THE ELIMINATION GAME

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State officials fighting over post-2008 safeguards

As the presidential election of 2008 draws closer, more and more uncertainties and inexplicable contradictions are becoming apparent in Russian politics. Some trends might affect the fate of Russia’s entire political system.


As the presidential election of 2008 draws closer, more and more uncertainties and inexplicable contradictions are becoming apparent in Russian politics. This applies to the endless guesswork about the identity of Vladimir Putin’s successor and the composition of the ruling team, as well as trends that might affect the fate of Russia’s entire political system.

For example, the hierarchy of governance is clearly being strengthened even further; it is spreading to new areas of public life, showing an increasingly obvious hardline approach to lawmaking and law enforcement. However, some strange things are happening against this formidable backdrop of stronger Russian statehood. Sudden attacks on regional leaders and city mayors – often ending in their dismissal and subsequent criminal prosecution. A wave of rumors across all of southern Russia about an alleged accident at the Volgodonsk nuclear powr station. The behavior of the two Kremlin parties, each looking at its rival’s actions and doing the exact opposite – while simultaneously trying very hard to prove that it’s the only party capable of following Putin’s policy line precisely.

Of course, each of the abovementioned events has its own causes and its own script. But all of this – mysterious ill-wishers deposing mayors and governors, public quarrels between pro-Kremlin parties, law enforcement agencies getting involved in incessant business asset redistribution – clearly doesn’t fit in with the policy of reinforcing the hierarchy of governance. Besides, it’s hard to imagine all this diverse chaos being managed from one center only. Rather the reverse, since the center remains silent about how the Year 2008 Problem will be solved; meanwhile, competing groups of officials and bureaucrats in Moscow and the regions, tired of uncertainty, are starting to take the initiative into their own hands. And in the lead-up to major changes, they are striving to grab as many resources as possible.

To be honest, their reasoning isn’t entirely clear. If the new head of state happens to be the nominee of an “unfriendly” team, there’s a high chance of the rivals losing everything – their jobs and their business assets. The zero-sum game principle is dominant in Russian politics, after all: winner takes all. However, it appears that a gambling instinct and faith in a better future are having an effect. But reinforcing the hierarchy of governance is a process of a different kind. It is done in the collective interests of the entire ruling elite; clearly reluctant to see any outsiders move into power, it is setting up safeguards by tightening control and imposing additional restrictions on outsiders.

In short, it appears that these two processes – reinforcing the hierarchy and an increasingly intense “war of all against all” at all levels of government – don’t intersect or overlap. And the contradiction between them is only an illusion. Actually, this used to happen quite often back in the 1990s – but with one difference. Back then, most of the “wars of all against all” ended in peace treaties based to some extent on the interests of both sides. On the whole, this didn’t do much damage to the stability of governance. That’s why the president would intervene in factional power-struggles only in exceptional cases, when they simply couldn’t reach agreement without a supreme arbiter.

But now the game has changed to the Olympic system, with the loser always being eliminated; and the hierarchy of governance, despite all measures taken to reinforce it, is becoming somewhat vulnerable. How can it operate effectively when all kinds of factions are seeking to make use of it for purposes that have nothing to do with national interests?

This offers some serious food for thought about whether it would be possible to move from the super-presidential system to a more flexible system, immediately after the presidential election of 2008. The parliament and the government should play a significantly greater role in a more flexible system. Given that our institutions are weak and procedures are often not observed, the relative stability of our system of governance over the past 15 years has been largely upheld by the presidency, which has been strongly personalized. If the system loses that cornerstone, how will it function? Moreover, the major players are caught up in a “war of all against all” and pursuing their own selfish goals.

Ukraine has been far better prepared for transforming itself into a mixed republic (equally strong centers of influence at the top, with widespread support among various societal layers). All the same, as we can see, the process isn’t going smoothly in Ukraine. And in Russia, where the ruling factions are isolated from society but possess vast appetites, the process could have far worse results. So how can this emerging contradiction be resolved? It’s a question worthy of Hamlet.

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