From Transitions Online, March 3
March 5, 2008
by Andrei A. Piontkovsky
The model of bureaucratic gangster capitalism that has evolved over the past 20 years in Russia is at the height of its powers in 2008.
High oil prices are conserving this parasitical and inefficient system, allowing the fat cats to continue misappropriating huge amounts of property quickly and conveniently.
Many observers both inside Russia and abroad are wondering whether in 2008 we can look forward to an era of liberalization with Dmitry Medvedev as president. Can we expect a "de-Putinization," a thaw during which the state authorities can be freely criticized on television, political prisoners freed, and proper investigations take place of murders committed with the connivance of the security services?
In order to understand the nature of today's Russian authorities and to try to anticipate how they are likely to develop, let us view them in the context of how the Soviet nomenclature has evolved.
Over the past 20 years the Soviet bureaucracy has been rejuvenated primarily by an enormous intake of Chekist secret policemen who have acquired huge property holdings. Today's members of the "party bureaucracy" are dollar multimillionaires, while those in the "Politburo" are multibillionaires.
Will this new intake undertake a liberalization of its regime? In the course of almost a century, the Soviet Russian party bureaucracy twice imposed a thaw from above: the first time in 1953 after the death of Joseph Stalin, and the second in 1985 after the collective death of the previous Politburo. On both occasions the thaw was a real step toward freedom for millions of Russians: in the earlier case hundreds of thousands of people were literally freed from concentration camps.
FROM PURGES TO PERKS
Yet both times, the bureaucracy was primarily interested in its own agenda. The thaw of 1953-1956 proclaimed a kind of rudimentary Magna Carta for its barons. Nikita Khrushchev, by freeing political prisoners, opened Russia up a little and introduced minimal freedoms; the party bureaucracy consolidated its right to life and provided guarantees for its members that they could not be sent off at any moment to rot in the camps at the whim of the next dictator. As the newspaper Pravda noted with satisfaction at the time, "The new atmosphere in the Party demonstrates a caring attitude toward its personnel."
This caring attitude extended to the modest charm of such bourgeois perquisites as privileged food distribution centers, deerskin hats, an official dacha, and an annual free trip to the Communist Party sanatorium in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The boldest bureaucrats even engaged in a little embezzlement.
This continued for some 30 years, until a new generation of Komsomol/KGB wolves emerged who were fully familiar with Western standards of elite consumption. They were the driving force behind perestroika – that triumphant Thermidor of the Communist Party bureaucracy. Perestroika became the start of a vast operation that converted the party's absolute collective political power into immense personal financial power for individual members of the bureaucracy.
The present hard-boiled generation of bureaucrats has helped itself to enormous amounts of property. It does not have the least inclination to initiate an era of liberalization. On the contrary, these people have far greater grounds than their predecessors to shun the slightest extension of freedom of information. This could only lead to questions about the origins, scale and composition of their fortunes becoming a subject first of journalistic, then parliamentary, and finally legal scrutiny.
Medvedev may have the most liberal political and economic leanings, imbibed with the milk of the legendary she-wolf while attending lectures on Roman law at Leningrad State University; but neither Khrushchev's thaw nor Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika were the work of a lone individual. They were founded on a deliberate policy by the ruling class to resolve problems that touched their self-interest.
Today's masters of Russia – including Roman Abramovich, owner of Millhouse Capital and Chelsea Football Club, and Gennady Timchenko, an ex-KGB agent who runs the Gunvor oil-trading company – will not allow their treasures and all they hold most dear to be threatened.
Nevertheless, in the last few weeks a whole industry of pundits has arisen, in Russia and in the West, heralding the advent to power of a new liberal Russian ruler willing to mitigate the excesses of Vladimir Putin's regime in both domestic and foreign policy. The speech Medvedev delivered on 15 February in Krasnoyarsk has given further impetus to these expectations. In it he spoke in favor of independence of the judiciary and freedom of the mass media, and against arbitrary government treatment of private companies. He rounded off his liberal peroration with the maxim that "freedom is better than lack of freedom." Moreover, when responding to journalists' questions about foreign policy, he seemed to manifest liberal leanings in this sphere also when he declared that, "Russia and the USA share common values and there is nothing to prevent them having a strategic partnership."
This speech was flagrantly at odds with the ruling "kleputocracy's" domestic policy and how it behaves on the international stage. Alas, we can find an abundance of just this kind of verbiage about values shared with the West, freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary in the speeches of Putin himself. They signify nothing, as I can testify from my personal experience as somebody currently being accused of "extremism" and prosecuted by those same independent Russian courts for my books and articles in which I criticize Putin.
Finding myself temporarily working in the United States as a Hudson Institute visiting fellow, I regularly return, as a law-abiding Russian citizen, to Moscow to answer every summons of the prosecutor's office and the court. At the end of March I will return to Moscow, where the Basmanny district court will embark upon its consideration of the assessment of my books by "expert witnesses" in the employ of the FSB, the successor of the KGB.
Putin alternates liberal theorizing about free speech and values shared with the West with likening the United States to a new Third Reich and denouncing his political opponents as traitors and agents of the West, with great gusto and evident satisfaction.
THE BAD COP REMAINS
Putin has evidently tired of playing both the roles of good and bad cop himself and has decided to delegate. In the post-March Russian political construct he will concentrate the plenitude of power in his own hands in his new role of prime minister, but he will also keep the role of bad cop, which recently has seemed to come so naturally to him. Upon Medvedev, along with his ceremonial functions, will devolve the role of the good cop where propaganda is concerned. Putin did not appoint him to have policies of his own but to function as a reliable component in a political construct enabling Putin to remain in power for an unconstitutional third term.
The entire ruling class is as one in its determination to obstruct freedom of the media. Accordingly, we should not expect any thaws or perestroikas in Russia with the advent of Medvedev, whatever his personal intentions may be. Could you imagine Khrushchev delivering his famous report to the 20th Party Congress while comrade Stalin was still alive and sitting at the Congress presidium?
At the same time, it is no secret that a bitter battle is being fought between sundry Chekist clans for control of financial flows amounting to many billions of dollars. So far Putin is still managing to act out the role of mediator between these gangs, making use of the immense powers vested in the president by the Russian Constitution.
Will he succeed in holding on to these powers when, according to the letter of the law, they belong to someone else? It is entirely conceivable that certain of the security ministers, discountenanced by some decision Putin has taken, will try to reorient themselves toward Medvedev and transform him from a toy in the hands of a regent into a real tsar.
Whether the clans will tear each other apart or maintain some kind of an equilibrium, we can be certain that their regime will continue to block Russia's path to the future, depriving her of the resource of historic time.
Andrei Piontkovsky is a visiting fellow with Hudson Institute.
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