Democracy v efficiency


Does economic modernisation need modernisation political? President Dmitry Medvedev thinks not. There is nothing surprising in that, for this was the view of most Russian leaders throughout a thousand years of history. Why, then, would a young professor of law think differently?

On September 28, Yuri Luzhkov, a 74-year-old mayor of Moscow, was sacked because he ‘lost the trust’ of the president. If the mayor’s fate had been decided by Moscovites, he would have remained in power - according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VTsIOM), the oldest polling institution in post-Soviet space, two out of three residents of the capital like Luzhkov.

There is nothing illegal in Dmitry Medvedev’s action. The reform of 2004 gives the president the power to dismiss regional governors if he wishes. It is probably not an unjust move either: few people outside Moscow like the mayor who epitomises metropolitan snobbism, opulence and corruption.

If truth be told, however, he lost very few if any of the many defamation cases he started against people who accused him of corruption. As it happens, he is a lucky man married to a talented entrepreneur who built a multi-billion business empire while her husband was busy with affairs in the city and became one of the richest women on the planet. He is not the only one, though. Valentina Matvienko, a St. Petersburg governor is a happy mother of a very young, very successful businessman.

In one way, though, Yuri Luzhkov is different. While Matvienko is demonstratively, stiflingly loyal to the Kremlin, he has his own, though usually crackpot, ideas on every matter of public life.

He supported territorial claims to Ukraine (he was banned from entering the country) and advocated the reversal of the northern rivers in order to sell water to Central Asia, praised Josef Stalin for his role in the country’s development and reviled Alexey Kudrin, the finance minister, for the stabilisation fund – a reserve to balance the ups and downs in the country’s revenues. He also thinks that the next president should be Putin, not Medvedev, seemingly the real reason for his fall.

He tried to play on the differences within the duumvirate - a wrong move, according to the media. (As if there was the right one.) Luzhkov had to go, they say, because of many failures; an open challenge to the Medvedev’s authority was the final straw. Firing Luzhkov was a reluctant improvisation.

It was, however, a chord in a symphony composed far in advance. In March, Mintimer Shaimiev, the former president of Tatarstan, a republic within Russia, left his post. In June it was Vladimir Chub’s turn, the governor of the Rostov region, in July, Murtaza Rakhimov’s, president of Bashkortostan, in September - Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s, president of the Republic of Kalmykia. These were regional heavyweights who came to power in the 1990s, long before Putin or Medvedev came into politics.

Luzhkov was the last bastion of these old regional elites. The system of appointing governors now approaches its logical end, turning governors from independent political figures into clerks.

This is a peculiar victory. The power pyramid is based, at least partially, on the efforts and charisma of regional leaders. The people who replace them know little about public life, have no connections with the grassroots and, appointed without consulting local communities or parochial elites, possess no public trust.

Throughout its history Russia has tended to favour solid hierarchical structures. Major reforms usually meant more control to a single authority. Peter the Great transformed the nation into one of the most powerful in Europe. He had unlimited personal power which he readily delegated to his functionaries around the Empire. Stalin, who as Winston Churchill put it ‘came to Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons’, built the backbone of the modern political structure of the country.

In a curious twist, Russia is now returning to where it was twenty years ago, very centralized and very reliant on the wisdom and efficiency of central government. Modernisation, it seems, is imminent.


October 3, 2010
photo: NatalyArt -