Russia: A country too modern for its politics — A conversation with Daniel Treisman
Interviewed about contemporary Russian politics, UCLA Professor of Political Science Daniel Treisman says that economic modernization has already created classes of people impatient with Putin's paternalistic regime. These groups are not just in the big cities; discontent with the state's failure to deliver basic services is also palpable in the provinces.
This article is based on an interview of Daniel Treisman, Professor of Political Science at UCLA and Interim Director of the Center for European and Eurasian Studies at the UCLA International Institute, on April 15, 2013.
What’s happening in Russia today? Do you think there are institutions with enough cultural traction to constrain the concentration of power and corruption in the country?
DT: I’m not a big believer in cultural traction because we’ve seen such change in countries with very diverse cultures. We’ve seen democratic institutions in countries like Korea and Mexico, for example, fail to work in one period, and then work quite well in the following period.
There are definitely forces [in Russia] that drive towards concentration of power, towards the abuse of human rights, towards corruption, but they don’t look to me that distinctive and rooted in culture. Rather, they look like the same things that you find in Mexico, or Argentina, or Turkey or Malaysia.
Most of the countries of Latin America underwent a democratic transition in the 1980s and 1990s. When I look at Russia, I see a country very much like that. It’s not unique — it’s a country that is struggling with the problems that all countries have after having lived under authoritarian rule for a long time.
So I don’t see the greatest obstacles being primarily cultural, [the problem is] the control of the levers of power by the incumbent regime. It’s a regime that is determined to hang on and defeat any opposition. But it is also, I think, a quite weak regime that can’t implement policies very effectively.
So what will change political conditions in Russia?
DT: In my view, the big driver is economic development and modernization. We have seen Russia modernize very dramatically in the last 10 years, including the last five, despite the global financial crisis. In particular, we’ve seen a huge spread of the Internet.
So when I look at Russia, I see a country that is simply too modern for the politics it currently has. A country with classes of people — especially in the cities, but not only there — who are increasingly impatient with the kind of paternalistic, forceful approach to political management of the current regime.
Modernization will continue to spread more deeply into the regions. There has been, for example, a real retailing revolution over the last decade that has taken chain stores into the farthest corners of Russia. People can buy the same products, they can see the same movies, in very remote parts of the country [as in the cities].
Plus the Internet is available, although the penetration rate is lower than in the big cities. The combination of the middle class getting larger and larger, along with the government elite getting more and more remote, cut off from accurate information, and irritating to the population — these are trends that won’t necessarily lead to an explosion on any particular day, but they make the survival of the regime much, much harder.
Real investigative journalism has been extremely dangerous in Russia since the 1990s. Do you see the same processes of modernization changing that?
DT: I think there are certain topics that are dangerous for journalists, such as investigations of the security services, the Army (especially in war zones), Chechnya, and local crime. Investigating the corruption of high-level figures is also dangerous, although a huge amount is published by brave journalists, who often incur some kind of harassment, with some losing their jobs. It’s definitely not a good situation, but not every journalist faces the same risks.
The danger associated with covering the security services and Chechnya won’t change until there are major reforms made in the security services and law enforcement. These are things that come with modernization, but when exactly, we don’t know.
Can we say that the regime has had a kind of free ride — benefiting from strong economic growth — and now it must govern?
DT: Exactly, and in much harder conditions. It’s much more difficult to maintain the current political system when there is growth of 3 percent (per year) — some say it will go down to 2 percent — than when there is growth of 7 percent or 8 percent (per year). There is also less patronage to hand out and there are more local groups that are discontented for a whole variety of reasons.
The regime is very conscious of the economic basis of Putin’s popularity and of the stability of the regime. And it is very conscious of the threats to continuing economic prosperity. So during the global financial crisis, the government increased pensions dramatically and maintained living standards for the working population as best it could — wages didn’t really fall.
Putin has established a management system known in Russian as “ruchnoe upravlenie” (management by hand). Whenever anything goes wrong, he has to fly out and solve the problem, appearing on television, lecturing the local officials or local businessmen whom he has decided are guilty, telling them what to do. And then he has to fly off to the next problem.
But if too many of these fires break out simultaneously, it’s beyond the ability of such a centralized system to efficiently manage them. Nobody at the grassroots in the bureaucracy will take responsibility. There is a great deal of corruption at the lower levels which the regime is unable to control without more transparency and more local participation.
It seems that Putin doesn’t have any mechanisms other than hectoring and firing government officials to battle corruption.
DT: At the center, there are some prosecutions and firing of people who are scapegoats for the current system. But simultaneously, I think the regime would genuinely like to get better information from the population about what’s not working at lower levels. This is what they are trying to do with their Internet-based, “Open Government” initiative.
Unfortunately, they’re not very good at [this kind of thing]. Or, they’re late — [this kind of work is] being done by Aleksei Navalny, who is a very charismatic leader of the Moscow opposition.
Navalny recently registered a party? Why?
DT: I think it is more his friends who started the party than Navalny himself. He is focusing on what he thinks is most important at the moment, which is making connections with people over very practical issues that they are upset about.
