May 15, 2003
Addressing The Issue of Reform
As President Vladimir Putin prepares to make his fourth annual state of the nation address on Friday, the feeling of nervousness and unease among the country's top leadership is palpable.
One manifestation of this unease is Thursday's Cabinet meeting to discuss the thorny issue of administrative reform -- which promises to provide a few fireworks.
For Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, administrative reform is a sensitive spot. In last year's state of the nation address, Putin chastised the government for dragging its feet ("But we have already been talking for two years about cutting the surplus functions of the state machine") and issued Kasyanov with his marching orders -- calling on him personally to submit concrete reform proposals.
Kasyanov's problem is that he doesn't have a great deal to show for the past 12 months except for prevarication. Instead of producing a plan for overhauling the government, he has for the most part contented himself with the occasional attempt to exploit "administrative reform" for his own political ends -- such as trying to abolish the State Fisheries Committee in order to do away with his nemesis Yevgeny Nazdratenko.
Thus, it would appear that Kasyanov has been preparing his own strike before Friday's address, to deflect the president's wrath. It consists of pre-emptively passing the buck to the German Gref and the Economic Development and Trade Ministry.
So, let's brace ourselves for the coming orgy of mutual recriminations, mudslinging and backstabbing that is in store in the next few days. But apart from the general cathartic benefits, will it do anyone any good?
Is Kasyanov really any more to blame than Putin for the failure to get administrative reform off the ground? Surely, the prime minister's complete failure to fulfill a direct order qualifies as a sackable offense. But if Putin was really any more willing to tread on the toes of the bureaucracy than Kasyanov, then wouldn't he have pushed a bit harder? And surely the president and his staff are in a better position to reform the government than the government itelf.
But the real problem is much more deeply rooted and lies in Russia's dual executive system, which provides massive scope for evading responsibility. When push comes to shove, it is all too easy to start pointing the finger. And sadly, the idea of either the president or prime minister being truly accountable before the State Duma is a bad joke in a country where the parliament is essentially in the Kremlin's pocket.
Until these defects are dealt with, there will be no real administrative reform, and probably no further serious reform, period.