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Russia Between Chaos and Dictatorship

Fall 2012 Features

Russia Between Chaos and Dictatorship

Russian history swings consistently from systemic disorder and high national anomie to dictatorship and violence by the state against its people. Can this cycle be broken?Russian history swings consistently from systemic disorder and high national ‘anomie’ to dictatorship and violence by the state against its people. Can this cycle be broken?

Complaining about a lack of order has been Russia’s favourite national sport since time immemorial. The Russian poet Alexei Tolstoy – a relative of the novelist Leo Tolstoy – wrote a famous poem about how Russians have, throughout their history, invited foreign leaders to invest the land with stability, only for the project to end in tears and the Russian people to be forced once again to live without clear moral and legal regulation. Today, the talk in the streets all over Russia is that even Vladimir Putin could never succeed in creating true order in Russia, and that the country will continue to suffer from its traditional political and strategic uncertainty for the foreseeable future.

One of the principal social consequences of Russia’s persistent instability is what sociologists call ‘anomie’ – a concept coined in the late 19th century by Émile Durkheim, referring to the ethical normlessness that pervades a society when people have no moral structures to inform their daily behaviour, or no compass by which to distinguish right from wrong. As W. Morrison writes in the Dictionary of Criminology, “This lack of normative regulation leaves individuals without adequate ethical guidance as to their conduct and undercuts social integration.” In the ‘anomic’ society, people behave by their own rules, as determined by specific situations and personal attitudes. They do not take into account constraints like laws and moral codes. As such, anomic contexts give rise to many of the social ills that are so notorious in dysfunctional societies around the world, including crime, suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, vandalism, mass violence and other anti-social behaviour.

The societies of the former Soviet bloc had huge variations in their development trajectories during the period of general normlessness that emerged after the fall of the USSR. Naturally, there were stories of both success and failure in fighting against anomie. Some post-Soviet countries, like Poland or the Baltic states, were more successful than others in establishing a stable social order. However, major post-Soviet states like Russia or Ukraine have to date still not been successful in standing up stable economic and political institutions. These countries are certainly well below their erstwhile anomic peaks – witnessed in the 1990s – but are, instead, on a quite long, bumpy road to diminished global anomie among their populations.

In truth, anomie may have both positive and negative impacts on the development of societies in transformation. It may provide a window of opportunity for the radical change of a bad trajectory in social development, for the restructuring of social systems and, to be sure, for great leaps forward in individual flourishing – that is, anomic people may quickly vault from bottom to top in social status, wealth and power, develop an extraordinary career, and self-express in the absence of conventional social restrictions and pressures. Bref, in a period of great uncertainty, anomie may be propitious for the most ambitious and indeed ruthless in a society suffering from outdated norms and regulations.

Meanwhile, though there are clearly success stories among self-made people who have profited from post-Soviet societies’ global anomie, the number of homicides and suicides doubled during the 1990-1995 initial stage of post-Soviet transformation in Russia. Profound social dislocation – including large numbers of abandoned and homeless children, a rapid rise in cases of neurosis and depression, and rampant criminality – became a daily reality for a country that was ill-prepared for such a shock after decades of socialist paternalism and a state ideology of egalitarianism. Of course, the anomie created by this shock was exacerbated by the attempt to move rapidly to both a market economy and at least the formal trappings of a democratic political system. This was in marked contrast to the Chinese experience, where the Middle Kingdom managed to preserve its old socialist order even in the context of the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping. This meant that China, unlike many countries in the former Soviet space, was able to preserve most of its social capital and cohesion over the course of its transition to a market system.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the USSR succumbed to systemic crisis just after Brezhnev’s funeral. This crisis worsened dramatically over the course of that decade. The crisis had four indicators: elite disintegration – that is, conflict between various elite groups and the failure to promote a leader who was able to respond to the challenges of the times; a severe trust deficit, wherein people were highly disappointed by the socioeconomic system of the day and its capacity to solve the country’s many problems; severe economic crisis; and, finally, military-strategic crisis resulting from the Soviet failure in the Afghan War of 1979-1989.

All of this occurred in the context of a patent absence of vision by the Soviet leadership about how to meet the challenges of both the elites and the general public. Mikhail Gorbachev started a policy of liberalization of the economy, politics and social life. Though part of the population benefitted from the slow emergence of non-state businesses and some independent political activity, much of the freedom of the period was in point of fact facilitated by the very decay of the Soviet system. And, of course, the systemic crisis soon led to the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.

Acute anomie captured common people and elite groups alike. After the liberalization of prices in 1991, a period of laissez-faire ensued. Amid mass official privatization of state assets, hidden business groups emerged. Private entities wrested control of political power, property and violent resources previously possessed or monopolized by the Soviet state. While the new Russian state continued to control considerable resources, many assets became the objects of fierce competition among so-called ‘clans’ in search of profit.

What explains the genesis of these informal coalitions (clans) of business people affiliated with state officials and sometimes criminal groups – coalitions glued together by a system of intimate relationships during a period of accelerated liberalization? In other words, what explains the ‘clan capitalism’ of the post-Soviet system? The principal cause of the clan system, in which the marge de manœuvre of business people was restricted mainly by informal or implicit regulations, was the extremely hostile, anarchical socioeconomic setting in which the clans formed. There were no norms and traditions of democracy and market in Russia when liberalization began. Business freshmen therefore found themselves in аn impossible predicament: on the ground, they were victims of explosively increasing criminality (causing them to rapidly self-organize for protection purposes); and at the official level, they were met with an ‘administrative racket’ comprising the unconventional activities of some officials, their groups and their departments – that is, bureaucrats seeking administrative rents in uncertain situations and transactions at the very moment when the norms of government-private sector relations were still highly embryonic.

The number of killings in Russia increased from some 16,000 in 1991 to some 32,000 by the mid-1990s, and the number of contract assassinations increased from 102 to 560 over this same period. Affiliation with an informal business coalition provided better security than independent entrepreneurship, which was unprotected by a state that was quite evidently exercised by other problems. Within these business coalitions, there were very high levels of trust – a key currency in the initial stages of post-Soviet transformation, given the general absence of formal, developed economic institutions.

These coalitions and informal business communities – including business people, state officials, law enforcement, and sometimes pure criminals – pushed independent entrepreneurs, who were outside of the informal networks, out of the most profitable markets (raw materials, oil and gas, import-export operations, banking and financial services) and into less profitable and more risky businesses. And for the lay citizen, it was clear that the only remaining reliable or trustworthy unit in Russian society was the family – in extremis, old friends.

In the first part of the 1990s, the most powerful clans emerged within the extraction industries because of stagnation in domestic demand and the leading role of exports. These economic clans had huge financial resources and enjoyed control over many of the top positions in the executive and legislative branches of government at both the federal and local levels. So-called ‘siloviki’ – clans in the armed forces, police, prosecutors’ offices, marshals’ offices, former KGB – had fewer resources and were excluded from the important official posts. Meanwhile, the most ambitious and mobile among the silovikisiloviki-businessmen, as it were – formed in the private sector. This group also had future political goals. Acting as a big, coordinated network – a super-clan – they achieved success in the market and accumulated very significant economic capital, which allowed them to compete for the top political posts by the end of 1990s – just as the country entered political crisis around the succession to Boris Yeltsin. It was no accident, therefore, that the last three prime ministers under Boris Yeltsin were from the former KGB: Vladimir Putin’s major competitor was another silovik – Vladimir Rushailo, former Russian minister of the interior.

By the middle of the 1990s, ‘clan democracy’ had emerged. It included multiple centres of power and initiative. No group monopolized political power. Major political decisions – including the elections of the president, regional leaders, and local and federal parliamentarians – were made informally through hidden, subterranean compromises struck among powerful, competing clans. The top formal political leadership was forced to follow certain implied restrictions, and to seek the support or sponsorship of the powerful clans, which in turn carefully monitored adherence to the said ‘compromise’ decisions. And while this system departed markedly from the standards and norms of parliamentary democracy in developed countries, it provided for a degree of feedback from the politically active part of the public to the authorities.

Of course, this was, as a rule, a system of bad governance because of the inclusion of many officials in powerful administrative, business, and even criminal clans. As such, when bureaucrats were incompetent or crooked, it was very difficult and sometimes dangerous to fire them in virtue of looming potential conflict with the powerful clans. Unfit and criminally-minded officials therefore often held high posts with relative impunity.

During the second half of the 1990s, most of the economic and political space in Russia had been distributed between the major clans, and the period of laissez-faire had come to an end. Those Russians who worked in small and medium-sized businesses had learned their initial lessons from the market economy – to wit, how to create companies, deal with a banking system, compete in the market, and so on. The rules of the game stabilized, more or less: for example, it was no longer possible to get credit without collateral. Moreover, it was impossible to enter a given market without informal permission from local authorities; in other words, institutionalization of the shadow economy continued. There was regular participation by law enforcement in economic and political competition: business people could buy ‘a little power,’ while bureaucrats and the police could earn rents in the market. The siloviki, for their part, provided security services to business people. However, in cases of excessive use of violence by law enforcement, business people were now certain that bureaucrats could protect them.

Putin changed the ‘power balance’ in favour of the bureaucrats and the siloviki at the beginning of the 2000s. The clan system became centralized and bureaucratized. Prices to buy ‘a little power’ were increased, while the quantum of top groups of officials and law enforcers decreased. These groups gained at the market more actively, all the while dramatically curtailing the influence of top business people. Putin’s clan became a monopoly that distributed the most valuable economic and political (posts) assets. The takeover of top posts (Gazprom, Russian railways, etc.) or private/semi-private assets (Yukos, Media-Most, Russneft, etc.) led to the creation of a new set of oligarchs. These oligarchs – Chemezov, Miller, Timchenko, Yakunin, Rotenberg, the Kovalchuk brothers and a few others – had a double affiliation: they were members of the top clan, as well as leaders of the major Russian companies that controlled the largest part of the assets in the country.

Russia’s new order of clan networks dictated the country’s new political and commercial settings. National anomie decreased somewhat. But business activity and opportunities for independent business diminished markedly – also because of contemporaneously high prices for oil and gas. In spite of actual economic growth, there was institutional stagnation, while an obviously inefficient system (protected clans having little incentive to continuously compete and improve) was accompanied by imitation reforms in the economy, the legal and law enforcement systems, in politics, science, education, and other areas of Russian life.

By 2010, there were signs that Russia had once again fallen into systemic crisis. An accumulation of local crises suggested a critical mass of unsolved problems. Among these crises were the various protests against electoral fraud at the end of 2011; the riots by the nationalists in Manezhnaya Square in Moscow, accompanied by clashes throughout the city because of the killing of a football fan; mass killing in the village of Kushchevskaya, with obvious collapse of the local and regional authorities – all massively involved in organized crime. National media coverage of all of these crises was heavy. And while none of the crises was in itself considered critical for the survival of the current Russian regime, each one had a harmful impact on global trust in the ability of Russian federal authorities to address key challenges, and laid bare the corruption and inefficiency of the Russian system as a whole.

The Russian system may now be approaching its bifurcation point – that is, the point at which systemic crisis commences and new windows of opportunity for radical socioeconomic change emerge. The Putin regime is unstable over the medium-term. It is therefore crucially important for democratically-minded Russians to prepare political networks and elaborate a programme of urgent political actions for the coming crisis in order to avoid any radical nationalist or siloviki coup – a possible outcome of the crisis, and one that has many historical antecedents. The highest priority must be the reform of Russia’s political system. The major obstacle to such reform is the absence of credible parties and serious multi-party competition – all decimated during the 1990s. Professional political party agendas and the advancement of policy alternatives in the domains of politics, education, law enforcement, social and economic policy are important means of realigning national values and overcoming national anomie. Demonopolization of the economy and the creation of ideologically neutral state organs must be key objectives. The benchmarks for these reforms should be found in the success stories of Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states and several other former socialist countries in Europe.

It is not inconceivable that a new small liberal party consisting mainly of political freshmen and women – all disconnected from the authorities and Russia’s extant political parties – should emerge from the most recent wave of national protests. If two or three such new parties emerge, all the better. But the game of real Russian reform is necessarily a long one, and the fruits of the labours of such a young, progressive political class will likely not be seen for years to come.


Leonid Kosals is Visiting Professor at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies, University of Toronto, and Professor in the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

(Illustration: Julie Murphy)

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