but the regime of managed democracy with all its substantial features came together before Putin was elected president. That is, Putin acted within the framework of a political construct that had already been created: the managed democracy of the Center and the unmanaged authoritarianism of the oligarchs.

Diagnosis: Managed Democracy
I will put a name to the situation at which we arrived long ago. It is not dictatorship, not despotism. This is an authoritarian-proto-democratic type of government, existing in the form of a presidential republic and in the form of a nomenklatura. It is a bureaucratic, feebly federalist, in places quasi-democratic, and heavily corrupted state. In two words, the name I give for all of this is: “managed democracy.” In 1917, the Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin, took power. They had their own democratic slogan, “All Power to the Soviets!” But they could not ignore the no less popular slogan in society, “All Power to the Constituent Assembly!” The Bolsheviks, however, lost the elections to the Constituent Assembly; they didn’t have a majority.

What was Lenin to do? Correct: He unlawfully disbanded the Constituent Assembly, and then, suppressing the resistance (included the armed uprising) of his followers, turned to revolutionary terror.

Managed democracy emerged in the country in a Soviet guise. Real democracy, however, remained in the party, at the party congresses.

Stalin came to power. Under his rule, Soviet-style managed democracy became quasi-democratic, but democracy remained in the party. Then Stalin, through the method he perfected (“the main thing is not how they vote, but how they count the votes”) turned an internal party democracy into a nationwide managed democracy. Stalin finally, using terror, turned even that managed democracy into a quasi-democracy. Yet another cycle in the history of the Russian representative council was completed.

Decades later, Gorbachev was unable to democratize the party, although he did practically give “All power to the Soviets.” As a result, he was crushed and overthrown by both the undemocratic wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [the State Committee for the State of Emergency] and the power of Yeltsin’s Soviets, which had turned into the “ochlocracy” [mob rule] of the intelligentsia.

Yeltsin, the leader of the democratic-ochlocratic movement, ascended to the throne. Yeltsin was faced—as Stalin, Lenin, and Czar Nikolai II were before him—with an old problem: Parliamentary democracy (in all its forms throughout Russian history, from the Czarist Dumas, to the Constituent Assembly, to the Soviets, to the party congresses) was interfering with the country’s highest executive power.

So what did Yeltsin, who spent only a few years honestly fighting unmanaged democracy, do? That's right: He did the same thing that the Czar did with the Dumas, the same thing Lenin did with the Constituent Assembly, the same thing that Stalin did with the soviets and the party congresses: He moved against them.

But Yeltsin next did something completely new in Russian political history. He took a step away from dictatorship and despotism. He called for Duma elections, precisely with the purpose of establishing managed democracy.

In 1996, during the presidential elections, the manageability of our democracy was demonstrated in all its elegance. The problem was something else: Yeltsin managed the country poorly. But he did not extinguish the democratic impulse and did not swerve toward despotism, even though the managed democracy that he constructed wished to overthrow him.

And then Yeltsin, at the height of his power, pointed to Putin.

Putin, along with Yeltsin, intelligently decided to extend the life of the managed democracy for at least another term. Why? Selfish reasons, of course, were there. But the main reason was fear—a rational, grounded fear—that a departure from managed democracy would lead the country form ochlocracy, to unmanaged democracy, to anarchy.

In a managed democracy, the people vote, but the people who are in power correct the people’s choice ever so slightly. In whose favor? In their own favor, of course.

Project: United Russia
The project was born out of the many, often directly contradictory motivations of many political players, who professed widely divergent views. But the authors and executors of the project gave few thoughts to ideology. The approach was strictly instrumental. A mechanism was needed to fix the line the ruling class would take after the elections.

Who would be the main person in the ruling class? That would be decided later. Or rather, that would be decided in the course of preparing and holding the elections, in a struggle within Russia’s apparat [bureaucracy]. Power would be with “United Russia,” and United Russia was in the ruling class’ hands. Putin, of course, could not ignore such a powerful mechanism and those who ruled it.

But the Communist Party got in the way. Without using some steroids, it would be impossible to beat them. And there was only one kind of steroid available: Putin’s approval ratings.

The United Russia project was essentially an exercise in centrism. It did virtually nothing save maintain the status quo.

Putin had already sensed this by the spring of 2000. The status quo, by its very indeterminacy, ceased to satisfy him. Just in case, in order to win time and to avoid becoming hostage to an ambiguous situation, Putin allowed two or three minor figures to take seemingly independent actions. For example, Anatoly Chubais suddenly proposed his version of centrism as an alternative to the centrism of United Russia. Liberal imperialism. Deciphered, it seemed a blend of Berezovsky and Prokhanov.

Managed Democracy Wears Thin
In a managed democracy, two things are important: the center of management and the expressed purpose of the project. But under Putin, problems have emerged with the center of management and with the project's purpose. As we have already determined, Putin was being tugged in two opposite directions, toward Berezovsky and toward Prokhanov.

In short, our political raznochintsy [the term for the 19th-century intellectuals who were not of the nobility] wore out managed democracy before its time. It was strong precisely because of its integrity, its unity of will. But they drove it in two directly opposite directions. Everybody was involved in this: the Kremlin, with all its factions; Yukos and other business groups; the silovoki [law-enforcement and security agents]; the right; the left; the regions; and so on.

