Rotten Russia

The American Spectator reports:

There is a chilling sequence in Tsar, Pavel Lungin’s dark and brilliant new film about Ivan the Terrible. Ivan, played by the mercurial rock musician Pyotr Mamonov, steps out of his private chapel wild-eyed after a long session of wheedling and bargaining with his God. The Tsar walks, lost in thought, through a series of rooms. As he shuffles along grovelling boyars ceremonially dress him. One group gently places a cloth-of-gold gown over his shoulders. Another group presents an embroidered collar, then cuffs, a crown and staff. Finally the Tsar emerges into the winter sunlight, golden and terrible. The crowd of people who have been waiting for him since dawn prostrate themselves in the slush and the sh*t of the palace yard. Silence falls. The message is clear: for the grovelling boyars and the grovelling peasants alike, the Tsar is God’s messenger on earth, the sole fount of worldly power and protection.

The nature of Russian governance has moved on somewhat since the 16th century. But one thing has remained the same: post-Soviet Russia is a profoundly feudal society. I don’t mean that as a generalised insult denoting ignorance and backwardness. I mean really feudal, in its most literal sense. Feudalism is the exchange of service for protection. In the absence of functional legal or law enforcement systems, people’s only real protection lies in a network of personal and professional relationships with powerful individuals. And so it is in Russia today — for every member of society with something, however small, to lose, from a market stall owner to the nation’s top oligarchs. Your freedom from arbitrary arrest, fraudulent expropriation and extortion by bureaucrats is only as good as your connections.

Dmitry Medvedev understands this problem all too well. He puts it in different terms, of course, railing against the ‘legal nihilism’ which is rotting Russia from within. But we’re talking about the same thing. It’s precisely because Russia’s legal system is for sale to the highest (or most powerful) bidder, because bureaucrats are above the law and because policemen are not only corrupt but actively criminal that Russians turn to older rhythms of social organisation — to personal, feudal relationships with individuals and institutions that can provide security. Russians buy the protection that the state cannot provide.

It’s hard to overstate how serious and corrosive a problem this legal nihilism is — and how fundamentally it stops Russia from becoming a normal, functional society and economy. One recent case shows just how deep the rot goes — and how powerless, and ultimately unwilling, even Medvedev is really to change the system.

In November, 37-year-old tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky died of pancreatic failure in Moscow’s most notorious remand prison, Butirskaya. At the time of his arrest Magnitsky had been working for Hermitage Capital, once the biggest investor on Russia’s stock market. Magnitsky’s crime had been to complain about a $230 million tax refund scam apparently perpetrated by corrupt tax officials and police. These criminals had used companies stolen from Hermitage during a police raid as vehicles for claiming false tax refunds. Magnitsky and the Hermitage team had painstakingly documented the details of the scam and complained to every official body they could think of. Yet instead of pursuing the guilty, Russian authorities arrested Magnitsky. According to his heartbreaking prison diary, investigators repeatedly tried to persuade him to give testimony against Hermitage and drop the accusations against the police and tax authorities. When Magnitsky refused, he was moved to more and more horrible sections of the prison, and ultimately denied the medical treatment which could have saved his life.

The case, which had garnered next to no publicity while Magnitsky was alive, suddenly made the pages of the Moscow business press on his death (though not, of course, the tightly controlled national television stations). The presidential human rights council, a rather beleaguered body of activists, brought the Magnitsky case directly to the President’s ear. Medvedev’s response, to his credit, was swift. To date, 20 prison officials have been fired, as well as the deputy head of the Moscow Interior Ministry in charge of investigating tax crimes. More heads will doubtless roll in the coming weeks — although I would bet that the real perpetrators of the tax scam, reliably reported by the New Times magazine to be in the upper echelons of the Federal Security Service’s ironically named Economic Crimes Department, will escape punishment.

So was justice done? Emphatically no, and not just because the real culprits are likely to escape. The point is that even the firings which have taken place bring Russia no closer to being a law-based society. Rather, it was personal justice, dispensed on the President’s word. In time-honoured fashion, misdeeds were brought to the attention of the good Tsar who dispensed quick and terrible punishment. This is not the ‘order’ that Russians yearn for, it is simply another brand of legal nihilism.

