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Putin and the Clans

What’s happening in Russia today could be described as the consolidation of an authoritarian regime, or in more popular jargon, the rise of a dictatorship. The so-called parliamentary elections last December only confirmed this assessment. I might be accused of alarmism — after all, many newspapers are still printing what they like; only a few oligarchs have been thrown in jail without due process, and they were undoubtedly guilty of something anyway; the borders are still open, and a number of political parties are still in operation.

Unlike certain former dissidents, I am not inclined to label as a dictatorship any regime in Russia that fails to install me in a top leadership position. The regime that took shape during the Yeltsin years, for example, was not a dictatorship, though you would be hard pressed to call it a democracy, either. The Yeltsin regime has been characterized in many ways — I prefer to call it “clan democracy.” Various types of clans — territorial, ideological, political, sectoral, criminal etc. — existed under socialism, and flourished in the late-Brezhnev years. But back then the clans were held in check by the centralized party-state apparatus. When that apparatus collapsed these clans emerged as the main powers in Russian politics, and divided the fragments of the party-state apparatus amongst themselves.The separation of powers was an unknown concept in the Soviet Union. From Soviet political culture, the post-Soviet clans inherited the notion of political competition as the process of establishing absolute power, and began battling for control of all available resources. However, under Yeltsin the Kremlin, which had become the most influential clan of all, had no pretensions to absolute power, preferring to play the role of arbiter between rival clans and at times seeking their support.

Putin’s team clearly understood that this system was incapable of solving the country’s most pressing problems, and so they set out to create one of their own. Just what that new system would look like wasn’t immediately clear, but today it is obvious that under Putin the Kremlin’s main aim has been to curb and eventually to destroy the clan system and to restore the power of the centralized bureaucracy. In order to achieve this, the regime began an ongoing battle with the clans and the gradual imposition of direct control from the Kremlin. The president’s program includes: restoration of control in Chechnya (the staunchest of the territorial clans) and throughout the regions; striking a blow against the corporate empires of Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky (the most independent economic clans), as well as the empire of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (which was getting “out of control”); and the extermination of all independent political parties (political clans).

What’s behind this policy? Putin may sincerely believe that a powerful bureaucracy is the key to economic growth. There were plenty of Pinochet supporters among the “democrats” of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin eras, and especially among the economists of the Chubais-Gaidar school. Or perhaps Putin, in keeping with Russian tradition, simply loves power itself.
The man on the street doesn’t much care one way or the other, what matters is simply that in destroying the clans — a task whose time has surely come — the current leadership is using its power to create not the rule of law (which requires the separation of powers, etc.), but an all-powerful centralized state apparatus. This entails the curtailment of such quasi-democratic institutions left over from the 1990s as a relatively free press and elections, a somewhat independent judicial system, and so on. Replacing the clans with the bureaucracy will entail a gradual destruction of independent political and civic life. After all, in Yeltsin’s Russia the clans were the sponsors of the independent media, political parties and of Russia’s fledgling civil society.

From Putin’s point of view, any manifestation of independence (criticism in the press, independent court decisions) can only be explained as the work of oligarchs attempting to influence the regime. But in a state that functions in accordance with the law, influencing the government is not a crime so long as it occurs within the limits of the law. And although the oligarchs did indeed acquire excessive power in the 1990s, replacing them with an all-powerful bureaucracy is inconsistent with the goal of joining the so-called civilized world. A regime run by billionaires who came by their wealth illegally during the Yeltsin years is obviously a bad thing. But in terms of democratization, the power of hundreds of faceless and equally corrupt functionaries is far worse.

If the process now under way is not stopped, an increasingly strict authoritarian regime will emerge in Russia. Following on from the destruction of openly feuding clans, we will see the annihilation of those clans (Moscow, Tatarstan, etc.) that have quietly striven to preserve their autonomy. After that, the regime will turn on organizations and individuals that it considers even potentially capable of independent thought, finally eliminating everyone even remotely capable of collective action. This is how the Stalin and Hitler regimes developed.

Several scenarios are possible for the economy. The most likely is stagnation, which has always accompanied absolute bureaucratic power in Russia. In fact, stagnation has already set in. There was limited economic reform in the early months of Putin’s rule, but the regime quickly chose the path of least resistance: burning through the windfall profits from oil and gas exports. Russia’s chronic problems are not being addressed: reform of the housing sector, the armed forces, the judiciary and law enforcement are all on hold. GDP growth, driven by high oil prices, is misleading. The education, public health and social welfare systems continue to disintegrate. The list could run on.

Meanwhile this regime of chekists, trained in the Soviet era in the necessity of effective “ideological cover” for any operation, pays lip service — partly for domestic consumption but mostly for Western ears — to the rule of law, democracy, the separation of powers, free and fair elections, and so on.

Another scenario involves limited economic growth driven by a favorable global economy, increased influence of reform-minded economists in the government and more decisive action from the president. This scenario seems less likely as the backers of bureaucratization (the clan of St. Petersburg siloviki) are clearly in the ascendant, and historically in this country bureaucratization has never led to economic growth.
Neither scenario offers much in the way of political stability, however. Stagnation would lead to a political crisis more quickly than limited growth, but even the latter — as seen in such economically successful dictatorships such as South Korea, Taiwan and Chile — leads to the downfall of dictatorship. And in many cases, dictators and their corrupt henchmen have been called to account.

Having taken full control of the Duma, the government, the regions, the parties and the media, the president has removed all potential scapegoats. From now on it will be extremely difficult for Putin to shift the blame for a dip in the standard of living or any other crisis. Even in the best-case scenario, some discontent is inevitable. And from now on, every broken water pipe will have a direct impact on the president’s own popularity. His current sky-high poll numbers should fool no one. Gorbachev and Yeltsin were just as popular in the early years of their tenure. Even after four years in power, the “democrats” considered there was no alternative to Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union.

ALEXANDER LUKIN is an independent political analyst,This is the first in a series of two articles by him.

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