The system of managed democracy, which allows for the administrative correction of expressions of the will of the electorate and the formally independent institutions of society, was most often used to establish the power of one person or one group through the subordination of democratic procedures to the united will of the bosses.

The result has been the liquidation of democracy in general. Only its formal institutions remain. But that doesn’t mean that this system can’t be used to realize directly contradictory aims: to preserve democracy and create a normal system for transferring power. We have already embarked on that path.

On this score, a radical step was taken, strange as it may seem, by Yeltsin. Disbanding the legislative council named the “Supreme Soviet,” he founded a council called the “Federal Assembly.” Yeltsin chose the lesser of two evils for himself. Few recall it now, but when liquidating the Supreme Soviet with his Decree No. 1400, Yeltsin promised to conduct elections not only for the new council, but even early presidential elections in the summer of 1994. Of course, he didn’t do this. The results of the Duma elections of 1993 showed that there was no chance for Yeltsin to be re-elected.

Nevertheless, the historical step was taken. The State Duma arose and was constituted in the political mind of both society and the ruling class as a necessary institution of the country’s political system, something to fight to influence—and not just something to ignore, or worse, liquidate.

The constitution of the Duma, half of whose deputies are elected from party lists, stimulated a process of party-building. It was very much on the decline, but it was there nonetheless.

How, the ruling class asked, could the system of managed democracy be made to function optimally?

Very simple: The central government should scrupulously go through the motions of allowing democratic expression in the provinces and in places where democratic procedures might bring to power elements deemed dangerous to the nation and to democracy itself. There, elections could be “corrected.”

Gradually, however, another principle prevailed in determining the tasks that managed democracy should perform. The institutions of managed democracy didn’t remove those who were dangerous to the nation or to democracy. Instead they removed those who questioned the authority or the property of the rich and powerful. Government institutions were used to remove political and business rivals. These latter rivals became particularly relevant, as it was in 1994-1997 that the greatest division of property was made since the Bolsheviks nationalized the resources of one of the richest countries in the world.

The regime of managed democracy was finally established in Russia by those who were in power and obtained major property in the country during the 1994-1997 redistribution of wealth.

It was these people, half of whom—and in the central government agencies more than half—called themselves liberals and democrats, who blocked the path of Russia's normal democratic development. Their sacred slogan was: “Where one does not find our property or our power, one finds democracy. Where one finds our property (or property that interests us) and our power, one finds authoritarianism.” And it was in these years that the law-enforcement agencies, the judicial system, and the nation’s media were put under the near-total control of this ruling and owning class.

The Kremlin was allowed to retain the suzerainty of vassal groups, authorized to arbitrate disputes among vassals, but was never allowed to interfere in the affairs of the territories under the vassals’ control, and certainly not in affairs involving property they had attained.

Thus, a new feudalism was born in Russia, disguised behind numerous public discussions about freedom of speech, democracy, and other civil rights in keeping with the spirit and fashion of the times.

But a feudal system, strictly speaking, doesn’t need any democracy, even the managed kind. It automatically leans toward authoritarianism. Because, on the one hand, the vassals want to be subordinate only to the suzerain they themselves have picked. And the suzerain (the president, the central authority) should not be much more powerful or much richer than the vassals—otherwise, he turns the vassals into his own lackeys who happen to be richer than the others.

The oligarchs and their free brethren, the regional barons, were interested in weakening presidential authority to the greatest extent possible and bringing to power a weak figure, a president dependent on them.

Later, the antidemocratic “democratic project” of turning Russia from a presidential into a parliamentary republic was achieved, enabling the oligarchs, through their factions in the Duma, to choose a suzerain.

It is claimed that Yukos was deliberately preparing to implement such a plan.

That situation automatically led the central authority, the president, to resist, that is, to display authoritarian tendencies. Putin’s authoritarianism is only 10 percent the result of his own personality. It is 90 percent the inevitable authoritarianism of a suzerain, who, if he did not strive for the absolute power of a monarch, would inevitably either be eaten, overthrown, or crushed by the united will of his vassals.

Yeltsin’s system of checks and balances was not a form of democracy, but the suzerain’s defense of his personal power against the greed of his vassals. Since this system was created not in the 17th or 18th centuries, but at the end of the 20th century, it took the form of managed democracy—a form of constitutional monarchy that is politically correct for the era of modernism.

Feudalism Is Constructed: Now What?
Yeltsin’s abdication of the throne in favor of Putin is an absolutely precise political analogy of Czar Nikolai II’s abdication in favor of the Grand Duke Mikhail Aleksandrovich. As Yeltsin almost explicitly said in his recent interview with [the liberal Moscow weekly] Moskovskie Novosti, he wanted to, but couldn’t, transfer power to one of his protégés—Chubais, [former Finance Minister Yegor] Gaidar, or [Union of Rightist Forces Leader Boris] Nemtsov. But not because they, like the Czarevich Aleksei, were too young and weak in health, but because “they wouldn't have been supported in the elections.” After all, we do have democracy, even if it is managed. After all, it’s the 21st century—it’s not fashionable to ignore public opinion completely, and, more to the point, it’s dangerous.

