Russia as a Network State discusses the ambiguous nature of the state in Russia by focusing on informal elite networks and their role in policy processes. A central argument in the book is that tracing the nodes and connections within ruling networks can make the analysis of state policies more comprehendible. The seminar introduces the book while also addressing the current political situation in Russia. How does the Russian network state face the challenge of elections?
Introduction: Dr. Vadim Kononenko, researcher, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Speaker: Dr. Nikolai Petrov, Scholar-in-Residence, The Carnegie Moscow Center.
Comments: Dr. Markku Lonkila, Adjunct Professor, University of Helsinki
Chair: Dr. Arkady Moshes, Programme Director, The Finnish Institute of International Affairs
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Summary of the seminar:
The seminar at was organised to mark the launch of the book Russia as a Network State – What works in Russia when state institutions do not? The two editors of the book are Vadim Kononenko and Arkady Moshes, researcher and programme director at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.
The seminar aimed at promoting discussion on the current state of Russia. The guest speakers were Nikolay Petrov from the Carnegie Institute, who also contributed to the book, and Markku Lonkila from the University of Helsinki, both experts on networks in Russia.
In his introduction, Mr. Kononenko underlined the importance of informal networks, which have not received much scholarly attention in the field of political science. In political science informal networks have been approached much in the same way as dark matter in astronomy. They have been ignored, or merely studied by examining how they affect the formal structures. The book looks at networks as an integral part of the state. Sometimes when formal structures are lacking, networks can fill in the gaps. The network state seems like a contradiction in terms, but in fact it brings out the essence of how the contemporary state actually works. Thus networks should be studied as much as the formal structures in order to understand the dynamics within state.
The most significant argument of Russia as a Network State is, that the way of seeing networks as a part of the state, actually describes quite accurately how Russia works today. It might be underlined though, that this argument is limited to a specific period in Russian history, the Putin era. The transition paradigm has commonly dominated the discussion on the Russian developments of the last decades, and the focus of the discourse has been the formal body of the state. In the 1990s, it was seen that Russia was facing a historical moment, and was to develop into a liberal state. This window of opportunity offered the chance for the country to follow the model of Western capitalistic states. However, during the Putin era this window has been closing and the need for new descriptions for the Russian state system has since emerged.
Russia as a Network State seeks to provide with a more balanced view on modern Russia. Putin’s project was aimed at strengthening the state, but in fact the state Putin wanted to strengthen was a network state. The key elements of the network state system are the connections between key institutions in the state apparatus, shared by the people that belong to the different networks. In Russia, the strategic resources are concentrated within the networks, whereas money, property and affiliation belong within the state office. Institutions thus bring together elements from the public and private field. What is in common with all Russian networks and different interest groups is that they share an identification with the state. Interestingly, the stronger the networks become, the more pronounced the statist rhetoric gets. Regardless of different personal networks, people see themselves as ‘state people’, guardians of the network state. By underlining this, the networks also gain legitimacy.
The following speaker was Dr Nikolay Petrov. In his presentation he described the power dynamics in Russia. He suggested that the concept of network state is not only very valid as an analysing tool for the present day Russia but also for the Soviet era. The history of Russia is the history of power struggle between different players. In the Soviet times this was between the Communist Party and the KGB.
The Russian politics of today are driven by group interests and corporate interests. National interests are not even formulated or discussed in public space. There are numerous clashing interest groups, including different corporate, regional, family and regional corporate clans. Regardless of the notion of Russia being tightly in the control of the central government, some regional leaders have substantial power in their hands. A good example of this is the influence of Kadyrov, which is spreading well beyond the borders of Chechnya. Even in the top leadership, the power is distributed. There is a division of labor between the two top figures of the country. However, partly due to the lack of encompassing networks, Medvedev’s influence is much more limited. He has not acted as a leader since his university times, and most of his support team consists of his classmates from law school.
There has been a shift in power among the regional leadership during Medvedev’s presidency, and their role has changed. Stalin’s system of horizontal rotation has now been restored, which results to the newly appointed governors coming to the region from the outside, with no connection to the area. Their strongest connection is with the political centre.
Russia will have new elections this fall. The number of political parties existing is very small and the amount of parties capable of taking part in the elections is even smaller. There are only seven parties out of which only four are represented in the state duma while the other three would in essence need an acceptance from the Kremlin to be able to participate. United Russia still has strong domination of the country’s politics. Nevertheless, it is presumably going to lose some of its weight in the December Duma elections, and possibly even its absolute majority. A new political player has also come to the scene. The rightist project is a project by the Kremlin, which cannot get any mass support without administrative backing and thus it suits the purposes of the Kremlin.
The good news from Russia is that there is now more political competition within the ruling party. The politicians at the top already know that they will get chosen, but now there is more competition within the subdivisions. Also, the practices are better from a democratic point of view than the actual legislation would suggest. United Russia lost in the last elections, and in order to keep dominance over the state duma it now needs to find a minor partner to work with or, alternatively, get additional votes for the party. Putin has used both tactics and is now also personally actively participating in the campaign. However, his personal popularity not as significant as it used to be.
