Streetwise Professor

August 13, 2010

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Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:55 pm

Robert Amsterdam has a good post describing one small episode in what passes for law and justice in Russia.  It’s worth keeping in mind whenever you hear “privatization,” “modernization,” “eliminating the humiliating dependence on raw materials,” “Skolkovo,” blah, blah, blah.

The key thing to remember is what my friend Sergei Guriev and his co-author Aleh Tsyvinski have said, as quoted in the RA post:

Such institutions are difficult to build in every society. In Russia, the task is especially problematic, because the ruling elite’s interests run counter to undertaking it.

In other words: you cannot possibly expect the foxes to build a secure hen house.

Which is why I often refer to Russia as Putin’s Purgatory.  The insiders have no interest in changing the status quo: so where will the change come from?  The opposition is weak, divided, under siege, and any slight chance that they would have of taking power via election is foreclosed by the rigged electoral system.  Moreover, they would probably be overwhelmed if they actually came to power.  Overthrowing through extra-electoral means those currently in charge would, almost certainly, pitch the country into another one of the paroxysms of apocalyptic violence that have ravaged it in the past.

So it will just go on and on, with droning platitudes about change with nothing ever really changing; a Russian Groundhog Day.  Not as bad as it could be, but nothing even slightly resembling a free, fair, and prosperous society.   That must be very dispiriting–which suits the ruling elite very well, because a dispirited and inert populace poses no threat whatsoever.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Craig pirrong, Craig pirrong and Craig pirrong, Craig pirrong. Craig pirrong said: Updated my SWP blog post: ( ) […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Streetwise Professor » ???? ????? -- — August 13, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

  2. It’s hard to disagree with you, Prof, but I’d like to mention a few possibilities for change.
    1. People are really fed up. Yeah, I know I keep writing that. But I don’t think the polls accurately reflect the great discontent, which went off the scales this summer. In Moscow: the disgust over prices, corruption, traffic jams, the new genplan, the destruction of historical buildings, the rising utility bills, the inability of small businesses to start up and survive – and then the way the city authorities did nothing to alleviate the misery of the past weeks, topped by Luzhkov evacuating his friggin’ bees and leaving the country while old folks were dying in their stifling, smoke-filled apartments. From what I gather, it’s the same thing in many regions (although – importantly — not in all; there is, after all, a range of governors and economic situations).
    2. Young people are getting involved in protest movements. Yeah, yeah, there’s Nashi. (And BTW where were the Nashisti during all this horror? Why weren’t they mobilized to hand out water and check on old folks?) But protest rallies are getting younger and younger.
    3. Positive public activism. There was a fascinating article on RFE/RL that described how people have been just ignoring the failure of the authorities to help people who have been burned out. Via Internet they announce what they need, people bring it, it gets transported to the folks who need it (NOT going through local administrations), along with volunteers. It’s really kind of amazing. People saw that nothing was being done by the authorities, and so they just organized aid themselves.
    4. Civil disobedience of various kinds. Drivers are BLOCKING cars with migalki. They are attacking traffic cops and their posts. They are attacking local administrative offices. They’re blocking bulldozers. That is, they are now taking violent (and not so violent action) against the authorities. This has got to scare the crap out of them.
    5. Growing experience of using the law to block lawlessness. Yeah, yeah. It’s not very effective and totally ineffective in some circumstances. But in particular folks have used lawyers to stop razing of buildings in Moscow for several days. Apartment raiding has almost stopped. There is a growing group of lawyers who know what they’re doing.
    6. Increasing calls (in number and insistence) for local elections. There is also a lot of discussion of the 2007 law that changed forest oversight, and a recognition that people should be paying more attention to the laws that are being passed. (Probably not much, but certainly more than 5 years ago.)
    7. Some positive experience of civic-state cooperation in the regions. In Perm, now Kaliningrad and a few other places, the local authorities have started working with NGOs and civic groups. The world hasn’t ended, and in fact, they’ve resolved some problems and satisfied the public. (Of course, we aren’t talking about corruption, but smaller issues. But still.) Strategy 31 rallies were allowed in some places, and they didn’t cause the masses to rise up against the authorities.
    8. Growing Internet access and use. Yeah, Internet is a mixed blessing. There is a lot of garbage on it, and the nationalists/patriots/west-haters pass around their repugnant ideology and lies. But there is no question that people are using it more and more, and it is becoming a powerful tool for organization.
    9. Scale and the personal experience factor. Ten years ago few people had personal experience of the horrors of this regime. How many people go to court, have a medical emergency, try to start a business, etc.? But over the last ten years, more and more people have actually come up against the worst. The problems are no longer abstract for them – they’re personal. Plus the scale of the problems has changed. If the authorities had started work on the railroad bridge (on Leningradsky Prospekt, the main thoroughfare to Sheremetevo airport) five years ago, people would have sat in traffic for a couple of hours. But now there are more cars, more dachas, more stores – and traffic stopped for 5-10 hours. If five years ago you had to pay 3000 rubles for some petty bureaucrat to issue a document, now it’s 10,000 rubles, or 25,000. I think there is a major change of scale (the point where quantity turns into a new quality) and a greater personalization of experience.
    10. Greater knowledge of the rest of the world. People remember seeing news reports about how Parisian authorities took care of old people, pregnant women and children, and poor folks during the 2003 heat wave. They see that before a bridge is closed for repair, a temporary bridge is built (in virtually every other country but Russia). They’ve traveled and discovered that cops smile, kids get into schools without bribes, and residents discuss and vote on changes to historical neighborhoods.
    11. On top of all this, polls are registering a considerable drop in Medvedev’s and Putin’s popularity. Interesting, more and more people are saying that the state is using the law to crack down on opposition they don’t like.
    I’m not making any predictions. But I recall McFaul (I think) wrote about how revolutions are nearly always “unexpected,” but when you analyze them in hindsight, you see that they were “inevitable.” I sure hope we don’t have a revolution here. Actually, I pray we don’t have one. But I do think that the pressure from below is building and that the authorities see it. (I’m not even mentioning all the “objective” economic reasons for change. Money is running out.) There is an equally long list of “why change can’t happen” – or maybe even longer. But the above shouldn’t be discounted.
    Besides, even Groundhog Day finally ended.

