Streetwise Professor

July 13, 2011

The Hamster Wheel Has Been Spinning For Centuries

Filed under: History,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 2:23 pm

Autocrats and would-be autocrats invariably attempt to project an image of unconstrained power and authority, in large part to overawe those lower in–but still relatively high up–in the hierarchy.  Putin is no exception to that rule.  Nor is he an exception to the rule that autocratic appearances are often deceiving, and that underneath the projected image of order powerful factions vie for rents and control.  Particularly in a sprawling country like Russia, and one with a sprawling bureaucracy, these internecine struggles are almost impossible for the one at the pinnacle of the vertical to control.  Projection of an image of unchallenged authority is often little more than an attempt to mitigate the consequences of the fact that the nominal ruler’s control is sharply circumscribed.

Pavel Baev argues that this is the case in Russia today, with Putin and Medvedev exercising only weak authority over siloviki and other bureaucrats:

Elections in Russia are not about selling a vision or swaying the electorate, they concern showing who is the boss – and demonstrating that the boss means business. In this crucial respect, the ongoing election campaign is a complete mess, and not because it is still unclear whether President Dmitry Medvedev will cling to his slim chance to stay for the second term, but because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is seen by the whole country as the “real boss,” cannot assert control over the self-serving bureaucracy. Putin has been busy filling and dressing the ranks of the Popular Front, which is supposed to secure an electoral triumph of the discredited United Russia party, and is not responding to the embarrassing scandals that leak out of numerous cracks in the executive pyramid with increasing intensity (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 7).

Perhaps the highest resonance scandal spins around the defense ministry, which is loudly accused by industrial lobbyists of sabotaging the implementation of the armaments procurement program, first of all in the top priority area of strategic missiles (Kommersant, July 6; Moskovsky Komsomolets, July 8). Allegations of gross incompetence appear more convincing due to the resignation of several top brass, and Medvedev provides Serdyukov no defense perhaps assuming that a scapegoat would be needed closer to the elections (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, July 6). That might cool some tempers but will not resolve the core problem created by the plain fact that the stretched state budget in years of slow growth could not possibly sustain the over-ambitious rearmament program.

Several juicy scandals unfold simultaneously between the interior ministry and the state prosecution as the investigation of the protection racket involving illegal casinos in the Moscow region produces more compromising evidence (Vedomosti, July 7).  [Bootleggers and Baptists, again!]  Medvedev has launched a campaign to clean up the ranks of law enforcement but it has deteriorated into back-stabbing between various services and agencies and all attempts to put a lead on revealing these feuds to the public have only made the quarrels noisier (, July 6). On the local level, the merger between police and organized crime has left many municipalities defenseless, and only in rare cases – such as the village of Sagra near Yekaterinburg – dare the inhabitants to take a stand against the violent gangs, much as in old Western movies (, Ekho Moskvy, July 7).

. . . .

Putin’s half-hearted efforts at tightening control are in fact as helpless as Medvedev’s attempts to assert his authority. Russia’s “national leader” can no more discipline the “power structures” than he can control Ramzan Kadyrov, whom he appointed to rule Chechnya – and who has turned it into a personal fiefdom prospering from the ransom paid by Moscow. It is the predatory behavior of the uncontrollable siloviki that increasingly compels successful Russians to consider emigration and drives the capital flight. This outflow of people and money may erode the support base for democratic opposition but it hardly prolongs the regime’s durability. Putin cannot allow the elections to expose the weakness of his grasp on power, or mobilize the self-serving repression apparatus – he can only rely on the lack of alternatives, which is never a lasting advantage.

But this is not new, not by a long shot.  Consider William C. Fuller’s Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914.  Describing 18th century Russia, Fuller writes:

But their [sic] were other, less readily apparent limitations, or at least so some historians have contended.  Such scholars have argued that all of the lip service paid to the “unbounded power” of the autocracy actually masked the reality of an essentially feeble state.  The “all-powerful autocrat” in this view was a fictitious creation of mythmakers anxious to dupe people both at home and abroad into thinkng that the Russian state was much stronger than in fact it was.  Since autocrat-usurpers frequently owed their crowns, if not their lives, to the efforts of favorites and clans, the schemes and preferences of those courtiers represented a self-evident check on the monarchical will.  As one historian puts it, the power of the autocracy “was in fact very narrowly circumsribed,” for “the articulation of tsarist will depended upon the familial and personal patronage networks that dominated the court and the upper administration. . . . At the very least, any autocrat had to seek to balance all the various factions and “parties” against one another.

Clan politics and factional strife are often blamed for the lumbering inefficiency of the highest organs of administration in eighteenth-century Russia. (pp. 118-119).

And see if you can tell whether this is from Baev describing Russia circa 2011 or Fuller describing Russia circa 1750:

This same confusion of personal interest with the interests of the state is all supposed to to explain the extraordinary corruption of Russia’s governing class.

In fact it is Fuller, but it is a fitting description of current affairs.  Fuller continues:

Embezzlement, extortion, graft, the acceptance of foreign bribes–none of these practices was uncommon among the aristocratic elite.

In other words, Putin is facing problems inherent to autocratic systems, and is, within the constraints of a nominally democratic system, attempting to employ many of the same techniques to deal with them.  He cannot rely on the formal and traditional allegiance due a hereditary autocrat, so he is using media control to create a personality cult and an aura of unchallengeable authority and infallibility.  Like tsars and tsarinas before him, he is a really a balancer, not a true ruler.  He is limited in his ability to control his nominal agents.

