Accountable governance starts with a demand for it

Tuesday, 2. February 2010     0 comment(s)
Leena Liukkonen
Head of Communications
Russia’s former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov has published a book titled Bez Putina (Beyond Putin). The book is written by a prominent Russian journalist Yevgeny Kiselev. It is partly the writer's narrative, partly interviews with Kasyanov. The book describes among other things the reasons that have formed Kasyanov into the perhaps only really serious opposition figure in contemporary Russia.

Kasyanov was the minister of finance in Yeltsin's government and then the prime minister in Putin's (May 2000 - February 2004). Ten years ago Kasyanov agreed with president Vladimir Putin on the general line of politics. Economic and administrative weakness demanded action.

Kasyanov describes the catastrophic nature of the economic meltdown of Russian state in the 90s with the accuracy of an insider with a pedantic twist. He tells how he flew all over the planet in negotiations for money to cover government spending. The details of the emergency loans in the eve of 1996 presidential elections from France and Germany are described for the first time. Kasyanov negotiated them himself. That money was crucial for Yeltsin's second term. But toward the end of the decade it was obvious that the president was tired, the laws of the federation didn’t apply in many runaway republics, business strongmen openly challenged the state authorities and generally, there was an undeniable mess that the talented bureaucrat Kasyanov didn’t like any better than his new president Putin.

There were voices at the very beginning of Putin presidency that accused him of authoritarian aspirations and were wary of his background in security structures. But Kasyanov did not share those concerns at that time. He tells us that he genuinely thought that he and his president shared common values. Yes, there was need for more order. But other than that, liberal reforms were unavoidable, new Russia would integrate into the global economic system and become a modern country with diverse economy and all democratic freedoms.

Kasyanov lists the mounting evidence of more than necessary amount of new order that worried him along the line: the Jukos case with Mikhail Hodorkovsky’s imprisonment and later the using the terrorist atrocities in Beslan as an excuse to strip local authorities of their remaining powers. New unelected strongmen kept appearing, to replace the old ones, be it in business or other walks of life. Kasyanov was getting ready to leave politics when Putin fired him a couple of months before he was supposed to step down anyway in 2004. He was offered several government positions, but turned them down and became a consultant and gradually an opposition figure.

The obvious question remains unanswered: did Putin and Kasyanov really share values in the beginning? If we are to think that president Putin set out to do one thing while proclaiming the other, then we must conclude that he is a master of deception, capable of diabolically fooling his own prime minister.

But there is also another, simpler explanation. It might well be a case of the fairly recent but already classic Russian proverb: “hoteli kak lutche, polutchilos kak vsegda” (we did our best but in the end it turned out as always).

A crown on top of a pillar

Flashing back to the early days of Vladimir Putin’s presidency less than ten years ago. The famous Taganka theatre staged Alexander Pushkin’s classic Yevgeny Onegin. A good-sized chunk of the Moscow who is who –crowd turned up for the premiere. The strongman in descent Boris Berezovsky slipped in unseen after the lights went out. Some said, because of security issues, some explained his shyness with the skin yellowing condition he was suffering around that time. In any case the atmosphere was thick.

Moscow had heard the first rumbles of yet another change. The writing was on the wall and some strongmen of the Yeltsin family, who had fallen out of grace with the Power read it correctly. In the coming months and years they submitted and folded their hands. Some emigrated, some got repressed. The rest were later absorbed into the new ruling elite. In the coming years the same applied to the parliament, the local strongmen all over the Russian federation and generally anybody who had gotten out of hand. Unlike in the Soviet times, however, you had a choice of playing it by the new book or getting out.

But before all this happened, there was the play to be watched. Pushkin writes in Yevgeny Onegin: “there is no law in Russia – there is a pillar and on top of the pillar there is a crown”.

The national poet paints in one sentence a picture of a system where the winner literally takes it all. Russia has traditionally been ruled by supreme leaders – at all levels. As opposed to the messy political apparatus of democracies - with all kinds of inconvenient checks and balances – which all changing rulers have to respect.

Supreme leaders are by no means specific for Russia. At first glance they seem to have more power than the puny democratic officials working their apparatus. But then the seemingly unchecked leaders will have to look over their shoulders constantly. They have to wield the power a lot simply to secure it - with all kinds of operations, compromises, concessions and the like that tie his hands one way or the other, create loyalties and debts. The more or less loyal network of a ruling elite stabilises power but with a price. The network is however absolutely necessary because the stability providing apparatus of established democratic structure is not there. In addition to handouts the ruler has to use coercion. It has to be credible and for it to be credible there must be some degree of repression.

Returning to Russia and the time before Putin. Exactly what kind of apparatus did he take over?

After the slow withering away of the Soviet Union, when the democrats took over in the beginning of 1990s, it was hard not to join the hurrah chorus. For somebody who had lived among Russians in their homes and knew not only stories of pride and accomplishment but also of destruction, fear and death in practically every family, in the hands of their own authorities – what was there not to like when Yeltsin suppressed the communist hard line coup, stood up on the tank and took over?

The new democratic leadership talked the talk and – in the beginning - walked the walk. And the accomplishments should definitely not be belittled. But after a while the securing of power, operations, compromises and concessions gradually became more and more necessary. In rolled the presidential election of 1996 where the Russians faced the choice between democrat Yeltsin and communist Zyuganov.

"We wanted to correct the election just a little"

The democrats, not completely unlike Putin after them, went with the gut reaction of securing power at any cost. Like Kasyanov confesses, the temptation to “correct the election result just a little” was too strong to resist. He goes on to state that as a result of that little correction there is now a regime in place that does not stop at “just a little”.

It is easy for us in the West to moralise. But if one listened to the Russian democratic forces then, they were genuinely terrified of the prospect of communist regime returning to power. With hindsight Kasyanov ponders that the former Eastern Bloc countries were really none the worse for the reappearance of the former communists in power. They have come and gone. But Kasyanov thinks that there is a fundamental difference: the former satellites have established genuine elections to decide who gets to wear the crown and more or less adopted the tedious apparatus of democratic rule.

Also the home grown variety of Soviet communism was simply too frightening for the liberals. The very real, very recent fear resonated badly among the democrats. And the communists – when doing well in the polls - didn’t help their case by publicly and gleefully hinting at the coming repressions against those who had sold Motherland. Kasyanov tells of negotiations that the then ruling business elite had with the communists before the election. Would the communists not give at least some kind of guarantees for the security of private property? But the negotiations were futile. According to Kasyanov the communists were so sure of winning the election that they didn’t feel the need to accommodate the business elite, Yeltsin’s “family”. This might have cost them the election.

The liberals and their ruling elite did what they felt they had to do. They corrected the election just a little bit. At least with western money and with television and other assets of the business elites. The next president Putin obviously watched all this observantly and learned his own kind of lessons about the nature of power, free speech, foreign involvement and the like in Russia, be it in the hands of democrats or anybody else.

MEP Heidi Hautala, the chair of the parliaments subcommittee on human rights spoke in the Finnish Institute of International affairs in January saying that it is counterproductive to promote democracy with undemocratic means. The Jesuits were wrong. When the Russian democrats gave in to the temptation to correct the election, just a little, the possibility of a democratic, systemic democratic apparatus was thereby sold for survival and an extension in Kremlin. As collateral damage, they gained a population bitterly disillusioned about “democracy”.
The current regime has spent years securing its power and is now talking about economic modernisation and political reforms, not to replace but to better the vertical of power. It might however be hard to modernise and reform a pillar with a crown on top of it. And since there is, after the past exercises, very little popular demand for a bothersome, limiting, systemic, democratic apparatus, instead of that crown on top of the pillar, it is harder still. Accountable governance only starts with a demand for it.

And then a leader would have to give up his natural survival instinct and jeopardize all the special interest that is the supportive network. All this without any guarantee that the next winner will play by the same new rules and obediently work the apparatus, instead of again simply taking it all.

Finally, a disclaimer: this is not about the content of the politics, nor a comparison between any of the regimes. I would neither endorse nor oppose any actors in the Russian domestic policy. Nor do I think that people other than Russians actually should, since we do not invite them to counsel us in our own choice of leaders.

The writer is a former journalist and a diplomat stationed in Moscow (1999-2003).


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