Basic competency in governance is by no means a given in a democracy. Any visitor to the New York State Legislature could tell you that. But conversely, authoritarianism does not always function as the perfect conveyor belt of executive decision making, and the “power vertical” of Russia’s ruling hybrid diarchy is often fragmented, competitive, and dysfunctional.
There have been moments in which the Kremlin has looked more or less competent in recent years. Tremendous economic performance and recovery from the global crisis. Diplomatic advances with many new partners, such as impressive relationship developed with South Africa. The dramatic conciliatory gestures made toward Poland at Katyn, and the sincere reaction following the president’s death in an airplane crash. Successful management, at least in terms of the Kremlin’s goals, of relations with Washington. It seemed that Moscow had come to grips with some of its limitations, realizing that its future lies in a diversification away from a one-dimensional energy economy.
But then along comes the next public safety crisis – in this case the wildfires which have killed 50 people and wiped out hundreds of home in the Western regions – and the limits of this model of governance become appallingly clear. The latest crisis revives the long-standing problem, as described by Financial Times as “Russia’s repeated inability to protect its citizens from disasters both natural and man-made.”
The familiar track record is notoriously poor, from accidents like the Kurskand more recent Nurpa,terrorist attacks from Beslan to Nord-Ost to theMetro bombings, and a long string of deadly disasters from the Crazy Horse fire to the hydroelectric plant explosion to collapsed mines. In a report in the New York Times a few years back, it was noted that more than 17,000 people died in fires in 2006 in Russia, nearly 13 forevery 100,000 people, which is greater than 10 times the rate of atypical Western country. Carnegie Center’s Nicolai Petrov commented that “The fact the death toll is much higher than in other countries wheresuch fires occur . . . shows the system of management is absolutelydysfunctional.“
The Kremlin’s effort to centralize political power and resources away from the regions, in combination with the decentralization of logging, has also made the wildfire crisis much worse. The Forest Code of 2006 dismantled the previous federal safety and response system and”transferred responsibility to regional authorities and forest tenantssuch as logging companies, which have performed badly.“
President Medvedev has resorted to his last remaining executive power: firing people. So far the president has sacked the Navy’s head of logistics Sergei Sergeyev and its head of aviationNikolai Kukle, among a few dozen other “high ranking officials,” and reprimanded the two highest ranking admirals. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this happen. Essentially, over the course of Medvedev’s presidency, the vertical of power has transformed into a horizontal of incompetence, as a disloyal and divided bureaucracy, acting in its own interests and those of the clans, has refused to fulfill a number of presidential decrees. Anti-corruption measures personally signed by the president are “quietly ignored,” investigations into issues such as the death of Sergei Magnitsky are sabotaged and derailed, and even Medvedev’s orders to compensate families of soldiers killed in the 2008 Georgian war were not fulfilled. Human rights adviser Ella Pamfilova cited this pattern of insubordination to the president as one of the reasons for her resignation. When Medvedev says he “has ordered” an investigation into the problematic response to the fires, how can the public have any level of certainty that the bureaucracy will comply?
Next Thursday will mark the 10th anniversary of the Kursk submarine disaster. Over the course of those years there have been many lessons but very few positive changes to improve public safety. How much longer will the bureaucracy continue to enjoy the public’s trust? The social pact so often alluded to at the core of sovereign democracy will have to undergo some changes in the near future, lest simmering discontent breaks the system cleanly in half.