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Russia’s Civil Society: From Democracy Backpedaling to Informal War

By Blog Admin, on 30 July 2016

 

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by Professor Alena Ledeneva

Across Central, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, democracy and civil society in the post-communist era are being diverted by informal ties, networks, practices that hide behind democratic institutions. The main problem with powerful informal obligations to family, friends, colleagues and bosses is that they also compromise the state, governance and civil society, especially where clear boundaries between public and private cannot be drawn. Imagine official positions that take over private lives, or having to choose between being a good bureaucrat and a good brother.

I’ve presented my research into informal practices in my trilogy on Russia: Russia’s Economy of Favours, How Russia Really Works, and Can Russia Modernise. In these three books, I take an ethnographic approach towards studying informal practices at different levels and periods, from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia. I view communism, its collapse, and the formation of a new system from the perspective of informal practices, and question the predominant discourses of the state, democracy, and civil society, associated with formal institutions.

There are three strands to my argument.

Firstly, the 1990s’ liberal reforms in Russia were originally thought to allow civil society to emerge and get grounded in already existent networks, yet this was not what happened. It turned out that Russia’s informal networks operate according to the ‘us versus them’ logic that is largely self- or network serving, and thus not conducive to civic values.

Secondly, the double standards widespread under the communist oppressive system continue to operate even after the fall of such a regime. The post-communist vacuum was hard to fill, and after a short blip of enthusiasm for democracy in late 1980s and early 1990s, the informal practices in politics – black PR, kompromat, krugovaya poruka (joint responsibility) – have increased people’s cynicism towards the new democratic institutions.

Thirdly, the non-civic nature of informal networks in Russia has also had effects on those in power. On one hand, Putin’s power networks served themselves and reproduced the culture of privileges, which is detrimental to civil society. On the other hand, Putin’s restrictive laws of 2006 and 2011, which, although damaging to existing non-governmental organisations, had the unintended consequence of benefitting civic initiatives emerging ‘bottom-up’. This was illustrated by the Blue Buckets campaign for equality on the roads, and the anti-Putin protests of 2011. The internet has become an important tool for activism, such as the Last Address initiative, whereby people commemorate victims of Stalin’s purges by putting a plaque on their building.

However, since 2012 powerful nationalist propaganda has considerably eroded the atmosphere for bottom-up social initiatives. This was launched by the Kremlin to ensure popular support for the continuing confrontation with the West over the situations in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Syria and now Turkey. The informal war – an undeclared warfare behind the misleading facades – has gone international. This is not surprising, given the decades-long tradition of informal economy and informal politics. The future is even more worrying, as the number of leaders who admire and emulate the Most Powerful Person in the World is only likely to increase.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL

Can Russia Modernise? An economist’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 20 March 2014

ICan Russia Modernise Thumbnailn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the last contribution to a ‘mini-symposium’  Theocharis Grigoriadis assesses the book’s arguments from an economist’s perspective, suggesting that Ledeneva understands the durability of sistema as a series of trade-offs that reduce collective welfare. 

In her seminal book on informal politics and governance in post-Soviet Russia, Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks, and Informal Governance , Alena Ledeneva puts forward a theory of networked governance that relativises the significance of formalised vertical structures and hierarchical decision-making for understanding Russian politics.

 Ledeneva’s theory makes a unique contribution to political science and sociology and deals with following themes in relation to Russian politics and society:

  1. Continuities of power networks under central planning and capitalism;
  2. Sistema as a form of networked governance in authoritarian regimes;
  3. The transformation of the St. Petersburg circle into the inner sistema of Russian politics;
  4. The prospects for societal modernisation under Putin.

 While blat networks in socialism facilitated the provision of consumer goods circumventing the formal absence of marketplaces, power networks in post-socialism involved the provision of public goods such as security, justice, and healthcare. The author suggests that market transitions in the former Soviet Union preserved more elements from the economic organization of central planning than we might want to admit, both in terms of people in power and economic practices.

 As Ledeneva argues, the analysis of informal networks matters, because it is essential to trace the effects of friendships and close relationships on ministerial appointments, judicial decisions and corporate deals. The identification of their existence per se has major theoretical significance, but does not explain current developments in Russian politics. Ledeneva suggests that while continuities in networked governance between socialism and post-socialism exist, what differentiates Putin’s Russia is the even wider spread of informal rules and even higher informational asymmetry between those insider and those outsider a power network. In this sense, Putin’s sistema is at least partially – if not fully – a reversion to the Soviet status quo ante.

 The Russian sistema is a set of public and private networks that manages public wealth and delivers public goods, thus determining the magnitude of its members’ rent-seeking strategies. While the sistema combines both public and private elements in its enforcement strategies, the hierarchical predominance of public over private interests and institutions is indisputable.

This is how, according to Ledeneva, Putin’s sistema has redefined the Russian public domain. (more…)

Can Russia Modernise? A historian’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 18 March 2014

Can Russia Modernise ThumbnailIn her 2013 book Can Russia Modernise? Alena Ledeneva picked out key types of networks that make up Sistema:  Russia’s complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective systems of informal governance. In the second part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ Geoffrey Hosking assesses the book and its arguments from a historian’s perspective.

 This is a very good book, but it shares some of the characteristics of the system it describes.  One thinks one has grasped an important point, but then on the next page it turns out that point is not always valid, its operation is subtly influenced by other aspects of the system.

I would see sistema as ‘the way to get things done’, the allocation of power and resources in order to get things done.  It is a system of personal relationships, accepted practices and codes of behaviour (poniatiia), not formulated or laid down explicitly but generally understood.  It centres on Putin as President (and did even when he was Prime Minister:  persons are more important than institutions), but his actual power within it is not unlimited.  He is locked into it and his freedom of action is constantly circumscribed by it.

 In this sense it confirms Foucault’s dictum about power operating along several vectors:  downwards, but also upwards and sideways.  Its operation is intangible:  there is often no need for direct instructions or commands, because people know how they are expected to behave.  Much depends on loyalty and trust, but trust which is limited and instrumental.  A trusts B for certain purposes, but not more than that: I trust him because I know him well, his strengths and weaknesses, and what he is good at doing; perhaps I also have some kompromat on him.  This is also forced trust, because there is no real alternative.

Alena Ledeneva identifies distinct networks around Putin: 1. an inner circle, which is  agenda setting where there  is daily or regular, frequent contact; 2. core contacts for the implementation of policy –  people who are well known from institutional contact, and trusted to get things done without frequent contact.  3.  useful friends who are similar, but with emphasis on relationships formed in youth, who are useful to get things done or trouble-shoot problems, but who will expect in return to be offered opportunities to make money; and  4. mediated contacts used for getting things done locally or at a lower institutional level.  Essentially these are patron-client networks of various types.  However, it should be noted, that patron-client networks differ from authoritarian ones in that clients need to get something out of them.  (more…)