The Kremlin Begs To Differ

The Kremlin Begs To Differ

Mini Teaser: One doesn’t need to be a Russian domestic radical or a foreign Russophobe to see major flaws in the way Russia is ruled. The population, however, is satisfied with the status quo...for now.

by Author(s): Dimitri K. SimesPaul J. Saunders

Governors and other regional leaders are nominated locally but selected by the presidential administration in consultation with the prime minister's office; mayors are elected through processes that are easily manipulated, as demonstrated by the recent election in Sochi, where opposition candidates were marginalized or disqualified. Pro-government candidates at all levels routinely enjoy considerable advantages, including ready access to television, ease in getting permits for rallies and campaign donors recruited by the regime.

Local leaders-especially those in Russia's ethnically based regions, such as Chechnya's President Ramzan Kadyrov-have what resembles feudal autonomy so long as they remain outwardly loyal to the federal government and can maintain control of their domains. Kadyrov in particular is a striking case, a former rebel turned minidictator who embraces polygamy and honor killings. Yet with his brutality Kadyrov has, at least until recently, maintained stability in Chechnya-allowing Moscow to withdraw Russian troops and remove the issue as a domestic political irritant.

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is another interesting example. Luzhkov was attacked as corrupt by the pro-Kremlin media when he and former-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov led a key challenge to Putin's ascension to power. Luzhkov subsequently failed to endear himself to the federal government's officials as the leader of a political-business clan that did not share the capital city's spoils sufficiently with federal bureaucrats. But Putin came to appreciate Luzhkov after his firm response to protests in the wake of a 2005 decision to reduce social benefits to retirees, veterans, the handicapped and, remarkably, even the police by providing regular benefit payments instead of free services. The Moscow mayor proved that he knew how to run his city when the chips were down. All this goes to show the conduct top officials are willing to tolerate from regional leaders so long as they deliver what counts.


WHILE IN theory a separate branch of government, Russia's legislature is in reality subordinate to its top leaders. The executive branch decides which parties hold what number of seats in the State Duma and the Federation Council and can ensure the passage of virtually any legislation. Members of parliament are permitted to lobby for their constituents by trying to secure federal-budget funds or other benefits, but have only a marginal role in policymaking.

The political parties themselves are created and destroyed from above rather than from below. There are only four parties represented in the State Duma, and three of them are creations of the Russian government. United Russia was established explicitly to serve as Russia's ruling party and a vehicle to bring Putin to power. After remaining aloof as president, Putin now leads the party, which holds a supermajority sufficient to amend the constitution. Whenever it matters, United Russia can count on the votes of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), which according to insider accounts was established in part by the Soviet KGB to serve as a nationalist pseudo-opposition.

The presidential administration openly served as the principal architect of Just Russia, a center-left party assembled as a social-democratic alternative to United Russia. Just Russia repackaged and expanded a previous government-inspired opposition party, Rodina (Motherland), itself created as a nationalist and populist alternative to the Communists, but ultimately destroyed when the party and its leader Dmitry Rogozin proved too successful for their own good. The regime's demonization and subsequent rehabilitation of Rogozin as Moscow's ambassador to NATO once he was no longer a threat illustrates Russia's political hardball.

Only the Communist Party-which traces its origins to the Soviet period-appears to be a genuine mass party with a degree of independence. Despite this, the Communists are well aware of the limits of their power and consequently they remain unambitious: they know that the party depends on the government for its national and local registration, for access to television and for relatively easy fund-raising. The Communist Party is not a toy of the Russian government, but neither is it an engine of regime change.

Parties outside the parliament have even less impact. Russia's democrats have failed to capture the public imagination-and not only because of government pressure and limits on their activities. Most pro-Western reformers were never able to successfully demonstrate that they represented the interests of ordinary people or to establish patriotic credentials with a population that remained proud and suspicious of the West. Radical Russian democrats ridiculed fear of NATO enlargement when most opposed it, dismissed concerns over U.S. missile defenses that others stoked, and in some cases supported Georgia's perspectives when Russia and Georgia were at war. More recently, democratic opposition politician and former-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov supported the expulsion of Russia's delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe-a position with which very few of his fellow citizens could identify. Russian parties that appear insufficiently patriotic are marginalized, while those that embrace nationalism-like Eduard Limonov's rabidly xenophobic and anti-Western National Bolshevik Party-have greater appeal.


DESPITE ITS unattractiveness to outsiders, Russia's system of control from above and corruption throughout produces little discontent. Many feel a degree of comfort with strong leaders and a degree of discomfort with democratic freedoms. So long as Russia's citizens reap real benefits from the current arrangement, most see little need to question it.

At its deepest, this is a matter of history. There is less demand for an alternative in part because neither of Russia's two experiments with democracy was stable or successful in Russian eyes. The first experiment, between February and October of 1917, led rapidly to a "dual power" arrangement between Alexander Kerensky's Provisional Government and the Communist-dominated Soviets that degenerated into revolution, collapse and totalitarianism. The second, which began with Gorbachev's perestroika, fell apart as Yeltsin turned democratization to his own purposes and allied himself with separatist elites in order to unseat Gorbachev, splintering the USSR in the process. Yeltsin's aggressive pursuit of radical economic reforms despite popular opposition led him to rely increasingly on revitalized security services, the oligarchs and oligarch-controlled media for political backing. After this, most Russians welcomed Putin's imposition of order.

Russia's present political system is also at least partially attributable to Vladimir Putin and his allies in the security services, who have displayed both a ruthless instinct to establish control and a suspicion of anything they do not control. As president, Putin demolished the national political pretensions of the oligarchs and out-of-control governors (which helped bring an end to the semianarchy of the 1990s), but he could not bring himself to encourage civil society or free markets or to establish alternative centers of influence. From this perspective, Russia's current semiauthoritarian system is not entirely the product of a deliberate process but also the result of a vigorous effort to rein in previous abuses unaccompanied by anything else. It is authoritarianism by default.

At the same time, Russia's democratic leaders have failed to unite and failed to excite. In private conversations, many of Russia's post-Soviet democrats acknowledge that their own limited appeal was a major factor in their failure to win continued representation in the Duma in 2003. Electoral manipulation and skewed media coverage made the task much harder, but the democratic parties themselves clearly also fell short.

Without strong and unified public pressure for change, and with few mechanisms to voice those concerns should they arise, a near-term move toward further openness can come only from the top. No polls thus far show widespread public dissatisfaction with how Russia is governed, nor do any suggest that democracy is a priority for a majority or even a sizable minority of average Russians. More important for most is the fact that real incomes in Russia doubled during Vladimir Putin's two terms as president and poverty dropped by half. Wages and pensions were paid on time, and grew faster than inflation. GDP rose by 70 percent, though Russia has since been hit hard by the current crisis.

Yet even the economic downturn has had a muted political impact. Unlike during the 1998 financial meltdown, Russia today holds considerable gold and hard-currency reserves that it has been able to spend to address emerging problems or potential sources of upheaval and to protect private interests, including by bailing out many of the country's business leaders. Revealingly, though Putin publicly humiliated metals magnate Oleg Deripaska and chastised the local leaders of Pikalevo, a one-factory town near Saint Petersburg, for failing to pay their employees, he ultimately resolved the dispute to Deripaska's advantage by providing state funds to help the plants at the center of the crisis. While the former oligarchs have been shut out of high politics, they remain quite capable of advancing their concrete interests. And Russia's government can thus far afford to satisfy both the economic elite and the public.

This relative wealth and public apathy produce a degree of political stability in Russia. And because those at the top of the power vertical clearly understand that maintaining everyone's well-being is a necessary precondition of avoiding upheaval, they tend to prefer maintaining calm by tolerating the financial-industrial barons and ensuring a decent standard of living for the rest of the population. So absent a continued and more serious financial crisis that drains Russia's reserves, the status quo is likely to hold.

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