February 03, 2012
Stephen Holmes in the LRB:
The Putin system has nothing to do with the ‘authoritarian DNA’ invoked by Sovietologists to explain the recurrent suppression of liberal developments. The singularity of Putin’s Russia is a consequence of the bureaucratic fragmentation that followed the break-up of the Party in 1991, the siphoning into foreign bank accounts of money from the state treasury and state-controlled firms by rival bureaucratic and business factions, the continuing absence of socially legitimate owners of what were once state properties, the corruption of officialdom at all levels, the gap between rich and poor, the anaemic sense of national identity among the country’s political and economic elite.
The most common misapprehension about post-Communist Russia, accepted by both the regime’s supporters and its critics, is that Putin has created a military-style structure of command. In fact, he has had neither the capacity nor the ambition to rebuild a Soviet-style hierarchy. Harding writes of the transition ‘from the chaos but relative freedoms of the Yeltsin years to the "managed democracy" of the vertical Putin epoch’ and cites Valter Litvinenko, Aleksandr Litvinenko’s father: ‘Russia is a vertical system. It’s like the Soviet Union. Only Putin can decide these questions, just like Stalin. Without Putin’s approval it’ - his son’s poisoning - ‘could not have happened.’ But although it’s undeniable that ‘state irritants are murdered as a direct result of their professional activities,’ it’s far from clear that the killing of journalists and lawyers with a social conscience requires Putin’s initiative.
That the much publicised vertical power structure is a ‘fiction’, as it was called by Aleksei Navalny, one of the instigators of the massive anti-regime demonstrations that took place on 8 December, is evident from the corruption which, according to Harding, ‘has increased sixfold under Putin’s rule’. Escaping the draft, registering a company, buying an apartment, getting into school, passing an exam, being acquitted of criminal charges, trumped up or valid, receiving medical treatment may all require the bribery of public officials. The kickback plague is endemic, inflating by as much as 50 per cent the cost to the state of everything from weapons to highway construction. That the principal players in ‘the greatest corruption story in human history’, as the economist Anders Aslund puts it, include the fabled siloviki - the ‘heavies’: the army, the intelligence agencies etc - is the strongest sign of the absence of a hierarchy. In a hierarchy, local officials would answer to their Moscow superiors: but they don’t.
If there is a vertical in Putin’s Russia, it is a vertical of impunity. If you are an officer in the FSB moonlighting as a hired hitman you can kill someone and nothing will happen. The routine failure to solve homicide cases and prosecute murderers, far from signalling overwhelming state power, reveals quite the opposite. ‘Putin’s system of loyalty is highly dependent on the ability of his army of bureaucrats to embezzle and take bribes,’ says the editor of the Moscow Times, quoted by Harding. Putin can’t compel public sector employees to stop embezzling and extorting, any more than he can force government officials to put their departmental responsibilities before their personal cupidity and commit themselves to their community’s well-being.