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RUSSIAN POLITICS TODAY

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By Richard Sakwa

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The Montréal Review, January 2012

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"The Crisis of Russian Democracy is an important book, an elegant and impressively well informed interpretation of what really goes on in Russian politics. Its account of the Putin-Medvedev succession should be a fundamental reference for all future work on the Putin period."
--Henry E. Hale, The George Washington University

"Richard Sakwa has long been renowned for his forensic studies of Russian politics. This time he focuses on how what he calls 'the dual state' - the 'permanent crisis' created by the ongoing struggle between the formal constitutional order and the shadowy 'administrative regime' - survived the stress test of transition from Putin to Medvedev as president in 2007-08. A must for any serious student of modern Russia."
--Andrew Wilson, The European Council on Foreign Relations

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Few of the modernisation tasks facing Vladimir Putin when he came to power in 2000 have been resolved. Indeed, many of the challenges facing the country after Stalin's death in 1953 still remain on the agenda. These include the country's integration into the international system and the international economy, the integration of the various national communities, the creation of a set of authoritative and universal political institutions of the state, the creation of an equal and free citizenry defended by an impartial and independent judiciary, the thriving of modern representative, participatory and legislative institutions, the development of a diverse and competitive modern economy, a sustainable and inclusive welfare state, and standards of living that match those in advanced societies. Instead, certain patterns have become established in the post-Stalin era, perpetuated across the great divide of 1991 when the communist system dissolved and the Soviet Union disintegrated. These include the marginalisation of the autonomous participation of society in the management of public affairs, a continuing dependence on energy rents, lack of diversity and dynamism in the economy, above all in the small and medium sector, and repeated conflicts over integration into the international community as 'one of us': Russia for the rest of the world remains not so much a 'constitutive other', but something alien and indigestible.

The whole process of change in Russia, in its extraordinary depth and intensity, while appealing to principles of normality and regularity, remains contradictory. This has given rise to a distinctive type of dual state. Freedom has been granted the nation, but this freedom can only be exercised within the constraints of the logic of the transformative process itself. In other words, while the typical panoply of democratic institutions has been created within the framework of the constitutional order, a parallel system has emerged that claims certain prerogatives that transcend the rules and constraints of the constitutional state. This 'prerogative state', or as we call it above, the administrative regime (Verwaltungsstaat), represents a distinctive case of 'domain democracy', where the rules applied to the rest of society do not apply to itself. The duality in Russia is even more pronounced than even, for example, in Turkey, where journalists are regularly imprisoned, parties closed down by the order of dependent courts, and major restrictions imposed on various communities, notably the Kurds. The present power system in Russia is far more comparable to mature capitalist democracies than we like to think.

Russia's dominant power system has some distinctive characteristics. From the time Putin came to power in 2000, the regime took on an ever stronger tutelary aspect, claiming the right to manage not only the sphere of policy, the usual job of governments, but also the exclusive right to manage political processes as a whole. This is what distinguishes a 'regime' from a normal 'government'. Fearing for the stability, and indeed for the very existence, of the state, Putin's regime represented a powerful shift from mobilisational to pacificatory politics; from encouraging independent civic activism to controlling and regulating it; and in the process suffocating not only political pluralism but also eroding the sources of regime renewal. This is the system known as 'managed democracy'. Popular inclusion does take place, but in an archaic manner reminiscent of Soviet practices. This is not modern civic participation of an active citizenry accompanied by the pluralistic representation of divergent interests. Putin's mutuality is top-down, mobilisational and paternalistic, and vitiated by the internally hierarchical power system. Inclusion at the economic level is even more partial, with small businesses remaining at the mercy of the bureaucracy, while big business is incorporated as a subaltern partner of the regime. The modernisation agenda from above is not accompanied by the necessary modernisation from the middle, represented by a competitive party system, an entrepreneurial and independent business culture, and a vibrant public sphere.