These considerations may prove decisive in determining Putin’s decision regarding the presidency.  The tandem is vulnerable to attempts to play one of the two off against the other in the same way that Putin keeps the siloviki under control by pitting clans and factions against each other.  Hence the emphatic and almost ritualistic assertions that Putin and Medvedev are of one mind, despite evidence to the contrary.  The agency problems of a would-be autocracy are bad enough, without the potential for conflict and coordination problems at the top.    Thus, I would conclude that if Baev’s description is at all accurate, the duumvirate will pass into history with the next election.

But even if it does, the age-old disabilities of autocratic, personalized, a-institutional systems will continue to operate.  The hamster wheel has spun for centuries, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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  1. Could be worse. Could be the hamster wheel Republican Senator Mitch O’Connel has suggested for handing that socialist O’bumm the power to raise the US debt limit:

    “Mr. McConnell’s proposal would give Mr. Obama sweeping power to increase the government’s borrowing authority, in three increments, by up to $2.4 trillion — enough, it is estimated, to cover federal obligations through next year — only if Mr. Obama specifies spending cuts of equal amounts. Congress would vote on whether or not to approve Mr. Obama’s debt-limit increases, but the president could veto any disapproval and presumably sustain his veto in the House and Senate. And Congress would not have to approve the proposed spending cuts prior to the debt-limit increase.”

    Comment by a — July 13, 2011 @ 4:52 pm

  2. […] Professor argues that power in Russia is about projecting an image of the leader as an autocrat, whereas […]

    Pingback by Russia: Autocrats and Balancers · Global Voices — July 14, 2011 @ 12:09 am

  3. Hey, Professor. Hope you don’t me posting this. Very interesting poll info (especially for those of your readers who demonize the 1990s). It also suggests — stress “suggests” — that the hamster wheel from hell is getting mightly annoying to the population (all that squeaking and greasing the wheel)

    Nezavisimaya Gazeta
    July 13, 2011
    Sociologists say that the population is dissatisfied with Vladimir Putin and his Cabinet
    Author: Alexandra Samarina, Aleksei Gorbachev

    According to Levada-Center sociologists, the Russians
    dissatisfied with the government these days outnumber those
    dissatisfied with it in the rampant 1990s two to one. Fifty-three
    percent respondents approached by sociologists blamed the
    government for the inability to fight the soaring inflation and
    dwindling income of the population. Back in 1999, only 25%
    respondents blamed the government for this particular inability.
    The number of the Russians accusing the Cabinet of indifference
    with regard to social protection of the population rose from 18%
    eleven years ago to 40% these days. The Russians condemning the
    government for unemployment numbered 31% eleven years ago. These
    days, they number 40%.
    Every fifth respondent called the government corrupt and
    promoting either its own interests or those of major businesses.
    In 1999, only 3% respondents called the Cabinet corrupt. In the
    meantime, only a few accuse the government of the inability to
    solve the problem of terrorism (14%) or bring peace to the
    Caucasus (6%).
    By and large, the Russians’ opinion of the government over
    the last eleven years worsened. The number of the Russians without
    a single grudge or claim approached the all-time minimum, 5%. It
    had amounted to 24% in 1999.
    The head of the Levada-Center Lev Gudkov said that this trend
    had been noticeable since last autumn. The sociologist attributed
    it to the extended recovery from crisis. “All wild promises
    notwithstanding, people see no breakthroughs. What they plainly
    see is the absence of certainty. Disappointment is growing
    avalanche-like.” According to Gudkov, “… the situation being
    what it is… Putin had better leave this government altogether
    and nominate himself for the president or come up with a new bunch
    of populist initiatives.”
    Said Rostislav Turovsky of the Political Techniques Center,
    “Absolutely all opinion polls without exception these days are
    seen through the prism of the relations within the tandem, and the
    study conducted by Levada-Center sociologists plainly shows that
    the government headed by Putin is rapidly losing efficiency. It
    follows therefore that sociologists’ findings will result in the
    conclusion that since the population is dissatisfied with the
    government, it is Medvedev who ought to become the candidate for
    president.” Turovsky said that all of that signified an outbreak
    of what he called “a war of opinion polls”. “We will be given
    different data before long, data showing a diametric trend.”
    “The attitude towards state functionaries is deteriorating,”
    said Turovsky. “It’s not because the government is so bad… or
    rather, not only because of that. What we are talking about is
    society’s reaction to its own high hopes pinned on Putin and his
    Cabinet. The hopes that were frustrated.”
    Said Turovsky, “The hopes pinned on Putin could not help
    being high. He became the first truly popular politician and
    leader to become the premier in years. No wonder the population
    pinned so many hopes on him.”
    Andrei Ryabov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said that the
    government had found itself in the trap of populism. “System of
    manual control was forced on all of the country… and here we are
    witnessing the results. It is not the global crisis that society’s
    dissatisfaction is focused on. It is focused on the government of
    Russia because this latter does not address the problems of the
    population,” said Ryabov.
    The government fell victim of its own populism and penchant
    for making wild promises.

    Comment by mossy — July 14, 2011 @ 9:20 am

  4. @Mossy–thanks. Feel free to post an informative article like that in the comments. I like your line about “greasing the wheel.” Very appropriate. I still have my doubts that annoyance will result in any concrete action to challenge the system.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — July 14, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  5. Yeah, I do, too. Doubt constructive change, that is. But… the fed-up factor is growing. Of course, the powers-that-be have not allowed any oppositional figure to gain any foothold (in the public eye, in the electoral system, etc.), so there is no one to rally around. And there are plenty of reasons NOT to do anything. But still, people’s rage, especially outside the large cities, is quite powerful. Stage tuned, as they say. (Well, you may have to stay tuned for 20 years….)

    Comment by mossy — July 15, 2011 @ 12:52 am

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