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Can Russia Modernise? The author’s perspective

By Blog Admin, on 19 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 system of informal governance. In the final part of a three-part ‘mini-symposium’ the author reflects on and responds to critical assessments of the book.

The criticisms made by Katharina Bluhm and by Geoffrey Hosking are both valid and valuable. In my response I will attempt to clarify my arguments, where I can, and call for further research, where I cannot.

 How do we define sistema? Sistema stands for the network-based informal governance system backing up the formal facades of power. I agree with my critics’ point that sistema is a runaway target. My method was to rely on respondents’ perceptions of it. But they often varied a lot, as in the fable about the elephant and the seven blind men.  There are a range of definitions in the glossary of the book. I pieced together a detailed ethnography of sistema, but conceptualising sistema proved elusive.

 The Soviet writer Fazil Iskander has described the pressure of sistema as follows

 Imagine that you had to share a room with an aggressive madman all your life. Moreover, you also had to play chess with him. One the one hand, you had to play so that you would not win and anger him with your victory; on the other, you had to play so subtly that he would not suspect that you allowed him to beat you.

 When the ‘madman’ disappears this precious skill and the life-long experience of survival with a madman turns out to be redundant. Sistema reveals its features mostly to those who feel pressurised or victimised by it, rather than to its beneficiaries (President Putin is one of latter at the moment, but his memoirs will be an invaluable source on sistema one day, just as President Gorbachev’s ones are now).

 So I interviewed people who in some sense had exited sistema, distanced themselves or had time for reflection (I describe this ‘slow cooking’ methodology in a recent SSEES working paper. Distance from sistema enhanced their ability to articulate – as happened with understanding of the Soviet system after its collapse – and provided a useful point of comparison (especially if people had a chance to live elsewhere). (more…)

‘Sistema’: How Putin’s Russia is governed

By Blog Admin, on 11 March 2013

Another day of Moscow (3067405533)

Photo: Andrew Kuznetsov via WikiMedia Commons

 The power of informal networks and the weakness of formal institutions in Russia have been widely noted. But the nature of the informal deals and personalised loyalties that Russian leaders use to mobilise support and maintain control has proved harder to grasp.  

In her new book Alena Ledeneva picks out four key types of networks that make up Vladimir Putin’s system of governance – what she terms sistema. Putin’s sistema is a complex, ambiguous and sometimes surprisingly effective. However, in the long-term it impedes Russia’s  modernisation.

Sistema in contemporary Russia is a shorthand term for a ‘system of governance’ that usually refers to open secrets or governance matters not-to-be-named. The term itself is elusive. Outsiders find it too general to mean anything in particular. Insiders are not ordinarily bothered with definitions of sistema – they intuitively know it when they experience the ‘system made me to it’ pressure. One of them explains the unarticulated nature of sistema by the lack of distance of insiders from it:

This is not a system that you can choose to join or not – you fall into it from the moment you are born. There are of course also mechanisms to recruit, to discipline and to help reproduce it. In the Soviet Union there was more or less a consolidated state, whereas now it is impossible to disentangle the state from a network of private interests. Modern clans are complex. It is not always clear who is behind which interests.

It is these non-transparent interests and non-hierarchical, network-based aspects of governance that are missing in the most conceptions of Russia’s systems of governance. Even when informal influence, connections, clans, cliques, clusters and other types of informal alliances within the elites are identified, the social networks that generate ‘informal power’ are not seen as intrinsic to the concept of governance.

 Moreover, it is often assumed that power networks shadow formal positions of power so that a ‘map’ of a pyramid of informal ties and influences can be produced. This is not how informal power operates. There is not much regularity about it. Besides, networks that channel informal influence function in an ambivalent fashion – they both support and subvert the existing governance model.

Personalised power networks enable leaders at all levels to mobilise and to control, yet they also lock politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen into informal deals, mediated interests and personalised loyalties. This is the ‘modernisation trap of informality’: one cannot use the potential of informal networks without triggering their negative long-term consequences for institutional development. (more…)