The great political gamble

Published on openDemocracy, by Vladimir Gelman, March 2, 2009.

… The main difference between the way democratic and authoritarian regimes react to a crisis seems to be in the political sphere, rather than the economic. Democracies change more quickly than usual during crises. New governments and prime ministers come to power (sometimes very suddenly, as in Iceland).  Those who disagree with the government’s policies take to the streets of Paris, Riga and Vilnius. There are heated discussions in the press and an increasing number of scandalous revelations and subsequent resignations.

Authoritarian states, by contrast, react to crises by trying to preserve the status quo at any cost and to prevent changes which threaten not just to replace the people in power, but to undermine the regime itself. Willingness to change is no guarantee of a more successful solution of economic problems than rejecting any changes whatsoever. But preserving the political system unchanged does sow the seeds of instability.  Analyses of the economic aspects of the crisis tend to underestimate this.

In recent weeks politically concerned Russians have seen hitherto unprecedented levels of activity by Dmitry Medvedev, who had until then remained in his predecessor’s shadow. The heads of a number of regions were dismissed and the President addressed the nation on television, admitting that the crisis would be severe and prolonged …

… But the crisis has revealed the problems inherent in an authoritarian institutional system. It soon became clear that in the conditions of an authoritarian regime in Russia there is:

  • no effective system for replacing “weak links” in the machinery of government (hence the urgent need for  the presidential “personnel reserve” to fill gubernatorial and ministerial vacancies);
  • no effective “feedback” system (in a country where the entire elite drives foreign cars, the campaigns to support the national car industry only had a negative effect);
  • no effective means of resolving unavoidable conflicts between the elites (in the eventuality that the president or primes minister were forced to resign, the main institutions and mechanisms for running the country would be unlikely to remain unchanged).

Thus, increased competition among the elites is inevitable, under an unchanged institutional system. This may have far-reaching consequences. Russia’s authoritarian adjustment to the crisis may well mean that after six months of recession a large number of Russian officials and businessmen might follow Mikhail Khodorkovsky and find themselves working as sewing machine operators in not so distant labour camps, having lost the battle between competing factions to survive.

However, in actual fact, the deepening crisis gives Russian leaders the opportunity of starting a  political process that would lead to democratisation. This could involve more than cosmetic gestures: it could mean a fundamental reform of the political system … (full text).

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