Russian politics is characterised by the dominance of a powerful yet diffuse administrative regime, recognising its subordination to the normative state on the one side and its formal accountability to the institutions of mass representative democracy on the other. However, it is not effectively constrained by either, hence the 'regime' character of the dominant power system. It is also for this reason that it would be an exaggeration to suggest that a full-blown 'prerogative state' has emerged in Russia, ruling through emergency decrees and sustained repression (which would have to hold to allow Russia to be characterised as a full-blown authoritarian state; hence Russia is often dubbed as 'soft authoritarian'), but instead we have an 'administrative regime' as the protagonist of the normative state. There is no prerogative state as such in Russia, constituted through formal but extra-constitutional decrees or laws, but instead there is informal behaviour by an administrative regime that fulfils some of the functions of the prerogative state but that has no independent legal or institutional status of its own. The administrative regime is both a network of social relations, in which political and economic power are entwined in a shifting landscape of factional politics, but it also functions as an actor in the political process. It thus has a passive element, acting as an arena of intra-bureaucratic contestation (since the social basis of the administrative regime overwhelmingly lies in Russia's burgeoning bureaucracy); but it also has agency features, allowing active purposive behaviour. The presidency is only one element, although obviously a crucial one, of the administrative regime.

The Russian parliamentary elections of 4 December 2011 starkly revealed the contradictions of contemporary Russian politics. If the authorities had really wanted to manipulate the result, then they would not have allowed their favoured pedestal party, United Russia (UR), to have slipped so far compared to the previous elections. The poll saw UR lose its constitutional majority, although it remains by far the single largest party in the new Duma. On a turnout of 60 per cent (a 3% fall on 2007 but up 5% on 2003) UR received 49.3% of the vote, which gave it 238 parliamentary seats, down from the 315 it enjoyed in the 450-member assembly in its previous convocation. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) was the beneficiary of a large protest vote, winning 19.2% of the vote. The biggest surprise of the election was the 13.2% received by Just Russia, a party initially formed at the behest of the Kremlin but gradually consolidating its reputation as an emerging independent social democratic party. The Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (in fact, a virulently nationalistic party) under Vladimir Zhirinovsky just exceeded the 7% representation threshold.

Already in the spring the newly-formed Party of People's Freedom (Parnas), led by the veteran 'democrats' Vladimir Ryzhkov, Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov, had been refused registration on an unconvincing pretext, and thus even before the poll the field had been skewed in favour of the authorities. The classic liberal party Yabloko did enter the field, and its 3.4% represented a great improvement on its performance four years earlier. Yabloko insisted that much of its vote in its Moscow and St Petersburg heartlands had been stolen, and throughout the country there were numerous cases of ballot stuffing and other fraudulent practices.

Even if vote rigging was less than previously, popular tolerance of administrative interference in elections had diminished. This provoked a number of large protest meetings, notably on 10 December in Bolotnaya Square and on 24 December on Sakharov Boulevard in Moscow. Tens of thousands condemned the practices of 'managed democracy', watched over by a large but passive police presence. It was clear that the authorities had decided on concessions rather than coercion. The protest movement was far from representing a 'Russian spring' as a continuation of the events in North Africa earlier in the year. Russia is not Egypt, where the country had endured some 30 years of repression in the framework of a state of emergency. Instead, the election revealed the contradictions of the dual state. Hesitant to embrace full-blooded authoritarianism, the regime allowed the elections to reflect public opinion, although in a distorted and constrained manner. At the same time, it could not bring itself to allow fully-fledged free and fair elections.

It is these contradictions that were exploited by the protest movement. The government granted a range of concessions, including easier procedures to register as a political party, and the restoration of a form of election for regional governors. In other words, the popular movement insisted on the strengthening of the constitutional state, and the reduction of the administrative interference of the regime. This demonstrates that the present Russian constitutional order has the capacity for reform and renewal. Whether the country fulfils this potential is a matter not only for the political leadership but also for the people.

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Richard Sakwa is Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent.

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