The state needs to be reformed

October 5, 2016

The Soviet Union disintegrated a quarter of a century ago. But we still have not left it behind.


Mikhail Khodorkovsky

The Soviet Union – an inflexible system of governance based on an ideology that appealed to many (and which has supporters to this day), with nuclear weapons and the second biggest economy in the world – disintegrated a quarter of a century ago. The suggestion that it was brought down by economic problems is belied by a cool look at the figures: today, Russia is listed 48th in the world by GDP per head of population, significantly worse off than the 28th position occupied by the USSR.

The non-competitive economy was, to my mind, only one of the problems. The system was so rigid that it was unable to adapt to change, and at some point the challenges facing the centralised system run by a baker’s dozen of old men were simply too much.  The Politburo was the system’s source of legitimacy and it ran – or didn’t – according to its ability, or lack of it, to process information and adapt accordingly. Society, culture and the scientific world were in the same state of stagnation as the economy, so when the system encountered the many, though actually not very critical, challenges, such as falling oil prices, the arms race, Afghanistan, Chernobyl etc, it was unable to respond.

25 years later we see all the same problems – monopolisation and attempts to concentrate power in the hands of a few trusted “assistants” have resulted in corruption, stagnation, inefficiency and the underlying recognition that, faced with a crisis such as a change of government, this system too would collapse, possibly bringing down the whole country around its ears.

In actual fact, from Washington and the European capitals, across to Kazan (Tatarstan) and Centoroy (Chechnya), strategic preparations are being made for a more likely event (age-related, so there’s no getting away from it), which would lead to a change of government. Only the Kremlin, for obvious reasons, carries on as if their boss will go on forever, and will for ever be able to restrain his rapacious and inefficient circle of cronies from actions that would be certain suicide.

I have no faith in Putin’s ability to change or to introduce change into the system

I have no faith in Putin’s ability to change or to introduce change into the system to make it less rigid and able to function in the 21st century. He is, to my mind, psychologically too old and too afraid of change. This means that any alterations will probably have to be introduced when he has gone, when the crisis, which has already started but not yet reached its peak, has been overcome.

A huge country like Russia, which has a large, reasonably well-educated population and considerable cultural variety, and aspires to be a 21st century world leader, simply cannot depend on one man to read all the signals and act on them. No state functions in this way, not just in the western world, but in the more dynamic (and apparently more beloved of the Russian government) China and India. This one-man model of government only works in the countries of Central Asia, with their constant “referendums” to sanction extended terms in post, and more wide-ranging powers for local “national leaders,” and their regular refashioning of the legislation to suit one person – that same “national leader.” But, unlike Russia, these countries lay no claim to be world leaders and are not trying to compete with the biggest and strongest nations.

The state is desperately in need of reform

The state is desperately in need of reform. How this should be done is quite clear and could, in theory, already be put in place. The main task will be to reinstate local government and to transfer to it the necessary powers and funding sources for the solution of most of the problems, which concern the man in the street. This is the only mechanism, which could galvanise the development of the country, involving large swathes of the population in political and economic life, and ensuring that government is motivated to work for them, to make Russia competitive both in quality of life and in rates of growth.

But this requires real political representation (parliament) at both regional and federal level, and an independent system for solving disputes (the judiciary), as the energy generated by society, currently held in check by the limited throughput capacity of the “power vertical”, will simply make mincemeat of that same vertical. The first step must be to reform the federal parliament and its interrelationship with the executive branch of power. This branch cannot exist separately from the society represented by parliament; and parliament must itself take account of a society, which at the moment sees no chance of it functioning as a channel for expressing and agreeing the interests of the people.

What we need is, at the very least, a presidential-parliamentary model

The super-presidential model is out of date: what we need is, at the very least, a presidential-parliamentary model. A government headed by a prime minister, responsible for the economy, appointed by and accountable to parliament, which ensures that public interests are taken into consideration when deciding the overall course of action and the specific instruments for addressing the country’s problems. The president will represent the country internationally, he will be commander-in-chief of the military, and in charge of the structures, which defend the Constitution; he will also be able to intervene where needed to protect the rights and interests of his citizens. There would, of course, have to be a limit on the leadership’s term of office – one of our most important conditions – and absolutely no possibilities whatever for reconfiguring legislation to suit any personal interests.

The current state of affairs in Russia renders any possibility of such massive reform highly unlikely. There was no reform eight to ten years ago, even when circumstances were much more propitious. But it’s a question of what is essential, rather than probable. This reform is crucial to enable the state and the country to deal with the crisis in which we are living, rather than waiting for everything to explode in a “perfect storm.” No less important than what – the reform itself – is when it happens. We all remember the frenetic attempts at reforming the state during the last two or three years of the USSR – the Congress of People’s Deputies, establishing the post of president, a new Union Agreement, limiting the role of the Communist Party … but it was too little, too late.

Timely reform of the structure of government could offer Russia the possibility of future stable development along European lines without depending on changes in the Kremlin; and the Kremlin the chance of gradual retirement.

Which will eventually happen anyway.

This article first appeared in Vedomosti