Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#11 - JRL 7027
Novaya Gazeta
No. 4
January 2003
The prospects for democracy and a free-market economy in Russia are dismal
Author: Mikhail Krugov
[from WPS Monitoring Agency, www.wps.ru/e_index.html]


It seems that the three-year truce at the top of Russian politics is ending this year. Boris Yeltsin did not simply retire. Aware that he himself might become the first victim of the power-struggle, he did a King Lear - dividing his "kingdom" among the major claimants. This "father of Russian democracy" relied on his pet principle of equilibrium: only when all powerful groups are more or less equal in resources, and equally dangerous to each other, can they be forced to maintain equilibrium.

Each group at the top got what it wanted. The newcomers from St. Petersburg got the Kremlin and Gazprom. The old guard got the Cabinet and Russian Joint Energy Systems. The oligarchs got away with keeping what they had. Yeltsin himself retained the equivalent of King Lear's escort of a hundred knights: Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, and Alexander Mamut.

Eventually, and with some conflict, the successors divided all the rest: that is, television broadcasting. When the process was over, the oligarchs found themselves two men short - Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky - but these two had always been outsiders. In short, the truce was preserved, despite everything.

The problem of the powers-that-be in Russia is rooted in their artificial nature. Yeltsin did not divide power among elites, as it is usually done in a normal society. He divided it among cliques. And yet, the elites are the natural participants in power-struggles. Political, economic, intellectual, bureaucratic, and military elites are responsible for those specific spheres. They get public resources for the needs of their spheres of activity, in accordance with their position in the hierarchy... That is why normal political power- struggles are waged by elites. But when it's a matter of cliques and clans, this is reduced to a common shoot-out.

Only the military and bureaucratic elites have taken advantage of the three-year truce so far. They united and formed a power alliance. The alliance is currently promoting its members into the political elite. The results of this process are predictable. The real political elite has been steadily losing its influence over the legislative branch of the government.

The economic, political, and intellectual elites have not even begun the process of consolidation, and there is a reason for that. The bureaucrats and the military consolidate when ordered to do so; but business leaders, politicians, and intellectuals need ideas. The process of consolidation is not underway because there is a shortage of ideas.

At the same time, the unity of the new alliance is not perfect either. The military elite is made up of the secret services clan and the army clan. The two are only allied for tactical reasons. Both clans have their eyes on the nation's wealth, which went to the oligarchs in the course of privatization. Why? Because this is the only source of resources the military needs to "restore" the nation, at least in the capacity of a military super power.

The bureaucracy is also made up of two clans with different mentalities: the western clan, including young bureaucrats like Anatoly Chubais, and the eastern clan, which retains all the features of the Soviet bureaucracy set up by Stalin and ruined by Brezhnev. Differences between these clans are substantial. The western clan considers that the bureaucratic elite ought to rule the alliance as such. The eastern clan accepts the leadership of the military: the leadership of Putin.

It seems that the new power-struggle soon to commence at the top of Russian politics will focus on the following issues. The next fork on the road to Russia's "bright future" awaits us during the elections in 2007 and 2008. Because there are different kinds of capitalism: of the West, the East, and the Middle East. The military-bureaucratic alliance which is presently running Russia prefers Middle Eastern capitalism, because this is the model where the military and bureaucrats are the decision-makers. The alliance disdains the Eastern model, where everything is decided by economic and bureaucratic elites; or Western capitalism, where bureaucrats and the military are not in the upper echelons at all (these is the model where countries are ruled by economic, political, and intellectual elites).

The bureaucracy finds the existing model of capitalism entirely to its liking, since this model offers bureaucrats every opportunity to line their pockets and benefit in general. But the military elite ends up with only a pittance. That is why the military is not interested in having a regime which does not exert total control over society's resources.

This means that as far as the military is concerned, the economic elite will become its major target in the impending power-struggle; or rather, the economic resources it controls. The military is certain that it would find a better use for these economic resources.

The 2003 and 2004 elections will not be decisive, because nowadays there is what almost amounts to parity. None of the warring sides can win a conclusive victory right now. All these battles will only be tactical for the time being, with each side aiming to fortify its own positions and weaken the enemy - in the hope that everything will be decided in 2007 and 2008.

Control over the Duma is the prime objective in the initial phase of the power-struggle, as far as the ruling alliance is concerned. It follows that the parliamentary battles will be the most important for it. Control over the legislative branch will enable the ruling alliance to set the rules for political power-struggle: rules that will primarily favor itself. This situation will consolidate the positions of the alliance for the decisive battles of 2007 and 2008. The Kremlin already has the upper house where it wants it. Now it needs similar control over the lower house.

The process of reorganizing state institutions, now moving into high gear, has similar goals. It is supposed to ensure a victory for the ruling alliance of bureaucrats and the military in the power- struggle against the democratically-oriented elites. That is why the administrative reforms are really aimed at establishing strong control over regional governments.

Reorganizing the courts should enable the ruling alliance to win any legal battles against the oligarchs. It is reasonable to assume that the 2007 and 2008 elections will replay the scenario of the 1999 and 2000 campaigns. It will be a "small, victorious war" where the role of Chechen separatists will be played by large companies which "robbed the nation through privatization", "withdrew the assets and resources necessary for the nation's development", and so on.

Rearranging control over TV channels could have been organized without harassing any oligarchs, but... The persecution of Gusinsky and Berezovsky was a kind of exercise for prosecutors and judges, their way of rehearsing some methods and techniques for dealing with large companies in future.

The military-bureaucratic union will have some allies in this war - the state apparatus, the army, the secret services, and Communist voters. That is why there will be no problems with eliminating all the tycoons, followed by eliminating democracy and the free-market economy.

Once Russia's large companies have been completely decapitated, medium-sized and small business will be completely tame. They will be tamed and whipped into line in order to prevent them from growing and expanding, and therefore becoming a worthy opponent to the bureaucrats and the military some day. In doing this, the ruling alliance will simultaneously eliminate the resources for the future appearance of strong, competent political and intellectual elites, the natural enemies of the military and bureaucrats.

The simulation of economic reforms also makes sense. Authoritarian societies do not need free economies; so why bother setting up favorable conditions for the economic elite? This is the only explanation for the fact that economic reforms in Russia are being planned and implemented under the guidance of a lawyer with no real-world business experience. Lawyers are the best imitators - they can feign knowledge of any subject, they are professionally precise with words and cautious in their actions. In other words, they are likely to do the least damage to the subject of imitation.

This scenario of the impending power-struggle is so probable because it describes a natural political battle between elites with different goals and different mentalities.

Analysis indicates that the prospects for democracy and a free- market economy in Russia are anything but bright.

In other words, unless the discord among democratically-oriented elites is ended, Russia will have its own equivalent of the Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan's authoritarian leader, as soon as 2008. And since "eastern despotism" is an archaic phenomenon, by any measure, the process of social degradation will continue, ending in the nation's disintegration. Because bureaucrats and the military cannot come up with anything but another period of stagnation.

Back to the Top    Next Article