20 years under Putin: a timeline

On November 17th, the Institute of Modern Russia held a panel at the 44th Annual Convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) in New Orleans. The panel’s theme of “No Boundaries for the Russian Government’s Corruption” addressed this critical issue from an interdisciplinary perspective. Panelists Vladimir Rimskiy, Evgeniya Khilji, and Sasha de Vogel presented their papers, with IMR Advisor Ekaterina Mishina participating as discussant.


Participants of the IMR's roundtable (left to right): Sasha de Vogel, Evgeniya Khilje, Ekaterina Mishina, Vladimir Rimskiy.


At the IMR panel, Vladimir Rimskiy, a prominent sociologist at Russia’s INDEM Foundation, addressed the endemic corruption that exists in the Russian education system today. Beginning with a theoretical overview of corruption as a social norm, Rimskiy then detailed the costs that the Russian education system exacts from students and their families. Ostensibly free, the education system nevertheless requires a vast number of “investments” that range from mandatory “charity donations” in kindergartens and elementary schools to fraudulent university degrees that can be purchased online and are widely available. These practices have become quite popular because of strong demand for a high-quality education, and all the more so as people have become more financially secure. Rimskiy argued that the current prevalence of corruption in the education system bodes poorly for the prospect of reducing corruption: when young people adopt these practices at a young age, they are likely to continue to view them as legitimate in their adult lives.

Next to speak was Evgeniya Khilji, independent researcher. She described one of two case studies from her paper “Corruption and Nepotism in Russia.” This study focused on Leonid Reiman, former Minister of Telecommunications and a close friend of Vladimir Putin. Reiman faced international prosecution for an offshore corruption case related to the telecom giant Megafon, which he apparently operated through front companies while serving as Minister (among other dubious activities). Khilji noted that Reiman’s case had drawn international attention from investigative agencies and thus could be an appropriate case for the Russian government to prosecute in order to demonstrate its efforts to tackle corruption. But in her opinion, that outcome is unlikely. “Government elites take advantage of their position to furnish themselves with major business advantages, tremendous profits which they launder and transfer to foreign banks,” she said.

Last, Sasha de Vogel of Columbia University presented her analysis of the 2011 federal police reform law. Her presentation considered the cultural and institutional holdovers of the Soviet policing system that contributed to the prevalence of criminality, corruption, and ineffectiveness among Russian law enforcement. Though the law appears to be a step in the direction of liberalization and democratization, it actually contains only weak provisions for accountability, which will limit its effectiveness in reforming police behavior. Any legitimacy that may have been acquired during the drafting process, which used such methods as crowdsourcing, was also undercut: although the reform project was discussed in the Duma (controlled by the Kremlin’s puppet United Russia Party), the amendments made to the law were few and superficial. Overall, de Vogel argued, this law is unlikely to hinder corruption in the police force and reflects an institutional aversion to true reform.


According to Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perception Index, Russia ranks 143 out of 182 countries.


Several notable panels and roundtables also covered issues of relevance to contemporary Russia. In particular, the rise of the protest movement and changing political attitudes related to the 2011–12 election cycle received considerable attention.

Discussants of the roundtable entitled “Did Russia's 2011–12 Elections and Protests Really Change Anything?” reflected on the changes of the last year and the implications for the regime moving forward.

As Henry Hale, director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, observed, the Russian political system remains an “over-managed, or micro-managed democracy.” This system continues to use imitative democratic institutions for nondemocratic purposes. Stephen Hanson, a professor in the Department of Government at the College of William and Mary, suggested that the recent elections eliminated the pretense that Russian citizens actually vote for their regime. In the future, the regime will shift toward a paternalistic exercise of state power over the individual, he said.

Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center pointed out that Putin sided more closely with social conservatives and played up his relationship with the Orthodox Church following the unrest. In her opinion, such a strategy is dangerous in the long term, as it contradicts Putin’s previous position on civic inclusion and outsources the moral authority of the state. Lipman’s colleague from the Carnegie Moscow Center, Nikolai Petrov, speculated that Putin could become a problem for elites if he loses legitimacy. Still, without creating an alternative structure of their own, the elites will be unable to function without Putin, who serves as guarantor of intra-elite agreements.

Thomas Remington, a professor of political science at Emory University, noted that Russia has found itself in an increasingly difficult economic situation as its competitive advantage in the oil and gas markets continues to decline, while Putin has made it clear that reform of the social safety net is not on the agenda. “Ultimately, the failure of the state to provide services could result in larger-scale unrest,” he concluded.

At a panel entitled “Political Institutions in the Post-Soviet States,” Mr. Hale presented preliminary results of his research on the drivers of voter defection from the United Russia Party, noting the importance of contingency. Regina Smyth, an associate professor at Indiana University, assessed the correlation between protests and elite defection, focusing on the role of the United Russia Party.

Yet another panel, entitled “Business-State Relations in Russia under Putin and Medvedev,” focused on the changing role of business elites and oligarchs. Two of the major problems for the latter are security and financial stability. So far, the Russian state has demonstrated the capacity to intervene in any business. Dr. Tina Jennings, an academic at Oxford University, presented a case study of the Yukos affair, focusing on the role of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. She also delved into the reaction of the business to state intervention.

Yuko Adachi, an associate professor at Sophia University, outlined how the state uses revenue control, operational control, and firm intervention to manage the energy sector. Finally, Andrew Barnes, an associate professor at Kent State University, advocated for a more dynamic view of post-Soviet political economy that would focus on informal practices.