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

#3 - JRL 8485 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
December 6, 2004
Fear Makes a Comeback
By Yevgenia Albats

The Kremlin is about to make the single biggest mistake in the nation's post-communist history. Last week, the State Duma passed amendments that will change the system of elected governors in the 89 regions of what is still a federation into a system of local executives appointed directly by the president. Thus, Russia returns to the power structure that existed in the U.S.S.R., which proved inefficient and resulted in bankruptcy and the collapse of the state in 1991.

Yet it is easy to predict that the current construction is going to be even worse than the Soviet one. Here's why.

There were two major vertically structured institutions that ran the land before 1991. The first, the Communist Party's Central Committee, with its local bodies and corresponding governmental institutions, was entrusted with outlining policy issues and supervising economic activities across the Soviet Union. The second, the KGB, the political police, was also present in each and every town and was charged with keeping the land calm and loyal, so that no discontent capable of even slightly challenging the system existed. The two were competing institutions vying for assets and power.

The success of local party officials, and thus their access to resources, promotion and rewards, depended on the evaluation of their reports by party bosses in Moscow. Hence, party leaders in the regions had no incentives whatsoever to do any good in the territories they controlled; instead they mastered the technique of providing their superiors with false statistics aimed to show the fulfillment of the notorious five-year plans. The image of success served as a substitute for real achievement. This in turn led to an information blockade in Moscow: As we are now well aware from documents in the party archives, officials at the top of the Moscow hierarchy had no clue about the actual disastrous state of the Soviet economy. When in March 1991, the Economy Department of the Central Committee presented the Politburo with a paper stating that the Soviet Union was incapable of servicing its mounting foreign debt and that the state might be pronounced insolvent, it was like a cold shower for many in the Politburo.

As for the second major Soviet institution, the KGB, the incentives for its bureaucrats in epaulets in the regions was of a different sort, based on the task Moscow had entrusted them with -- to keep the population at bay. Fear and the memory of repressions, one of the most important foundations of Soviet power, were diminishing. Yet the collapsing economy and the shortage or absence of basic necessities like food created incredible tension among the population that was doomed to explode sooner or later. Thus, the political police, if only to ensure their survival and success, were constantly looking for potential guilty individuals in case of turmoil in the territories. Local party bureaucrats were the obvious candidates. Thus, at least the KGB bosses in Moscow did in fact have information about the real state of affairs in the land. No wonder the institution lobbied for economic reforms (under strict state supervision) as early as the 1970s. Sure enough, they lost, just as party bureaucrats did. Nevertheless, the existence of two competing institutions at least had the potential to break down the information blockade and cause some corrections to decisions made in Moscow and ordered in the regions.

In the system the Kremlin is about to create, there will be no competition whatsoever, since the same bureaucrats in epaulets now serve both as policy initiators and security supervisors, along with running state-owned businesses. Thus, the Kremlin is doomed to information starvation. In fact, Putin demonstrated just such a lack of proper information over the last two weeks with the unfolding election crisis in Ukraine.

True, the system of appointed regional officials is not unique in Europe. The Kremlin has referred to the French prefets, local officials appointed by the central government (namely the Interior Ministry) for administration of government policy in the regions. Leaving aside the question of the efficiency of the French government, one must keep in mind the existence of strong parties, an independent parliament, and the free partisan media, which ensure the flow of information to Paris. None of this exists now in Russia.

Thus, the Kremlin, to make regional elites somewhat accountable to Moscow and the populace in the territories obedient, will have to reinstitute fear as a key factor in its ruling style. Businesses, except for those with direct access to bosses in Kremlin, will be the first to suffer. Everything else will follow.

Yevgenia Albats has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard. She is a professor of political science at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics.