Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Putin System Recalls Features and Dangers of Late Soviet Period, Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 9 – By eliminating the possibility of a democratic rotation at the very top of the Russian political system, Vladimir Putin has made federalism “impossible” and “quasi-feudalism” inevitable, thus creating “a post-Soviet system” which is a direct extension” of the Soviet one near its end, according to a leading Moscow scholar.
In an essay in today’s “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” Dmitry Furman, a senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Europe, argues that Putin’s power vertical has given the appearance of stability but only at the cost of effective central control over the regions and the possibility of future instability (
Furman argues that this trend is most clearly in evidence in the sharply contrasting situations of Ingushetia and Chechnya. In Ingushetia, Putin removed the extremely popular Ruslan Aushev, despite the latter’s success in maintaining order at a time when neighboring Chechnya was in a state of war.
The then Russian president appointed Murat Zyazikov who was so hated that Moscow had to replace him with Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who appeared more popular but was no more in control even before he became the victim of an assassination attempt. Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev then entrusted security in Ingushetia to Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov.
Next door, Moscow has achieved “relative success,” given that “Kadyrov has been able to a remarkable degree establish order in his own republic,” Furman points out. “But if Ingushetia is an example of the limited possibilities of the bureaucratic power vertical, Chechnya is hardly an example of its successful functioning.”
“The relations of the Moscow powers that be and Kadyrov are not the relations of the bureaucratic vertical. They are much closer to the relations in a feudal hierarchy in which ‘the vassal of my vassal is not my vassal,’” a point Furman notes has been developed by Vladimir Shlyapentokh in his book “Contemporary Russia as a Feudal Society.”
Only in the most limited sense can one describe Kadyrov as “a Putin appointee,” the Moscow scholar continues. “The real source of [Kadyrov’s] power is not his appointment ‘from above’ but that he has his own powerful ‘forces’ consisting of former militants and the support of traditional Chechen structures like the taips and wirds.”
Moreover, Kadyrov is himself “the son of former field commander, mufti and later president Akhmad Kadyrov.” And as a result, Ramzan Kadyrov’s position is “no less firm than Putin’s for removing Kadyrov would very likely mean to trigger a third Chechen war. And inside Chechnya, “Kadyrov rules according to his own lights.”
This is confirmation of the reality that “formal and real relations may be very different from one another,” Furman says. “[Dzhokhar] Dudayev proclaimed independence but did not really achieve it. Kadyrov proclaims that Chechnya will forever be inside Russia, but the level of his real independence is not less than Dudayev’s and much more than South Ossetia’s.”
The relationship between Moscow and Kadyrov is admittedly “an extreme case,” Furman says, “but this same tendency we see in other regions, above all in ethnic ones and especially those where the local culture is sharply different from the Russian and the peoples have a strong sense of identity.”
Moscow can send an official from some predominantly Russian regions to other predominantly Russian regions, but “to send [such people] to Kalmykia, Tatarstan or Bashkortostan would be very risky,” not only because the titular nations would be offended but because the officials would not be able to cope with the very different challenges.
In these non-Russian republics, Furman says, “firm imitation democratic systems of personal power have been formed,” and Moscow cannot easily move against them. Just as the ruler in Moscow has become “without any alternative,” so too these officials have “guaranteed themselves a peaceful situation,” by giving “tribute” to Moscow “in exchange for a free hand.”
Thus, Furman says, these officials “are more vassals than bureaucratic appointees.” And such relationships, he continues, “are not limited to non-Russian regions. A clear example of a similar type of situation is the relationship between the Kremlin and [Mayor Yuri] Luzhkov’s Moscow.”
“Quasi-feudal relations penetrate all our social hierarchy,” the Moscow historian suggests. “The supreme power periodically attempts to replace them with a bureaucratic vertical as Putin did in Ingushetia, but as that action demonstrated, such assignments can destabilize the situation, and the vertical yields to quasi-feudal relations which transform it into a formality.”
In its early years, the Soviet system avoided this problem because it was prepared to use any means to advance its goals, “but as Soviet power aged,” its chief concern became “stability and quasi-feudalism ever more reduced the scope of the bureaucratic system of appointments” by the center.
Under Leonid Brezhnev, “the Rashidovs, Kunayevs, Aliyevs, and Bodyuls were more in a vassal type relationship with Moscow than a bureaucratic one. They were loyal, said all the necessary words, paid various kinds of tribute, and the most important, they guaranteed stability.” Given that that was Moscow’s highest goal, the center allowed them a free hand.
Because it did not have an ideological goal for very long, the post-Soviet Russian leadership focused on “self-preservation and stability” from the outset. As a result, “quasi-feudal elements of relations in post-Soviet Russia were manifested very clearly from the very beginning.”
Despite the stability they appear to provide, such quasi-feudal relationships represent “a continuing possibility of destabilization” because the “informal” and often personal ties do a poor job in regulating the situation. If there are misunderstandings and there often are, then such relationships can lead to instability.
Sometimes as now this can take the form of a fronde against the center either in response to excessive centralization, fears of regional leaders about succession in the absence of elections they could control, or uncertainty about what relations with Moscow will be like as long as the “tandem” is in power.
But this fronde, which under current conditions will inevitably take the form of a demand for a return to democratic procedures, “is hardly particularly dangerous” for Moscow. But if, as happened at the end of the Soviet period, the center tries to go too far as Mikhail Gorbachev did in sacking Dinmukhammed Kunayev in Kazakhstan, then real dangers could occur.
Gorbachev thought that he could replace Kunayev with an ethnic Russian much as earlier Soviet leaders had because he did not understand that the situation had changed. Republic leaders expected certain things as long as they kept order, and Gorbachev, by violating that understanding, converted them into his enemies.
And these republic leaders “began to recognize that they could live without the Center. They had in their hands already a plenitude of complete power.” They didn’t need Moscow, and although they did not lead the march to independence, they did not oppose those who did and were happy to take advantage of the situation.
“A bureaucratic power vertical is effective in a totalitarian society based on faith and terror,” Furman concludes. “But if there is not one or the other, its effectiveness is limited and the system is rife with destabilization.” Democratic procedures can limit that trend, he notes, but they too carry with them their own problems for incumbents and the political system as well.

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