    Comment by mossy — August 14, 2010 @ 4:15 am

  3. Putin can do the firefighting, but he’s too old to learn computers and stuff. OTOH, interwebz is the youngins’ forte.

    Comment by So? — August 14, 2010 @ 6:01 am

  4. But, Mossy:

    1. KGB reunification
    2. Arrests
    3. Torture
    4. Murder
    5. KGB reunification
    6. Arrests
    7. Torture
    8. Murder

    USSR lasted 75 years with this formula, surely Putin can do at least 30. Russia was mere shadow of itself after the USSR. What will it be after Putin? Anything?

    Revolution? Who is Russia’s revolutionary? It might not have been expected that Lenin could do what he did, but everybody knew who Lenin was.

    And the reverse also holds true. Who knew Putin would take and hold power? The KGB has long fingers, and the Russians have weak hearts and poor imaginations.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 14, 2010 @ 6:30 am

  5. SO?:

    Too bad they are not too good at voting, forming political parties or organizing rallies.

    When Americans found out George Bush’s party was lying, that part was ousted in a rout. Will Russians ever be civilized enough to follow that lead? Will they ever, once in their history, vote out the incumbent party?

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 14, 2010 @ 6:33 am

  6. SWP:

    He actually has two posts on that subject:

    Imagine if a Russian court decreed that Americans had stolen Russian books, and then the US government said the decision was illegal and would be ignored. Would Russians say “well, they’re right, it’s only our court after all” and accept the repudiation?

    I think not.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 14, 2010 @ 7:01 am

  7. Yeah, I know, LR. I did write that there is an equally long list of reasons why there won’t be change. I ain’t arguing. But I do think that the situation has changed in the last five years. Five years ago there wasn’t the kind of civil disobedience you see now, or as many young people at rallies, or the calls for local elections. Five years ago, as a friend pointed out, no one would have criticized Mr P for flyng a plane without a license. (Huge paradigm shift: before the tsar was above the law, now he’s a citizen who is supposed to obey it.) I also think you don’t need a majority for change, or even a large minority. You just need enough.

    Also interesting to me is that the outrage over, say, the road work on Leningradsky and examples of “how it’s done elsewhere” is not the least bit ideological. It’s just the recognition that folks pay taxes and want some services in return. That’s also different.

    I’m not saying that change is a-comin’. But on the other hand, no wonder the boys at the top are jumpy.

    Comment by mossy — August 14, 2010 @ 7:15 am

  8. Imagine if a Russian court decreed that Americans had stolen Russian books, and then the US government said the decision was illegal and would be ignored.