The liberal opposition seems to consist of social movements, not political parties. Why is that? Do they feel they will be outmaneuvered in the present system?DT: A party is not what they really need at the moment. The fight to establish a party is a bureaucratic fight, which is kind of pointless if there’s no election that you will be allowed to run in.
The accusations of corruption against Navalny are so unbelievable; it makes you wonder why the regime is using them.
DT: You have to suspect that either the regime completely doesn’t care or that it actually wants people to see [the accusations] as a raw exercise of power.
But to some extent they may be able to discredit Navalny even with absurd charges. Because people don’t follow all the details, they just hear the headlines. And then even if they don’t completely believe [the charges], something sticks.
Weren’t the trials of Mikhail Khodorkovsky [in 2005 and 2010] similar? Even the second one elicited no real objections from the general public.
DT: There was no real sympathy for Khodorkovsky, no real emotional attachment to him. People saw him as a billionaire, someone who made money in ways that looked very suspect. Navalny is completely different. He has no billions. He is a very attractive leader of ordinary Russians. And he hasn’t done anything very controversial.
How is the regime handling the opposition movement in general?
DT: The protest movement began in December 2011. The [Putin team] was surprised by the scale of it, so it was disoriented at first. Then the regime came up with a strategy, which is partly to try to co-opt the opposition and make some concessions, but also to split it and use prosecutors to attack and intimidate some of its leaders. And the political operatives in the Kremlin feel that the strategy has worked tremendously well.
This explains why they are moving forward with the Navalny trial. I think it is a huge mistake and that if they put him in jail, it will weaken the regime — maybe not immediately, but definitely over time.
If economic modernization is the force that will drive political change, how will it change the urban-rural divide in Russia? Putin has, for example, always been more popular in the country than in the cities.DT: The divide is not exactly urban-rural; the rural population is pretty small. It’s really the small towns (the provinces) versus the big towns. The big towns are the huge towns (Moscow and St. Petersburg) and the regional capitals, such Ekaterinburg, with populations of a million or more. These are the cities where the most advanced urban middle class lives.
Outside the big cities, there are smaller towns. Many of them are industrial towns with several hundred thousand people, often attached to a few major enterprises that were very dependent on state aid in the past and without good economic prospects for the future.
There’s still a kind of grudging acceptance of or support for Putin in the provinces, but I think there is also a growing discontent, even anger, about the failure of the state to provide the essential components of a normal middle-class life. People are fed up with the education system, the health system, corrupt police, collapsing infrastructure, and so on.
The real question is whether that kind of discontent can link up with the various kinds of discontent in the big cities into some kind of national opposition movement. I think it will at some point, probably in way that’s quite spontaneous.
Do the liberal democratic movements in the cities recognize this political reality?
DT: I think they are beginning to realize it. Navalny is trying to do this in a very sensible way, through Internet-based programs that allow people all over the country to solve their very specific local problems using the technology that he sets up. But how long will it take to forge a national movement on the basis of this sort of activity? Probably quite a while.
If Navalny goes through a trial and then to jail, he will have a political story, which will make him a sort of luminous political personality on the Russian political scene. So it’s a very risky step for the regime to take.
It seems the regime is employing a kind of Soviet speak, complete with saboteurs and nefarious westerners, while the country is living in a different space. Can you comment on that?DT: It’s amazing how short of ideas the Kremlin leaders seem to be. They keep recycling Soviet ideas, such as the Hero of Labor medal or school uniforms or the special Soviet-era fitness program in the schools. And they’re creating a “popular front,” which has an archaic Soviet resonance.
The regime must think it can benefit from Soviet nostalgia, but I think that nostalgia is very thin. The people who might be won over by a popular front or Soviet-style jargon are all voting for the Communists.
Putin is such a curious mish-mash of elements: stunts (flying with cranes, diving for Greek amphora), economic management, talk of the need to be more modern and attract investment, anti-NATO rhetoric, and now the Hero of Labor medal.
Some 23 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, what do you think political science has brought to the study of Russian politics?
DT: Russian politics has really been absorbed by comparative politics. From the early 1990s, we’ve been able to use the same kinds of techniques that are used in other parts of the world — we’re able to quantify things, to measure things, to apply theories and test them, to conduct surveys.
So now people who come to study Russia are much more similar to the people who come to study Latin America or Asia—they take the same classes, they study similar sorts of processes. It’s a much more integrated field in that respect.
And Russian political science has been developing. It’s taken a long time, but it’s becoming integrated with the political science of the western world, especially within the past five years or so. Economics integrated a little bit faster because of the mathematical content — people in the Soviet Union had very strong training in mathematics.
The best political science being done in Russia at the moment has an economic component. There are many people working in political economy that are trained in economics, but interested in political subject matter, working at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow (I should mention that I’m on its international advisory board), the New Economic School and the European University in St. Petersburg. There are also people in think tanks, such as the Carnegie Moscow Center, doing a great deal of very useful analysis.
Daniel Treisman is the author of several books and numerous articles on modern Russian politics. His monographs include “The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev” (Free Press, 2011), “The Architecture of Government: Rethinking Political Decentralization” (Cambridge University Press, 2007), “After the Deluge: Regional Crises and Political Consolidation in Russia” (University of Michigan, 1999). For more information, see his home page.