Fortunately, Putin, unlike the Grand Duke Aleksandrovich, remained in power. And we did not see a new 1917 with all of its delights. Possibly, this is simply because we already had those delights again from 1990-93. With the aid of the system of managed democracy, Putin was able to reinforce the power of the state but not his personal power. He was unable to decide the two main questions: power and property. Until these questions are resolved, Russia will remain in a state of latent civil war. Why couldn’t Putin rule on these issues?

Theoretically, managed democracy—as a transitional political regime—should have made it possible for him to decide these two issues, given the unified will of the ruling class and the nominal participation of the citizenry. But there wasn’t any unity.

The ruling class wasn’t unified. The Kremlin wasn’t even unified in its will or its purposes.

The people, indisputably, share Putin’s will, as his famously high ratings in opinion polls show. But you can’t make politics out of a rating, just like you can’t make soup from a stone. You must add a lot of ingredients. A leader’s politics can rely on ratings, but more importantly, a leader must have politics that consolidate the interests of all the significant forces in society and all the main political players—or, as it is fashionable to say now, all the actors. And it was that sort of politics that Putin was unable to fashion during the first term of his rule. We—Putin included—all have an interest in seeing such a politics emerge before the next succession in 2008.

Putin’s Imperatives
Managed democracy without unity of political will and purpose automatically turns into either oligarchy (1993-1999), ochlocracy, anarchy (1990-1993), or authoritarianism. Even under Putin, we do not have authoritarianism as we did in the old days, although many have accused Putin of being authoritarian, especially in the past year.

I thirst for authoritarianism. I call to it: “Authoritarianism, yoo-hoo, where are you?” And there is no answer.

For many reasons, it’s no longer possible for the central authorities in Russia to be authoritarian. Now, at the regional level and the level of the oligopoly it is possible and really does exist. But as much as it would like to be, the Kremlin and the central government cannot be authoritarian.

That is the paradox of the contemporary Russian political system: Its democracy is supported by the diversity of the unmanaged authoritarianisms of the oligarchs and the governors, but these players do not let either the central government or the society as a whole make a step toward real democracy or, for that matter, toward state authoritarianism at the federal level.

But the transition to real democracy is blocked first by the oligarchs and the governors, their clientele in the bureaucratic apparat, and only last by Putin personally. Of course, by him, too. Because the president knows that if he were suddenly to introduce absolute, full-fledged democracy by fiat, it would have one of three consequences:
  1. The realization of this democracy would stymie the bureaucrats and the president’s vassals, so the president would lose the support of both. He would be overthrown by those who demand democracy loudest of all. If that barrier were crossed, which is almost inconceivable, then:
  2. Either the leftist forces would come to power, who would then definitely put Khodorkovsky in jail (and not only him) and begin a new division of property, which Russia will not endure;
  3. Or criminal organizations will come to power, coddled, incidentally, by the oligarchs.
That’s the trap Putin fell into—a trap anyone would have fallen into. And the old methods of solving problems were no longer available. The puny authoritarianism of the central authority was powerless before the collective unmanaged authoritarianism of the vassals. The mechanism of managed democracy, divided among everyone who has power and property, does not allow them to manage the system or to democratize it. It only enables the continuation of a shaky status quo, to go on dealing until 2008 with the same problems that were in the first legislature, and to dream up the next “successor operation.”

To rely directly on the people, having set them against the oligarchs, would be to unleash a new hot civil war.

Who Chooses the Suit?
Managed democracy has grown tired and has ceased to be effective. They won’t let you take more than two steps toward authoritarianism, and there isn’t the strength for it, anyway. To go toward full-fledged democracy is dangerous and fearsome.

But you can’t think of anything new. The only recipe is to consolidate society and all subjects of Russian politics under the banner either of a common idea (which is most difficult) or a single will (which seems easier, but only at first glance). Best of all is to consolidate society under the banner of a common idea around a single will.

For that, you need a single will. Consequently, a revolution in the cadres is absolutely inevitable. And it has begun—it is only a question of scale. And the scale, judging from the first step, will be considerable.

It is clear that Putin does not trust the majority of the oligarchs of the Yeltsin era, or, at any rate, prefers to speak to them from a position of strength. On the whole, this is understandable and even reasonable. But power must take shape. For this, one needs: a team, an idea (publicly announced terms for a social contract), the consent of society and most of the players (sincere, and not opportunistic consent) for these terms, and a mechanism for implementation. This mechanism, by the way, can only be the very same managed democracy, but in its optimal form, not in the version it is now.

Putin has grown utterly tired of the political regime he inherited from Yeltsin. The regime has become decrepit, even after having been refurbished. Putin wants to choose a new suit from his wardrobe. He looks into the closet and he sees only the same suits purchased by the apparat. A new tailor must be summoned. And the president must do it.

Copyright © 1997-2017 Worldpress.org. All Rights Reserved. - - Privacy Notice - Front Page