Divorcia Politica alla Russica

Welcome to Russia, where kleptocratic officials are promoted. At least they're not shot.

Two domestic developments that occurred during the Yaroslavl forum seemed to me rather characteristic of the way Russia is managed today, and probably for the foreseeable future, whatever the ultimate fate of the present Putin-Medvedev setup. The first, which has even been noticed by some of the Western media, is an intense assault by the state- and state-linked media on the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, accusing his administration of massive corruption (shock, horror!) and his wife of having become one of the richest people in Russia by thoroughly unclear means (no!).

As my ironic parentheses suggest, these suspicions have been known to just about every man, woman, child and possibly dog and cat in Moscow for the past fifteen years, but the media have been strangely silent on the subject. The change now is undoubtedly the product of the administration’s desire to prevent the mayor from staying much longer on the job. Whether these moves emanated in the first instance from the Putin or Medvedev camps is not quite clear (at least to me).

Putin never trusted Luzhkov (who ran for president himself briefly), though he left him in place, because once he had promised not to oppose the president, he was simply too powerful to be worth bothering about. He has also been quite popular among Muscovites, having made sure that public services have been maintained and even improved, and a reasonable proportion of the immense wealth flowing through Moscow taxed for this purpose. “He dunks but he splashes” was the—Chicagoan—remark of a Western observer in the late 1990s. Now, however, the Kremlin sees the chance to move against an independent source of power, who might play an independent and disruptive role in the reshuffle (or not) of power in 2012. As to Medvedev, the move against Luzhkov fits in well with his slow and limited but nonetheless real campaign to remove at least some of the most corrupt leading figures in the country from office.

However, I am quite sure of one thing. As long as Luzhkov eventually goes quietly—or even if he hangs on while avoiding being drawn into open political revolt against the Kremlin—the accusations against Luzhkov will never lead to him being charged before the courts. Medvedev’s modus operandi in this regard is the same as Putin’s, and goes to the heart of how the Russian establishment works. Thus last week President Medvedev removed the governor of Novosibirsk, Viktor Tolokonsky, who has been closely linked to a local political-business family which in turn has been widely accused of having links to organized crime.

Was Tolokonsky arrested? Fired in disgrace? Sent to manage a pig farm in the northern Urals or a consulate in Belize? Not at all. He was promoted. The president appointed him as presidential envoy to Western Siberia—a job with considerable public prestige but far fewer direct connections with local government and business and far fewer opportunities for corruption or the defense of the corrupt and criminal. This is absolutely Putinesque. Thus when Putin eventually moved against the extremely corrupt and criminal governor of Primorsky, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, he also did not fire him altogether (and never arrested him) but for a while gave him the job of minister of fisheries. And there have been numerous such cases. In other words, to be excluded altogether, let alone arrested, you have to have come out in open revolt against the regime. Yet all the same, over the years this has led to the removal of a good many of the most odious figures around the country—except in the North Caucasus, where alas the choice of local figures is not what you would call inspiring.

How bad is this approach? Clearly in one sense it fails to impose the rule of law. It is also of course due chiefly to two motives: to hold the existing establishment together without open and bloody clashes, and to allow them to go on milking the system in a more discreet way. In many ways therefore the state motto of Russia today could be “Dog does not eat dog.” Clearly under this system Russia will never approach the best Western standards of public honesty, and corruption will continue to be a serious impediment to economic development.

But then, did I say something about Chicago? The general lesson of world history concerning corruption is firstly that the reduction of corruption is usually an incremental rather than sudden process (in Britain the change from the extremely corrupt system of the eighteenth century to Victorian standards of probity took some 100 years and a peaceful but revolutionary social, economic and cultural transformation). The second is that within certain limits (which Russia today exceeds), levels of corruption in the long run may matter less than the question of whether they are orderly and predictable, or anarchic and kleptocratic.

One final thought: faced with existing (and yes, very often anarchic and kleptocratic) present Russian levels of corruption, a number of Western and Russian businessmen and would-be Russian reformers have said to me in private that the only successful way forward for Russia would be to introduce Chinese-style methods and start shooting people. And if the Russian establishment were to split wide open and fight for power, then it is possible that executions of the defeated for corruption would indeed occur. But without such a radical split, I cannot see such ruthless methods in Russia. And of that I am glad. Russia saw quite enough shooting in the last century.