Personal relations in Russian politics

Graeme Gill, The University of Sydney

Alena V. Ledeneva Can Russia Modernise? Sistema, Power Networks and Informal Governance, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013 (327 pp). ISBN 9-8052111-082-2 (paperback) RRP $44.99.

One of the characteristics of all societies is the tension that exists between the formal rules governing all aspects of life in a society and the informal norms, practices and principles that contribute to the structuring of that life. This sort of situation exists everywhere; nowhere are human interactions and relations governed solely by formal rules. While such rules may provide formal parameters within which human interaction occurs, it is the informal norms and established patterns of behaviour that structure the real contours of those interactions. Indeed, it is the informal norms that are often crucial for enabling social life to occur in the face of formal rules that may lack close relevance to contemporary conditions. It is those informal norms and how they operate in Putin’s Russia that are the focus of this book.

Ledeneva has already written two books on this subject, both applying to the 1990s and with considerable attention to how the ordinary Russian gets by. This book looks at the period of the first Putin presidency, 2000–08, and focuses upon the way that politics at the upper levels works. The term she uses for this is sistema, which she defines as the ‘common, yet not articulated, perceptions of power and the system of governance’ (p. 1) and ‘the network-based governance patterns’. (p. 2). What this means is that sistema is the assumptions, principles and patterns of action whereby the elite, broadly defined, functions in Putin’s Russia. Ledeneva sees this essentially as ‘Putin’s sistema’, because he is the key figure at the top of the pattern of networks that comprise the substance of sistema. These networks are based primarily on personal relations and operate on the basis of a hierarchical patron-client logic. Although by definition these are not embodied in formal written rules, Ledeneva argues that the power networks and methods of informal governance can be identified by a number of methods. Ethnographic fieldwork in the form of interviews and surveys are an important source, with much of the book reliant upon information garnered from interviews with former members of sistema. Also important is analysis of documentary sources—transcripts from English courts ruling on Russia-related cases have been used to good effect—and of the study of organisational structures, such as the formal arrangements for access to the Kremlin’s telephone lines (see below). This diversity of sources makes for a rich analysis.

Recognition that study of the formal rules cannot tell us everything about the way Russian, or before that Soviet, politics worked has been widespread for some time. However, formerly scholars have tended to see this in terms of interactions between groups of people, like clans, cliques, factions, family groups, or patrons and clients. The new angle Ledeneva introduces is that rather than focus upon these units themselves, however called, she looks at the patterns of action in which their relations are embodied. As such, she is looking at the culture of rule, how it is played out and shaped and, she argues, how it stands in the way of Russia’s ‘modernisation’. While this focus on culture does avoid the sort of kremlinological arguments about who is on top at one point in time so beloved of Western analysts, it does mean that the discussion is often abstract and vague, and lacking in concrete examples that might illustrate the point. Nevertheless it clearly captures an aspect of Russian politics that needs to be understood if we are to get to grips with what is happening in that country. So what does it tell us?

Power networks and methods of informal governance can be identified by a number of methods.

For Ledeneva, the important point is that the managerial culture of sistema rests on personal loyalty and patronage-based appointments, creating a hierarchical structure with Putin at the apex. There are four categories of people that comprise the networks of which sistema consists, with each category being used to perform different functions. The ‘inner circle’ is the repository of support and trust for the network leader, ‘useful friends’ enable access to resources, ‘core contacts’ are the means for the mobilisation of cadres for solving problems, and ‘mediated contacts’ can reduce risks and uncertainty (p. 249). This analysis of a network is intriguing, not just because it gives some detail about how individual networks may be structured, but because it also hints at the role networks play in the governance process. Unfortunately the book does little more than hint about this. There is no extended discussion of how these network categories actually work in governing Russia. Indeed, an explanation of how sistema’s managerial culture works in conjunction with the formal institutions and rules to structure governing remains elusive in the book. However, what is clear is that sistema works to the advantage of its members. Much of this book’s analysis is focused on what is commonly seen in the West as corruption but which is for Ledeneva a part of sistema: the sale of office, kickbacks from business, placement into leading office in commercial concerns, personal acquisition of economic resources, and bribery. Those members who seek to break from this and oppose it are likely to find themselves dismissed from office and in some cases arrested.

But Ledeneva makes much of the point that what distinguishes sistema is not that it is an immediate source of material goods for members, but that it provides the privilege of access. This can be access to material goods, but it is also access to power, and it is this latter that is essential in discussing sistema, its nature, and its centrality to governing. What is important is being accepted as a member and then performing in an appropriate fashion. This sort of acceptance is well illustrated by Ledeneva’s discussion of what is called ‘vertushka’, the secure telephone network for Kremlin insiders which originated in the Soviet period. Access to it was strictly limited because it gave those with such access a direct line into the heart of the political system, including for many the national leader, and there was an elaborate protocol concerning its use. In Soviet times, access was restricted generally to those occupying high party or state office and was a real status symbol. This system was inherited by the post-Soviet Yeltsin leadership, but reflecting the changed circumstances, and especially the erosion in the power of the political centre and the rise of independent economic actors, Yeltsin effectively commercialised ‘vertushka’, giving the special telephones to many leading business figures. This is consistent with the view that under Yeltsin, leading business figures (the ‘oligarchs’) exercised considerable influence in leading political circles. However, when Putin came to power, he reorganised the ‘vertushka’ system and made it more exclusive again. Access to ‘vertushka’ could thus be seen as an indicator of elite membership. It was not the artifact itself, the telephone, that was crucial; it was the access it gave and the membership it denoted.

Sistema privileges insiders at the expense of outsiders in both economic and political life.

