20 years under Putin: a timeline

In an interview with IMR, political scientist Vladimir Gelman, professor of the European University in St. Petersburg and the University of Helsinki, discusses the origins of Russia’s bad governance, the goals of Vladimir Putin’s recent political initiatives, and the Western elite’s “jealousy.”


Vladimir Gelman's book, dedicated to Russia's bad governance, was released in 2019 by the publishing at the European University in St. Petersburg. Photo from the open sources.


Olga Khvostunova: Your research details various parameters of so-called “bad governance” in Russia—no rule of law, corruption, poor regulation, inefficient government. Which of these issues are the most problematic for Russia, and why?

Vladimir Gelman: I define “bad governance” as a way of governing that has as its main goal the extraction of rent and its further appropriation by the ruling groups. Simply put, it describes the situation where a country is governed so that it can be robbed as much and as long as possible. The characteristics of bad governance that I rely on in my research are used by the World Bank to measure the quality of governance. For Russia, the most fundamental problem is disregard for the rule of law. Intentional distortion of the rule of law defines the country’s statecraft philosophy. Other parameters—poor regulation, high levels of corruption, etc.—are side effects of the main problem. 

OK: Has this systematic ignoring of the rule of law on the part of the ruling groups emerged historically, or has it been shaped in recent years? 

VG: Bad governance in general is a phenomenon of the post-Soviet period. In the Soviet times, the quality of governance was also quite low, but since the political regime was highly institutionalized, serious restrictions existed to prevent rent extraction. The Soviet leaders couldn’t even dream of the scale of resources available to the present-day government for personal gain, as it happens in many post-Soviet countries, not just in Russia. This situation has emerged because after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the old institutional limitations collapsed, but new ones were never created. Their absence was the result of the conscious policy pursued by Russia and other post-Soviet countries.

OK: There is a view that contrasts the 1990s as a period of emerging democracy in Russia to the 2000s as a time of rising authoritarianism. How accurate is this juxtaposition?

VG: Many of the 2000s’ authoritarian trends took root in the 1990s, so there is continuity. In terms of governance, the logic is slightly different. Clearly, in the 1990s, the Russian state was extremely weak and inefficient. Economic crises, poor quality of governance, issues with the rule of law—all these problems sprouted from the shock experienced by Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed. In the early 2000s, the Russian authorities tried to overcome these issues. For instance, an array of measures were undertaken to establish control over the situation in the Russian regions where, in many cases, chaos and disorder were reigning supreme. Steps were taken to improve the quality of governance—the successful tax reform is a case in point. But these measures were partial and mostly aimed at centralizing control in the hands of the Russian political leadership.

When this goal was achieved, it turned out that the incentives for improving the quality of governance disappeared. The 2000s and 2010s were decades when bad governance became aggravated, when large companies were given away to be controlled by the “right” people, when, bypassing the formal rules, certain managers and officials received limitless opportunities for personal profiteering. One example that I describe in my book [Bad Governance, 2019] is the case of Russian Railways when it was managed by former CEO Vladimir Yakunin. And this case is not an exception, but established practice, the product of the crony capitalism that was actively built in the 2000s. This process continued in the 2010s, and I see no intention on the part of the ruling elite to limit it in the 2020s.

OK: Is the Russian government aware of the bad governance problem? And if it is—because statements on this issue are being made—why is this problem still not being addressed?

VG: There is awareness in the government that Russia is governed poorly. And it grows every time a new local or systemic crisis emerges. But simple awareness doesn’t lead to solving the problem. The government, frankly, needs to get rid of a number of officials, politicians, and state company managers due to their incompetence, thievishness, etc. It is important not just to fire one set of crooks and thieves only to be replaced with another, but to develop mechanisms preventing an uncontrollable rent extraction. And these mechanisms are not being developed because preserving the current status quo allows the government to expand the opportunities for control without creating insurmountable risks.

However, looking at the strategically important areas of governance, we see that they are being administered quite well. The financial sector, for example. The Russian authorities understand the crucial importance of maintaining macroeconomic stability. Therefore, this area is controlled by the Russian Central Bank, which conducts a meaningful policy and is managed by qualified, responsible people. Still, selective “pockets of efficiency” cannot resolve the overall problem of bad governance.

OK: In other words, to preserve the status quo, the government can control a number of critical areas and leave the rest to their own devices? 

VG: The government would perhaps like the governance to be not so poor. But it is important to understand that there are interests of influential officials and people close to the president in play. No one wants to encroach on them, quite the opposite in fact.


Anders Aslund: How Putin's Russia Works


OK: In that sense, how do you assess Vladimir Putin’s recent initiatives—the constitutional reform and government change? Are these measures aimed solely at strengthening the status quo, or do you see attempts to improve the quality of governance? For example, one of the messages of the reform, as discussed in the media, is allegedly to delegate some of the presidential power to other government bodies.

VG: There are two different dimensions here. Constitutional reform, in my opinion, in no way weakens the president’s powers. At least, nothing of the sort is seen in the amendments passed by the State Duma in the first reading. The add-on in the form of the State Council [an advisory body whose powers are to be codified in the amended Constitution – Ed.] doesn’t change anything. An intention to preserve the political status quo and Putin’s authority in various formats is seen in the constitutional reform. Not the improvement of the quality of governance.

Redesigning the government is a different story: we see the resignation of [Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, the appointment of [Mikhail] Mishustin, and significant shifts in the composition of the cabinet of ministers. It is an attempt to introduce a fresh streak to governance through personnel changes, as fringe figures have been removed from the cabinet. It has also been announced that more money will be allocated for the national priority projects. But with governance quality remaining low, parts of this money will continue to flow to the rent-seekers, because the very principles of governance remain unchanged. No one instructs the officials in charge of the national projects that these projects must contribute to the country’s development. The key goal is to spend the money correctly, as those officials understand it, and report back. And the most important thing: there are no mechanisms to make them accountable to the voters—it is in the hands of the head of state to evaluate their work. In my opinion, all these amendments do not affect the status quo, since they are intended to resolve technical and administrative issues, not political ones.

OK: Based on what we know today, do you think Putin plans to stay in power for life, or is he considering a scenario for transferring his powers to a successor? 

VG: I think Putin is interested in staying at the helm as long as possible. Whether for life or in some other way, it is yet hard to say.

OK: Do you think the Western elites understand how the Putin regime really works and what risks it presents?

VG: This may seem strange, but, in my opinion, many members of the Western elites are jealous of Russian leaders, because the latter are much less restricted in their behavior. Politicians and top officials in the West cannot afford to act like their Russian counterparts. Instead, they are forced to live under intense scrutiny—from the public, political establishment, media, etc. But in reality all politicians in the world want to rule without restrictions and extract private benefits from their high-profile positions for as long as possible. Donald Trump may want to govern the United States the way Putin rules Russia, but he can’t.

OK: So the Western elites have no desire to oppose the Putin regime?

VG: The elites in many countries—not just in Russia, but also in the United States and Europe, are driven by egocentric motives. They aspire to preserve their elite status and remain free of imposed restrictions where possible. In Russia, it is possible, but the Western elites live by different rules, which they perceive as a problem.