    To be fair, Obama has done much the same thing over the drilling moratorium. Two courts have declared it illegal, rulings which were utterly ignored or derided by the Obama administration.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 14, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  9. @mossy–thanks so much for your long and thoughtful comment. Nothing could make me happier than the knowledge that you are right. Perhaps it is my quasi-Spenglerian streak, but I remain pessimistic. Part of the reason for the pessimism is that the authorities have not come anywhere close to utilizing all of the coercive means at their disposal to squash the promising sprouts of civil society that you quite correctly identify. Another is that history suggests (and I am not a historicist, but history can be instructive about probabilities and possibilities) that Russia’s bipolarity militates against a peaceful path to a civil society. Russians seem to oscillate between inertia on the one hand, and paroxysms of anarchic violence on the other.

    Until there exist alternate structures–not just civil-political organizations, but strong private business–that are a counterweight to the state, the path to transition seems impassable. Historically–and I am speaking beyond Russia now–movements towards freedom have succeeded when there is a counterweight to state (or, in more patrimonial times, royal) power. In 13th century England–barons in opposition to the King. In later times, merchants and townsmen in opposition to noble and royal authority. Where are those structures in Russia? Khodorkovsky, for all his flaws, was one candidate. Look where he is.

    In sum, I pray you are right, but I think you are not. But you are there, and what you say therefore has a basis that I lack. Please keep us up to date on your observations regarding this matter. I for one would very much appreciate it.

    @Tim. Amen. I wrote about the BP thing, and the drilling moratorium in mid-June. It was titled “They Fight the Law. Will the Law Win?” I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 14, 2010 @ 10:20 am

  10. TIM: No wonder Obama finds it so satisfying to much cheeseburgers with Medvedev! It seems they are birds of a feather. However, Russians would probably be happy to attack Obama as a lawbreaker even while finding it acceptable for their own government to do the same, whilst quite likely Americans will take their own leader to task and oust him just as they ousted Bush. That’s the difference between Americans and Russians. Americans’ aren’t unthinking sheep.

    MOSSY: If only there were Russians who loved their country enough to fight for it in large numbers, as they did in the Great Patriotic War. Why won’t Russians fight their own government as they fight foreign ones, when their own regime is far, far more dangerous? There’s no doubt that there are some Russians (Kozlovsky, Nemtsov, Latynina) laying it all on the line, but they seem to be the last remnants of a breed going extinct. But you’re right — the regime is so corrupt and weak that it must fear any kind of opposition, properly so. If America had a more American president, Russians might have better inspiration. It’s a pity we must disappoint at present.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 14, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

  11. Every system has the seeds of its own destruction. Putin’s main political capital is “not being Yeltsin”. Ironic, given how he is basically a sober Yeltsin. This can’t last forever. Time flies and his promises remain promises. I would characterize the ideology of the last 5 years as “glamour patriotism”. Small victories of no great consequence getting blown out of proportion. Eurocup semi, good showing at the 2006 Winter Olympics, Eurovision (!!), bitch-slapping Georgia, sky-high hydrocarbon prices. But these things don’t last. Failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup by losing to football minnow Slovenia. Disastrous 2010 Winter Olympics. Georgia thwarted – more “black asses” to feed. Oil prices crashed – everyone noticed how antsy the regime got.

    To some extent this is ameliorated by imitation replacements. No figure skating champions for the first time in 45 years? No worries – stars on ice, dances with the stars, etc. ad nauseum are clogging the tube. Lethargic fire-fighting effort? Putin to the rescue. The guy is a no longer a PM, he’s a bona fide TV star. Decrepit army? Bulava living up to its name by flying, literally, like a mace? Go hardcore with V-day celebrations. Pump up the youngins with pride for other people’s achievements (their forefathers). Feting the vets for exactly one out of 365 days a year. But again, these faux achievements can only last for so long. The subterfuge is becoming ever more glaring. Putin is a faux autocrat. Neither is he a great statesman. His camera whoring is getting tiresome. (What next? Putin in space?) The parliament is “not a place for discussions” to quote its speaker android Gryzlov. ???? ?????? is bad parody of the CPSU. It has no ideology, except “We are with Putin! Hurrah!”. It’s a walking corpse.

    Special mention should be given to the system’s symbology. Stalin’s anthem, Tsar’s coat of arms. (The latter for some reason brings up Carpania in the “Great Race”. Dunno why.) This hodge-podge has no inner life force to sustain it. Symbols are very important. If you look at the symbology of the Reds and the Whites, one wonders why the Civil War went on for as long as it did, given the absolutely pathetic propaganda effort of the latter.