With sistema an important source of personal enrichment, and in the eyes of many a primary site of the corruption that is evident in contemporary Russia, it may be argued that it is a major barrier to the development of Russia, both economically and politically. If it privileges insiders at the considerable expense of outsiders in both economic and political life, it would seem to stand in the way of the development of a market economy and a robust democracy. This is certainly Ledeneva’s view. She argues that the power networks which comprise sistema undermine what she calls ‘the key principles of market competition’, which she defines as the equality of economic subjects and the security of property rights, and of the rule of law, including equality before the law. By showing how network members can accumulate economic resources, she demonstrates how the equality of economic actors and the security of property rights are undermined, while her analysis of ‘telephone justice’ (officials directing Russian judges by telephone what they should do in particular court cases) undermines equality before the law. She also argues that sistema’s ‘incentives prioritise short-term profit at the expense of long-term sustainability, loyalty at the expense of professionalism, safety and collective responsibility at the expense of leadership, and innovative circumvention of sistema constraints at the expense of productive innovation’ (p. 249) .There is much to be said for this argument, although some of the assumptions could be explored more fully; for example, in some ways the market functions best if there is some inequality of economic actors, and equality before the law can have various meanings. Nevertheless the general point seems valid: the functioning of sistema is not consistent with either an economy structured principally along market lines or with the rule of law.

But does this mean that sistema has been a wholly negative factor in Russian development? Ledeneva argues that informal mechanisms like sistema are likely to be stronger and more widespread the less developed the formal institutions are, because in such a situation people must use informal means to compensate for the deficiencies of the formal bodies. If we accept this logic, it has been the informal norms that have enabled Russia to function as effectively as it has over the past two and a half decades. In this sense, sistema has been a positive force; without it, and given the nature of the formal institutions, Russia may have collapsed. Scholars have for some time argued that it was the informal economic/survival mechanisms that people used and of which sistema was a part that underpinned the Soviet economy and enabled it to survive for as long as it did, while Ledeneva herself has shown how ‘blat’ (the use of personal networks for obtaining goods and services in short supply and for circumventing formal procedures) was crucial for people in the 1990s. If the situation was less dire after 2000, it is nevertheless the case that the economic wheels have been lubricated by the networks of informal personal relationships. If such networks were stamped out, it is not clear what would happen. But in any event, it would be impossible to do away with all aspects of sistema. Rather, attempts at introducing a more market-based system (or a more democratic politics) cannot seek completely to exclude all aspects of informal patterns of action, but will need to work with at least part of them. However, this would trigger Ledeneva’s ‘modernisation trap’ whereby any attempt to make use of the informal means that constitute sistema would reinforce its negative aspects. It is not clear whether Ledeneva believes the sort of involuted process involved in this trap can be overcome.

Part of the issue here is exactly how important sistema is in the overall Russian system. Ledeneva argues that it is not the presence of informal means that distinguishes Russia from other countries, because all have it, but it is the dimensions of what she refers to elsewhere as ‘informality’. She argues that it is the scale of the use of informal instruments that determines the distinctiveness of Russia’s power networks. The problem is, we have no way of measuring this, just as we have no way of accurately comparing the positive with the negative aspects of sistema. Its very informal nature, plus the fact that much of it goes on behind closed doors, prevents accurate assessment of the real scope of sistema. But if we can’t know the extent to which this dominates the Russian system, how can we reach a judgment about how important it is, and the extent to which it is a barrier to further development?

Some developments are in the process of undermining or at least challenging sistema.

Ledeneva asserts that some developments are in the process of undermining or at least challenging sistema. She identifies three in particular. First, Russia’s financial integration into the global economy. It is assumed that this will impose a discipline and regulatory net on the Russian economy that will help to eliminate much of the sort of activity that is widely seen as corruption. It may be that this will happen, but it needs to be recognised that it has been precisely the internationalisation of the Russian economy that has opened up more avenues for enrichment on the part of insiders, so that rather than limiting such networks, it has increased their potential scope. Second, the globalisation of technology and infrastructure. She makes this point particularly strongly in arguing that the development of mobile phone technology has undermined the utility of the ‘vertushka’ by subverting sistema’s hold on individuals and replacing the culture of seclusion and formality of ‘vertushka’. But while it may be that increasingly globalised technology and infrastructure changes the way people function, it is not clear that it will be inconsistent with the continuation of personalised networks seeking to operate on the basis of inter-personal relations. And third, she cites the loss of sovereignty in legal affairs, reflected in the way in which a large number of Russian legal cases have come before the English courts (for example, on extradition, and the legal battle between the oligarchs Abramovich vs Berezovsky about claimed broken agreements) and the large number of appeals by Russian citizens to the European Court of Human Rights. But while many of these were stimulated by dissatisfaction with the way people were treated in the Russian courts, there is as yet not much evidence that this international exposure has brought much change in the way those courts function. So while it may be true that these international developments challenge the continued role of sistema, a more expanded and nuanced explanation is required before we accept that this is the case.

So ultimately what this means is that Professor Ledeneva has written a nuanced and stimulating book on the culture of Russian elite politics. Its emphasis upon informal relations between members of the elite and the importance of those relations for the functioning of the system emphasises the centrality of personal relations in Russian politics and the corresponding weakness of the formal institutions. It is the tension between these formal institutions and the politics of personal relations that is the source of much of the dynamic of post-Soviet Russia.

Graeme Gill is Professor of Government and International Relations at The University of Sydney. His main research interests lie in Russian and Soviet politics, but he has also published books on various aspects of democratisation and on the origins and development of the state.