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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…)

Bosnia’s protests: Made in Dayton

By Blog Admin, on 10 February 2014

Tuzla_riots

Photo: Juniki San CC BY-SA 3.0

While much media attention has focused on Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina too is experiencing waves of mass protest against corruption and stagnation. The roots writes Eric Gordy lie in the unsustainable political system established at Dayton in 1995.

Conversation 1 was with the waiter in a large Sarajevo hotel, where we were generally a bit sheepish to be attending our conference (the deciding factor was that it was big enough for all of the participants, the down side was its odd business history and the fact that the main conference room was also where former Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadžić liked to hold his soirees with the media). A colleague and I had heard that the employees of the hotel had not been paid for several months, so we asked. It was true, he told us.

 Most of the employees had remained at the hotel through a series of ownerships and bankruptcies, and had often faced periods of reduced pay, no pay, or something in lieu of pay. So what were they working for? They wanted to keep the hotel going in the hope that one day it might become profitable again, and they wanted the employer to keep making contributions to the pension and medical care funds.

 Conversation 2 was with a group of postgraduate students in Tuzla. Most of them had or were seeking work as schoolteachers. And they were only able to get short-term jobs. Why no permanent jobs in schools? Because available workplaces are distributed among the local political parties, who fill them with their members and put them on one-year contracts.

 The effect of this is that no young person can get a job except through the services of a political party, and no young person can keep a job except by repeatedly demonstrating loyalty to the political party. You can probably imagine the wonderful effect this has on the development and teaching of independent, critical thinking in schools.

 I could go on with vignettes. I have lots of them. But these sorts of scenes might be thought of as the background of the protests that began last week in Tuzla, developed into police violence by Thursday afternoon, and spread across Bosnia’s larger entity, the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina partly in the form of mob vandalism by Friday. (more…)

Reacting to Ukraine’s protests

By Blog Admin, on 5 December 2013

The return of sustained protest to the streets of Ukraine has hugely raised the political stakes comments Andrew Wilson

The protests in Kiev are now two weeks old. They began after the Ukrainian government first decided to suspend negotiations with the EU on 21 November, but have gained new intensity after President Yanukovych left the Vilnius Summit on 28-29 November empty-handed, without signing the key AgreementsBut the attempt at violent dispersal of the crowds on his return, on Saturday 30 November, only led to bigger demonstrations on the Sunday.

At the time of writing (Monday the 2nd), the protestors were looking more embedded – literally so, as several buildings have been occupied and barriers set up in the centre of Kiev. The stakes are especially high because the OSCE Ministerial Council is due to be held in Kiev on 5-6 December – the opposition want to keep the protest going until then, the authorities want to stamp them out. The ruling party is losing key members and morale.

What happens next?

One of the most depressing features of Ukraine’s many failures after the Orange Revolution in 2004 was that people lost the will to protest. Political demonstration even became an entirely artificial affair, with being-paid-to-protest becoming big business in Ukraine. So the return of real protests changes things dramatically. Participants at the first big demo held up signs saying “we are not paid”. The authorities are relying on the tired and discredited narrative that this is an artificial protest, ‘”paid for” by domestic oligarchs or foreign powers. At least in Kiev, everyone knows this is false. (more…)