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Published in Press Stream:
May 29, 2018

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Published in Stream:
May 29, 2018
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The Interpreter
@Interpreter_Mag
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Interpreter_Mag
For Political Modernization to Happen, Armed Elites Must Be Forced to Play by the Rules, Sokolov Says
2 years
Stream: May 29, 2018
Publication: Windows on Eurasia

Denis Sokolov. Photo by Free Russia Foundation 

Staunton, May 25 – “Political modernization will not take place simply by adopting good laws,” Denis Sokolov says (see "Bandits versus Chekists: Will Regional Elites Support Modernization?). “It is also necessary to force armed elites to play by the rules;” and the two means other countries have used to achieve that end currently seem beyond the reach of Russia at least in the short term. 

On the one hand, the sociologist says, political modernization can happen “as a result of military and political competition of approximately equal opponents … but this is long and expensive: only pioneers have proceeded along this path” largely because they had no other option. 

And on the other, it can occur by joining one social organization to another that has already made that transition either as a result of occupation “or voluntarily for example, as a result of the exit from the USSR of the three Baltic republics” which viewed their future as “a return to their own history.” 

As Sokolov observes, “already at the start of the 2000s, former bandits and siloviki in the Russian-speaking Estonian city of Narva transformed themselves into law-abiding entrepreneurs and public politicians. Some even preferred to sit in jail but to remain in a European jurisdiction whose norms and institutions were to a significant degree borrowed from the EU.” 

In some other post-Soviet states, there has been a more even balance of government armed forces and armed groups beyond the state, something that opens the way to modernization, but in Russia, “there are practically no real forces beyond the limits of the ruling class” and that makes change very difficult indeed.

“The only active political machine in the country consists of the regional administrations of the FSB, which control investigations, the courts, the criminal world, officials including governors who control financial flows and major business,” Sokolov says. By its methods and business culture, this institution is like organized crime which has seized everything.

As a result, “the conditions for political modernization are equal to the conditions for changing the rules of behavior in this society of well-armed gentlemen, if one rephrases the words of Benjamin Franklin,” Sokolov continues. “The next question is, why do the armed gentlemen need this?”

This “'Chekist order,’” he continues, “is a completely new state. It is not the USSR and it is not criminal post-Soviet Russia.” Rather it is a police arrangement “in which the monopoly on the use of force de facto is degrading to the heads of regional FSB administrations” who are in a position to impose their will on government, business and the criminal world.

Not surprisingly, the analyst says, neither business nor the criminal world is very happy about that. As one Dagestani observed, as long as this arrangement holds, “there won’t be any capitalism here; there will be banditism under various sauces … There is no sense in thinking in economic categories.”

Regional business is being bled out, as are regional elites who are also angry that “Moscow has introduced external administration … Putin is trying to raise the stakes, to freeze the entire ‘Rusisan world’ and to keep things as they are for eternity.  But the ice is becoming shaky and this in my view is more dangerous for the regime than a moderate fall in the price of oil or rallies against toxic trash,” Sokolov says. 

Whether or not regional elites and major business leaders understand it, Sokolov says, “the only chance not simply to maintain their holdings but to survive and transfer something to the next generation is the destruction of the existing political system either by decentralization or by “the shift to independent judicial and force institutions the functions of the defense of the individual, private property, contracts, civil freedoms, and transparent elections.” 

“The direct import of institutions of this kind today has become possible as a result of the development of communications and the choice of good institutions has ceased to be a political question,” he says. All the things mentioned above “are not a question of politics but rather attributes of contemporary society, like a smartphone or links to the Internet.” 

According to Sokolov, “Russian Guards in helmets and Cossacks with whips can be a symbol of the state only for the older generation. For young people, this is a zoo with strange animals and a rally is simply a dangerous safari.” Because that is so, Russia’s regional elites and businesses will have to act sometime in the ways the Baltic republics already have – or face the prospect that they will disappear altogether. 

In the face of the center’s efforts to subordinate everything to itself by sending outsiders to rule in the regions, “regional criminal networks, entrepreneurs connected with them and leaders of protest movements are a potential political machine of decentralization,” Sokolov continues. 

“The paradox is that all that Moscow can do to keep things as they are will only bring the demise of its political system closer,” as is already on view in some of the republics of the North Caucasus. Indeed, if the Kremlin sends more money for infrastructure and the like as Putin says it will, that will be stolen by these counter-elites and used to strengthen them, not Putin.

Sanctions will hurt local business, and technological progress will eliminate the borders between regions and the outside world, “guaranteeing local political sovereignty” as local players enter the global marketplace. That too is beginning to happen in Russia, Sokolov suggests.

But the most important reason for expecting a transition of the kind he has described, Sokolov says, is that it will allow many people to earn more money. “This argument in practice is much stronger than any humanitarian goals.” Against that desire, “no archaic and criminal machine will be able to stand for every long.”