But the truth is that Medvedev does not really want to end legal nihilism, even if he could. The only effective way to tackle the pervasive rot is not presidential intervention but the entrenchment of properly independent courts and prosecutors unafraid to charge top officials and those with powerful friends, a vigorous free press and a real political opposition to shout about abuses to the rafters. Even if we allow the possibility that Medvedev may recognise those things as desirable in theory, it’s very clear that in practice he considers them dangerous and destabilising. The depressing truth is that Medvedev is in his office not to change the system but to make the current — feudal — system work a little better.

And here we come to the heart of the matter. Talk privately to any senior Russian government figure and you will quickly hear, in one form or other, the sentiment that what Russia needs now, first and foremost, is stability. Without stability — and I am quoting directly here from recent conversations — there is no chance for Russia to grow prosperous, and without prosperity there will be no middle class and no change to civil society. Put like that, it sounds very reasonable. But in truth what the Russian elite has done is to eliminate not only the possibility of opposition but the possibility of being seriously challenged for theft or incompetence by the press, parliament or courts. All three of those institutions have been eviscerated by Putin and brought under strict control of the state. Furthermore, Putin has made it increasingly clear that he intends to return to office in 2012. In the name of stability, Putin and the Russian elite have made themselves untouchable.

Given those ground rules, it’s not hard to see why Medvedev doesn’t want real change. Independent courts might actually enforce the law — and that would strike at the very base of the entire system on which Russia’s current system is based. Enforcing the law would mean, for instance, routinely putting officials in jail for bribe-taking and incompetence. Whereas under the current system, it is your superiors — or, if you are unlucky, your enemies and competitors — who decide whether you get prosecuted for your crimes, or whether to protect you. Crucially, it also means that innocence is no defence against prosecution, as poor Sergei Magnitsky found.

The Hermitage case, by the way, is by no means unique — according to Transparency International, an NGO, a staggering three quarters of Russian small and medium-sized businesses report having fought off some kind of ownership raid by scammers in league with bureaucrats. And over the last year and a half three major Russian retailers have been taken down in raids by police, their owners either jailed or fled.

That absence of recourse to law changes everything. First and foremost, it utterly undermines the much-vaunted stability in whose name Putin eliminated all the checks and balances. Every Russian, except perhaps the highest Kremlin cadres and their circles, is suddenly vulnerable to a change of fortune that could land them in jail. All it takes is for an angry business partner or an ex-husband to make a payment to the right law enforcement body or FSB office. That knowledge extinguishes any possibility of long-term business planning; it kills entrepreneurism and initiative. It incentivises stealing, both for businessmen who know they have to stash as much as possible before their businesses are raided, and for bureaucrats who take over businesses with impunity (as long as they kick enough profits upstairs to their liege-lords).

Medvedev is not a fool; he knows the system from both sides, from his days as a corporate lawyer and major shareholder in a paper-pulp company in the 1990s. But his tragedy is to believe that the system can be fixed on its own terms, and that he can change things for the better from the inside. Lord knows, this energetic, fragrant little man is certainly no Ivan the Terrible. But at some deep level he still believes that it’s the Tsar, and by extension the state, which must rule and which must solve Russia’s problems. But in reality it’s the rotten state itself which is Russia’s biggest problem, corrupting and ruining everything it touches. Medvedev doesn’t want to see that it’s only outside forces — courts, media, opposition, an open society — that can stop the putrefaction which is not only dragging Russia back into its own dark past, but also robbing it of its future.

4 responses to “Rotten Russia

  1. This article isn’t from the American Spectator, it’s just the Spectator, which is a UK outfit. Regardless, smashing good article.

  2. yea, i liked it too, though the article sorta paints real reform as impossible, as something that is impossibly difficult.
    but an easy but huge first step, for example—
    just sack the editorial folks at all state tv and replace with real pros——raid echo if you must. and boom——see real progress in just a few months.

  3. This is one of the best articles on Russia I have ever read; maybe even the best.

  4. I know I’m double dipping here but the part in the article where it mentions three fourths of Russian small and medium sized businesses having ownership raids by scammers in league with bureaucrats is truly unbelievable! Within the last year and a half three MAJOR Russian retailers have been taken down by police their owners having fled or jailed caused me to have one of the slack jaws that LR says Russia causes around the world.

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