    All of this is greatly exacerbated by cronyism and nepotism. Loyalty trumps ability. Relationships and “mutual understanding” override the formal process. The biggest damage done by Putin’s tenure is that he not only continued this traditional Russian vice, but embraced it like a virtue. It’s bad enough that he does it. Everyone one of his classmates from school days onwards seems to have benefitted. Even his judo coach. He’d probably grant an office or some lucrative monopoly to his Labrador if he could. What is worse is that he’s aped by every official in the hierarchy (down to wearing 30K Swiss watches on the right hand).

    The upside is that the system becomes too incompetent to sustain itself. For example, Surkov is a clever cookie. Yakimenko, the founder of Nashi, not so much. Whilst I understand its raison d’être, – a tar pit for stupid hyperactive youth, lest they end up being active in anti-establishment movements, the execution is pretty damn awful. The name is goddamn awful: Nashi – Nashist, Nazi. Their symbology is pathetic and derivative. Their “activism” amounts to rowdiness and petty mischief. Ideology does not go past “Hooray for Putin!”. They besmirch the regime by association more than they help it.

    So what may happen is that the system may overshoot and end up in a different phase altogether for better or worse. Or, perhaps, there is enough feedback in the system to keep it tracking the current steady, but trending down, state ie. there’ll be a sufficient number of competent people in charge to keep things bubbling along like a boiling frog. What is interesting, is that at first glance, Medvedev’s recent overhaul of regional governors has not resulted in his college buddies, personal trainers, school friends gaining office.

    Comment by So? — August 15, 2010 @ 2:22 am

  12. Folks, I just want to say again that I am NOT predicting change, instant, peaceful, violent or otherwise. I’m not predicting anything. And as I wrote, the list of reasons why change WON’T happen is, if not longer, than at least more dire (if not sinister). But I am saying that the situation has changed in the last five years or so, and that I think the last 8 months, and particularly this horrific summer, have marked a more significant change in the public. Yes, you’re absolutely right that the authorities have more and nastier tricks up their sleeve. But those tricks also have a price tag, and that price tag is really expensive: foreign investment. Without that, no “modernization.” No economic growth. When you look at it that way, you see that the boys have painted themselves into a corner.

    As far as the lessons of history go, I went through this once before in the 80s and 90s. None of us thought then that the regime “that would last 1000 years” would fall. One important difference today is the calculated absence of glasnost. Glasnost allowed talk shows, which allowed leaders to grow. But, you know, leaders appear when they can. I tend to think that is less of a hindrance than other people think. I also see that in the past couple of years, more respected people, like Yuri Shevchuk but not only Shevchuk — are speaking out, writing open letters, appearing at rallies. This is giving a kind of legitimacy to the opposition that they didn’t have before. It’s bringing people out of the woodwork.

    And then there is another lesson of history. One of my friends believes that Chernobyl marked the beginning of the countdown to the end of the USSR. Before that there was lots of chatter. After that — when people saw that the leaders were lying and risking their health — movement for change took off.

    I’m just sayin’.

    Comment by mossy — August 15, 2010 @ 9:12 am

  13. Putin in a nutshell (and I do mean NUT): Grain prices are soaring across the globe but he can’t understand why bread prices are going up and thinks it may be criminal enterprise:

    Next he’ll start shooting the bakers. Welcome to the neo-Soviet Union.

    Comment by La Russophobe — August 15, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

  14. @mossy-I for one didn’t think you were playing Karnak, and making predictions of the future. You were just doing us the favor of pointing out some countervailing signs. And you are right that it is possible to jump to a new equilibrium very quickly. That’s something I’ve actually argued from time to time. Indeed, in my view it is the very recognition of that possibility which makes the powers that be in Moscow most anxious, and which causes them to react with such force against any movement, no matter how small, that dares to raise its head.

    Making forecasts under these circumstances is very treacherous. Developments are so contingent, so path-dependent. A chance confluence of events and circumstances can lead to earth-shattering changes. Yes, I agree that the fundamentals of Putin’s Purgatory are shaky–politically, economically, demographically. But if forced to bet, I would bet on its continuation for the foreseeable future. I would put down my money, though, in the recognition that the probability of collapse is bounded well away from zero.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 16, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  15. Yeah, that’s what I meant. What you said there at the end. If I understood it.
    I of course don’t know, and I’m not Karnak or Cassandra or Madame Yulia. But on the inside it feels more like a house of cards than it probably looks like on the outside. And the boys at the top know that better than we do — they made it, they know what they’ve been doing. That’s why they’re so jumpy all the time. Can’t let a cat in or the whole thing will collapse.
    Oh, BTW, new technique for Triumfalnaya Square: it’s being closed to build a multi-storied, underground parking garage for 1000 cars. That should take the next decade or so…

    Comment by mossy — August 16, 2010 @ 11:10 am

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