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Archive for March, 2013

Boris Berezovsky: An unwanted ‘wanted man’

By Blog Admin, on 25 March 2013

Boris Berezovsky

Photo: AJC1 via Flickr License CC BY-SA 2.0

Alena Ledeneva looks back on the career of the controversial Russian oligarch.

Boris Abramovich Berezovsky was born on 23 January 1946 and died on 23 March 2013.  Although hated by many Russians, Berezovsky was also one of the most politically important, exposed and most widely written about figures in Russia of the 1990s. For many he was a symbol of that era.

 Berezovsky’s rise to become one of Russia’s richest men has been chronicled in both journalistic and fictionalised accounts. Godfather of the Kremlin by Paul Klebnikov, the Forbes journalist murdered in Moscow in 2004, Bol’shaya paika (‘The Big Slice’) a novel by Yuli Dubov, Berezovsky’s business partner and friend – who like him received political asylum in the United Kingdom – are among the most interesting.  The film Oligarkh (Tycoon) also features a main character very like Berezovsky.

 After graduating in 1968, Berezovsky worked at various research institutes to become a senior fellow and a head of department at the Institute of Management of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His energy, creative spirit and talent for working through the Soviet system served him well and helped shape his success in the post-communist era.

 In 1989, Berezovsky and Samat Zhaboev organized a joint stock company LogoVaz, which specialised in selling and servicing cars. In four years Logovaz became one of the leading Russian private businesses with a turnover of US$250 million in 1993. Berezovsky became  the chairman of the LogoVaz Board in 1994.

Despite the dangers of Russia’s post-communist business environment – he survived an assassination attempt in June 1994 in which his driver died – Berezovsky moved on to acquire media and oil interests.  In January 1995 he participated in setting up the ORT television channel joining its board of directors and in September 1996 he was elected to board of the Siberian oil company Sibneft. Berezovsky’s financial schemes – of the kind I examine in more detail in How Russia Really Works  – were also the inspiration for a post-communist genre of literature often known as ‘economic thrillers’. (more…)

The force that is Fidesz

By Blog Admin, on 25 March 2013

Peace March for Hungary 2012.01.21 (9)

Photo: Derzsi Elekes Andor via WikiMedia Commons

Hungary’s governing party Fidesz has recently consolidated changes to the constitution, media laws and electoral constituencies. Yet despite international criticism and tough economic times, Hungarian opposition forces are divided while Fidesz and the radical right party Jobbik remain electorally buoyant. Erin Marie Saltman examines the enduring strength of the Hungarian right and the obstacles facing its opponents.

In Hungary 15th March is a day with a deeply resonating political legacy. The day is a national holiday, created in remembrance of the 1848 revolution when Hungary’s iconic poet revolutionary Sándor Petőfi stood on the steps of the National Museum and read his Twelve Points demanding freedom of speech and national political liberties from the Habsburg Empire. Today Petőfi has become a malleable political symbol of revolution and change for government and opposition alike, with both groups moving to celebrate his legacy.

The conservative Fidesz government sees itself as personified in the Hungarian revolutionary tradition, calling the huge electoral majority that put it into power in 2010 a ‘voting revolution’ –  an opportunity for Hungary finally to rid itself of its history of oppressive powers, first the Habsburgs and then the Communists. In Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national speeches, there is now wariness towards the assimilating and constricting measures of the EU and IMF, asking whether these international institutions bear the same hallmark of oppression. Backing the government, which still holds a strong lead in polls among decided voters, are throngs of dedicated supporters holding ‘peace marches’ and rallies to show their continued support.

The main concern of domestic opposition and international onlookers remains the increasingly enlarged capacity the Fidesz government to restructure the Hungarian state. Most recently on 11 March  President János Áder signed into law the Fourth Amendment  to the Hungarian constitution, adding a fifteen-page amendment to the forty-five-page document. The constitutional court had ruled against many of the proposed additions, which worryingly mirror some of the larger issues flagged in radical right party Jobbik’s 2010 Manifesto. (more…)

Writers, doctors, goalkeepers

By Blog Admin, on 18 March 2013

Der Kicker (1924). Via Wikimedia Commons

Der Kicker (1924). Via Wikimedia Commons

Tim Beasley-Murray writes about the UCL German Department’s research project in the ‘medical inhumanities’, doctors who were also writers, and writers who were also goalkeepers.

The UCL German Department is in the process of launching its fourth Departmental Research project (the previous three having resulted in volumes on Laughter and ridicule in German culture, legacies of Norbert Elias, and questions of national identity). This new project, in which Central Europeanists in SSEES will also be taking part, is provisionally entitled ‘medical inhumanities’.

While one might object, on philosophical and ethical grounds, to the whole notion of ‘inhumanity’ as a way to describe human behaviour, there is no doubt that this is a fertile topic, provocatively framed – particularly for the study of German culture where, in the Nazi period, above all, inhumanity and medicine became so horribly enmeshed. Perhaps more prosaically, however, this project will be, one guesses, a contribution, not only to the study of inhumanity, but also to the field of the medical humanities. This is a field in which UCL has, in its time, played a leading role, and one to which, one hopes, it may yet return with initiatives under the auspices of the Grand Challenges of Human Wellbeing and Global Health.

The starting point of the concept of the medical humanities is the idea that medicine and the humanities both offer specific ways of viewing the world and the human being that, while they differ fundamentally, may also illuminate each other in productive ways. (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…)

Václav Klaus: A political phenomenon without political power

By Blog Admin, on 7 March 2013

Vaclav-Klaus-01 cropped

Photo: DerHuti  Wikimedia Commons   CC BY-SA 3.0

Václav Klaus ends his second and final term as Czech president today. He has been a blisteringly controversial head of state. But his high profile and confrontational style masked underlying political weakness, argues Seán Hanley.

 In many ways a medium-sized Central European country like the Czech Republic could hardly have wished for a better president: an experienced, energetic and erudite politician of international standing able to engage both with the big European issues and handle the domestic problems thrown up by fractious politicians and crumbling coalition governments.

 A president tough-minded enough to periodically remind its citizens that they were living not in an impoverished mafia state, but in a tolerably well-administered, reasonably prosperous, if inevitably flawed, European democracy.

 As president during the last ten years Václav Klaus has been all of these things.

 But he has also been a blisteringly controversial head of state, whose views have often been sharply at odds with most of his fellow politicians or fellow citizens. Provocative and unignorable, Klaus has been loved and (more often) loathed both at home and abroad. He leaves office facing an indictment for treason brought by opponents  for alleged constitutional violations. He is, as Czech political scientist Lubomír Kopeček rightly terms him in a recent biography, a political phenomenon.

 But what lasting impacts does Klaus’s ten year period in office really leave? (more…)