As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. In this Tuesday’s Power Vertical podcast, REF/RL’s Brian Whitmore noted that some of the people who phoned into Vladimir Putin’s recent televised question and answer session have ended up worse off as a result. For instance, after workers of a fish processing plant complained to Putin that they hadn’t been paid, government inspectors descended on the plant and laid criminal charges against its management. As a result, the plant is on the verge of bankruptcy and the workers may lose their jobs. Whitmore says that the case shows that Putin ‘seems powerless’ to fix even small, local problems, and that this is a sign that the Putin system ‘is breaking down’.
Where I would agree with Whitmore is in recognizing that despite all the talk about Putin’s autocratic power, in reality the Russian president’s ability to influence events within Russia is highly circumscribed. What Whitmore gets wrong is in believing that this is somehow a new phenomenon and an indication of a system on the verge of collapse. In fact, it is a problem which has been endemic to Russia for centuries, and which Putin himself has complained about for years.
Unable to get the machinery of state to do what they wish, Russian leaders have tended to blame the bureaucracy for ignoring their instructions, deliberating obstructing them or, at the opposite extreme, implementing them in an overzealous fashion. Soon after becoming president for the first time, Putin declared on 22 March 2001 that, ‘It is very difficult to fight the Russian bureaucracy’, and on 26 September 2001 he called for ‘low taxes and de-bureaucratization’. Fifteen years later, he hadn’t made much progress, remarking on 4 September 2015 that ‘Our general line consists of not simply burning our reserves or using budget resources to support branches of industry or individual enterprises, but the de-bureaucratization of our economic system.’ Having demanded in December 2014 that government regulators reduce the intrusiveness of their inspections of small businesses, a year later he lamented that all the necessary decrees had been issued, but without any effect – inspectors were continuing to behave exactly as before. Consequently on 17 December 2015, he said, ‘We must continue to work on perfecting mechanisms for managing the economy, for its de-bureaucratization, for the creation of the most attractive conditions for business.’
Putin’s repeated calls for de-bureaucratization reflect a belief he expressed on 18 December 2012 that, ‘The less bureaucrats interfere in decision making, the better’. Many of Putin’s predecessors shared his frustration with his inability to get the Russian state to bend to his will. They addressed it in different ways. Stalin’s approach was to try to bulldoze his way through opposition, if necessary by arresting and shooting public officials who appeared to be resisting his will. Gorbachev tried a different path – faced with what he considered bureaucratic resistance to the economic reforms of perestroika, he decided to put public pressure on recalcitrant officials through means of glasnost, and when that still didn’t work he attempted to bypass them entirely by democratizing the Russian political system.
Stalin’s approach was only partially successful and came at a huge cost. Gorbachev’s was a disastrous failure. Putin’s is a bit more subtle – while retaining control of the political system, he has sought to co-opt civil society by means of the Public Chambers and the All-Russian Popular Front, institutions which bring together nongovernmental organizations, businessmen, and political activists to cooperate with the Russian state in pursuing each other’s objectives. Putin has also to some extent reverted to the style of Russian Tsars, trying to get around the bureaucracy by appealing directly to the people. But the fact that he continues to express his frustration about alleged bureaucratic resistance suggests that he has not been very successful in overcoming it.
Part of the problem, I think, may be that bureaucratic resistance isn’t the main problem. That does not mean that it does not exist, but sometimes there may be good reasons for it, or there may be other factors which determine why centrally-dictated policies are not achieving their goals. The failure of Soviet industry to meet its targets wasn’t due to sabotage and couldn’t be solved by shooting managers – the targets were unrealistic and the entire system of central planning inherently inefficient. The failures of perestroika owed more to the ill-conceived nature of the reforms than to actual resistance. And, if nowadays fish plant workers aren’t being paid, it is probably because their plant isn’t profitable. Sending in government inspectors isn’t going to solve that.
In other words, although a recalcitrant bureaucracy provides a useful scapegoat for government failures, in fact inappropriate policies and ignorance of local conditions by the central authorities are probably more important. I suspect that Putin will still be complaining about the bureaucracy right up until the day that he finally leaves office.