The current distribution of work in Russia’s political lead is between Putin and Medvedev. As the situation keeps evolving, the status quo cannot be kept by continuing with the tandem. The gap between the formal and the real leader needs to disappear, and in order to retain the power balance, Medvedev has to be replaced. The change of command could materialise in a few different ways. The easiest way for Putin to keep his power would be to switch to the model of a ‘one headed eagle’, instead of the current two-headed one. The other option would be that of the ‘three headed dragon’, which would make Putin responsible for the strategic decisions. The comprehensive model for the next decade Russia’s direction has already been chosen. If oil prices remain at high level, there is no attraction for the changing of the system. Putin’s model will endure, and thus the similar manner and path of modernisation will most likely be followed during the coming years.
The next government will face the need to drastically cut down social expenses. Putin does not want to take responsibility for the painful reforms. One option for the reorganising of the Russian governance could be that Putin would resume his seat as president and nominate a liberal prime minister who would get Western support. The new prime minister could then act as kamikaze to do the arduous job. Thus the following prime minister could be someone more suitable for Putin’s needs.
After Dr Petrov, Dr Markku Lonkila presented his comments on the book Russia as a Network State. He also approached the concept of networks from a more theoretical point of view, and pointed out some issues on networks in Russia based on his own research findings.
Dr Lonkila opened up the theoretical discussion on the concept of network, and reminded of the very valuable empirical applications the concept has. One good example of this concept serving as a tool for more empirical work is presented by Russia as a Network State. In his comments, Dr Lonkila wanted to also encourage further empirical network study, which would provide with even more novel view points especially on the Russian society. In particular, the concept of power related to the study of networks is central. Where does the power lie when networks form such an integrated part of the functions of the state?
The studying of nodes and links in a social network can reveal central figures and connections within the network, and thus provide with valuable information on the power structures within the state. It is important not only to study the networks as a whole, but also to pay attention to personal networks. Only analysing the big picture leaves gaps and undervalues the significance of personal connections. A network is always formed of at least three elements which brings into play the different loyalties and connections, which make a big difference in personal relationships.
According to Dr Lonkila, the contribution of Russia as a Network State is that it challenges an oversimplified view on Russia. He further suggested that the concept of network state could benefit from the notions developed in the research on social networks, and of the further employment of network research methods. Personal networks could be considered as informal social institutions, serving as substitutes for the formal institutions. The connection between the elite and the daily life networks could thus offer an interesting point for additional research.
In the general discussion, the role of the regions was raised as a question. Dr Petrov’s take on the issue was that Russia is more a federation of corporations than a federation of regions. However, this has been changing during the last years. The Kremlin has been able to replace one regional leader with another. Nevertheless, in the present day, some regions are getting substantial power over the central government. One particular case is the Caucasus, which has been the biggest challenge, and the reason to why the centre-regional relations have developed in the way they have. As elections in the area could result in violence, direct elections are not held in the country. The dual relationship between centre and regions is still very pronounced in Russia. It is a big country, still combining extremely different areas – Carelia and Caucasus, for instance.
The question of the possibility of social ruptures due to the predicted unpopular decisions was also risen. How explosive is the situation? Is the old social contract still valid, even if Putin is no longer as popular? How long can the stagnation go for?
Already in 2002 Russia witnessed major social protests due to the cutting of social expenditure. A lot of money was spent by the government to stop the protests. Again, two years ago there were more protests in two regions, but they were more of a reaction for the action of the regional powers. The economic crisis hit Russia, but allegedly the crisis was inspired by the West. The initial claim was that the Russian people were not affected, which has kept the government popular until recent days. At this stage, however, there is much less social patience. The lack of infrastructure, the lack of organised leadership for the protests and the lack of trust in Russia, which means that social protesting will become inevitable and also very dangerous. The state is unprepared for this sort of developments, mostly due to the lack of major problem connected to corruption which makes long term difficult and unfruitful for politicians. The cutting social costs is still very likely to happen, even if arguably it is not necessary.
It was also suggested that the questioning of the hierarchical structure of the Russian governance system already took place in the Soviet era. The system was not a hierarchy, but that of administrative markets or networks. Putin himself has studied hierarchical organisations, and the system of vertical power could be seen as a form of a new hierarchical system. In contrast, Medvedev puts more weight on laws as a system of governance. Putin’s aim was to reform a hierarchical structure. The question is: how is it possible to reform is a network state?
The answer to the question depends on the definition of the term reform. Mr. Kononenko stated that reforming the network state is possible, and also constantly ongoing on some levels. However, altering the whole structure does not seem plausible. A major transition could take place as a reaction to a shock or a crisis. Even the next rendition of the state would again be a new network state
The following question concerned the role of corruption in a network state. Is corruption an integral, inevitable consequence of a state where networks have a central role? The answer to this question is a complex one. Corruption by definition is a violation of norms, but in the network state the norms are different from the ones in other kinds of state structures. Corruption does still exist as a crime, and there still are corruption related scandals, but the rules are just different.
Finally, the driving forces of Russian foreign policy were discussed. Typically, a state is seen as a more or less rational actor, which finds the national interests and strives for them. In present day Russia, the driving force of foreign politics is the interests of the elite groups. Naturally, these are frequently, or even always clashing. Regional interests are no longer represented at the political centre, which makes decision making slightly less difficult.