Streetwise Professor

December 22, 2007

It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 11:18 am

Things are still in flux regarding how the Putin-Medevedev condominium is going to work. From RFE/RL Newsline:

Presidential-administration chief Sergei Sobyanin has ordered the presidential domestic policy and state-legal departments to develop “variants for correcting federal legislation and law-enforcement practice in favor of strengthening the power of the chairman of the government,” “Argumenty nedeli,” No. 51, reported on December 20. President Putin said on December 17 that he would not seek to change the balance of power between the president and the prime minister (see “RFE/RL Newsline,” December 18, 2007). The measures under consideration include amending federal constitutional law so that a president can dismiss a prime minister only if the move is backed by four-fifths of the State Duma and two-thirds of the Federation Council; “reestablishing the practically abolished mechanism for removing a president from office”; and giving the prime minister control over the “power departments,” state corporations, and natural monopolies. According to “Argumenty nedeli,” the federal constitutional law on the government is sufficiently contradictory that it would not need to be amended in order to give the prime minister control over the Federal Security Service, Interior Ministry, Prosecutor-General’s Office, Investigative Committee and Justice and Emergency Situations ministries. “The premier can create and head a deliberative body,” the weekly wrote. “For example, the State Committee for Defense, such as Stalin had. The defense minister, chief of the [armed forces’] General Staff and first deputy prime minister overseeing the [military-industrial complex] could be included in it.” The prime minister can also be put in charge of bodies like the National Antiterrorism Committee and the State Antinarcotics Committee, wrote “Argumenty nedeli,” adding that the only bodies over which the prime minister will have difficulty establishing direct authority are the Federal Protection Service (FSO), the president’s Main Department for Special Programs (GUSP), and the presidential security service. The weekly cited unnamed Kremlin sources as noting signs of “latent competition” among the three contenders for the post of Kremlin administration chief under the next president, identifying them as Sobyanin, deputy Kremlin administration chief and presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, and presidential aide Igor Shuvalov.

Russia Profile has some decent commentary on this issue. Stephen Blank’s seems closest to the mark:

Putin has stated that he would not try to usurp power from the President as Prime Minister, but this isn’t something that can be trusted. In fact, at this stage it is impossible to know who will ultimately prevail, Medvedev or Putin. But the powers of the presidency are such (and I suspect that Medvedev is no lightweight or liberal, just another talented civilian bureaucrat) that over time he is likely to become the more powerful of the two men, and the most powerful person in Russia. Of course, all this speculation reveals the absence of a rule of law in Russia, and the fact that the regime is one of men and not of laws. Moreover, all the speculation of Putin trying to engineer a constitutional reform to achieve a parliamentary system based on a ruling party, that would result in a facsimile of European democratic models, omit the fact that Putin has done everything he could to demolish democracy and constitutionalism in Russia. Why would he turn around and undo his own handiwork, especially since he is so proud of his achievements?

We would all thus be more informed and understanding of Russian developments if we resist the inevitable and ubiquitous efforts by political scientists to find analogues for Russia in the lexicon of Western political science, which is imbued with European and American models. In fact, Putin’s system is a Tsarist system, and the structure of Russian rule resembles nothing as much as the one depicted in the great institutional studies of late and mature Tsarism (Leroy-Beaulieu, Korkunov, and the more recent Zaionchkovskii and Yaney). Understanding the repetitive nature of Russian political history, with its Tsarist court and intriguing boyars, whose main motives are power and greed as they all serve the state, as the only way of achieving these objectives, would be more productive than the endless and essentially misinformed speculation about Western models in Russia.

I agree with Blank that Putin’s pronouncements about no reshuffling of authority are not credible, and the Argumenty nedeli piece reinforces that. I also think that all the conjectures about Medevedev’s docility and loyalty to Putin are over the top. Maybe that’s true now, but once he sits in the chair, his whole perspective could change.

What is certain is that the transition period will be beset by uncertainty. That is incredibly dangerous in a system like Russia’s. I continue to think that the mental model of the Russian government as a cartel of violence specialists cooperating to split rents is illuminating. And cartels are vulnerable to breakdown in conditions of increased uncertainty. Divisions of authority are especially destabilizing to a cartel. If Medvedev becomes President and Putin prime ministerde jure authority will be more divided than at present, and more importantly in a rule-of-man system (as Blank characterizes it), de facto powers will certainly be more divided. In this more unstable and divided environment, the likelihood of a cartel breakdown is much more likely. And in Russia, a breakdown of the cartel of violence specialists means violence. Potentially lots of it.

Thus, as Robert Amsterdam has often noted, Putin’s vaunted stability is chimerical. It could disappear quickly and violently. I am convinced that Putin and other cartel members also understand the tenuous nature of the current equilibrium. How else to explain their extreme responses to even the most pathetically weak demonstrations of opposition and their efforts to control tightly every aspect of the political system? That is why I continue to believe that things are still in great flux, and the anointment of Medvedev is only another scene, and not the finale.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress