It’s all Zurabov’s fault: challenging government impunity

In the lead-up to the spring 2007 regional elections and the whole election season of 2007-08, United Russia has had to put a huge amount of effort into dissociating itself from its consistent and shameful support for Health-care and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov.

The six-week anti-Zurabov campaign launched by the United Russia party in the lead-up to the March 11 regional elections fizzled out last week. After declaring Mikhail Zurabov’s performance as health-care and social development minister to be “unsatisfactory,” United Russia took fright at the intention expressed by some of its own members (to push for Zurabov’s dismissal) and officially backed down from that idea. Before the regional elections, Duma member Andrei Isayev (United Russia) had issued an ultimatum, threatening to force Zurabov’s dismissal on March 20. Indeed, this seemed like trespassing on the exclusive authority of United Russia’s one and only sources of influence – President Putin; such calls had no right to exist outside the framework of an emotional election campaign.

True, Zurabov’s track record does stand out, even in comparison to the other liberal fundamentalists who continue to determine our long-suffering country’s socio-economic policies, as they did 15 years ago. The major liberal transformations linked to his name include the pension reforms (effectively depriving a generation of Russian citizens of any real right to pensio security), the savage monetization of social benefits, and the ongoing crisis in the “supplementary medications supplies” system. The medications crisis has already claimed many victims this year – dead due to the lack of vital drugs; but their numbers, in contrast to the numbers of Auschwitz victims, have not been counted and probably never will be.

Deservedly, Zurabov has become a symbol of the new direction in Russia’s reforms, first identified in 2004: developing business in essential services. There’s nothing bad about this development as such. The problem lies in the way that bureaucrats are striving to convert diverse and still-functional essential service systems into a tool for making profits via private companies with links to those same bureaucrats. Greed and unrestrained profit-seeking, combined with a lazy and ill-informed approach, are riding rough-shod over the specific nature of essential service areas: the exceptionally high cost of making mistakes, and the exceptionally high level of monopolism.

This monopolism may take the form of natural monopolies due to technology and infrastructure, as in the electricity sector or housing and communal services; it may also take the form of informational asymmetry, as in health-care and education. In any case, it has an objective need for special supervision by the state.

If the state ignores the specific needs of essential service areas, then business development in these areas automatically becomes disastrously destructive.

Having come to symbolize the second round of destructive reforms, the minor figure of Zurabov has grown in public opinion, achieving a blame-and-dislike level comparable to that of the early-1990s Young Reformers.

In the lead-up to the spring 2007 regional elections and the whole election season of 2007-08, United Russia has had to put a huge amount of effort into dissociating itself from its consistent and shameful support for the “health-care and social development” minister. It’s no coincidence that the person selected to be Zurabov’s chief opponent was the very same person who had shown the most zeal in defending Zurabov, until recently: Andrei Isayev, chairman of the Duma’s labor and social policy committee.

Just Russia has also faced the need to dissociate itself from Zurabov. In his role as Federation Council speaker, Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov used to support Zurabov just as faithfully and consistently as his United Russia opponents: all the way through the pension reforms and the monetization of benefits. In 2007, Mironov has also turned Zurabov into his favorite target.

For some time before March 11, the campaign rivalry between United Russia and Just Russia came to resemble a Zurabov-kicking contest.

Obviously, attacking Zurabov enables both Kremlin parties to at least reduce the revulsion that voters feel for them – if not to actually gain any additional votes.

But ministers are not appointed by the Duma speaker or the Federation Council speaker. Consequently, as an election campaign resource, Zurabov does not belong to them; he belongs to President Putin himself.

At a crucial moment of his career, Boris Yeltsin uttered the sacramental phrase: “It’s all Chubais’s fault!” Most likely, Putin will follow suit – using a quiet “Zurabov, you have failed” to bolster his presidential successor’s position, probably followed by a well-deserved prison sentence for the errant minister.

Too bad for Zurabov, of course – but he has already served his purpose: consolidating the separate cash flows of the fields controlled by his ministry into powerful mechanisms, convenient from the standpoint of extracting commercial profits. Gaining the benefits of these mechanisms is such an attractive prospect that they can only be controlled by those who posses vast administrative and political influence. Zurabov – apparently the sole member of Yeltsin’s Family still remaining in power – simply doesn’t have that kind of influence. So he will have to hand over control to someone from the currently dominant team.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Health-care and Social Development Ministry’s mutant apparatus – unjustifiably combining entirely different fields – is retained in the process, or split into two administratively rational ministries. The problem isn’t really the Ministry, or even the minister; it’s all about the motivations of the present-day bureaucracy – entirely free from any form of accountability and fully aware of its ability to act with impunity.

Despite the extreme, infernal cynicism of the approaches and motives described above, the positive element of the anti-Zurabov campaign shouldn’t be ignored either: for all its selective nature, it might lead to a situation where the impunity of Russia’s ruling bureaucracy isn’t absolute after all.

Will this happen? We’ll find out within a few months, from the fate of Mikhail Zurabov.