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Competing Narratives of a Dual State

Can we please get something clear here? There are two ongoing political narratives in Russia today. The first, a narrative put forward by the likes of Steinmeier, Schröder, Gadhafi, Sarkozy and other United Russia apologists, talks about the only slightly flawed elections and Russia’s positive move toward democracy. The second, a narrative which may be more inconvenient to some, tells the true story of vicious clan infighting, and the incredible emergence of these disputes into the public sphere. It is amazing, in my view, that these two competing narratives seem to exist independently, failing to make a notable impact on their respective assumptions. As the news came out today that over the weekend the Prosecutor General’s Office ordered a probe against its very own Investigative Committee, signaling virtual civil war among the most powerful figures in the Kremlin, how on earth are so many governments and corporations able to applaud the elections process and praise “stability” in Russia with a straight face? Why the impairment of reason?

One factor accounting for this is that Russian government has been rather successful in appearing to “go through the motions” of democratic and constitutional process, and look like a modern rule of law state to the outside world. Perhaps many parties aren’t allowed to participate, but the overt vote rigging will be discouraged. Perhaps journalists are jailed, harassed and expelled, but we’ll allow a couple of newspapers and one radio station to function as pressure valves. Maybe the president looks like the new “Rusbashi” leader-for-life, but thanks to some legalistic gymnastics, we’ll just shift the powers of the presidency to the prime minister. For many observers these measures are sufficient reason to overlook the fact that there also exists a “prerogative state” in Russia alongside the law-abiding one that is able to subvert and instrumentalize the state apparatus to advance private interests, acquire property (even if you call them “velvet” seizures) and eliminate opponents.Last April I published a paper along with my colleague Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops (who is highly respected for his contribution to the Hamdam-Guantanamo case), which applied the dual state theory of Ernst Fraenkel to modern nations and cooperation with international law – explaining the co-existence of elements of legalism with illiberalism. With regard to Russia’s parallel political reputations to the outside world, we can observe the dual state theory at work once again.Every day the Cherkesov vs. Sechin battle is erupting at different flashpoints in the public – one day it’s the fatal poisoning of two FSB officers, the next day it’s the arrest of Sergei Storchak, and the next followed by the outing of Oleg Shvartsman. Now there are dramatic disputes over who each clan preferred for the succession. As we brace for what’s coming next, we are witnessing the complete unwinding of any pretense that the procuracy of the Russian Federation is a functioning, impartial rule of law entity. Rather it is becoming evident that this institution is arguably a political criminal apparatus the likes of which Europe has not seen in half a century.What is so important about this narrative is the central role of impunity, which is behind so much of the political machinations in Russia today – for all the illegal measures being taken in these latest spy wars, no one is made accountable for these breaches of the law. The institutional impunity is imperative to the business methodology of Kremlin officials, many of whom (but not all) require immunity from prosecution. You can read thousand-page texts on Russian foreign policy without mention being made of the largely mercantilist nature of the Putinist dual state, impacted as it is by the private interests of the various clans whose ability to steal vast chunks of the nation’s natural resources profits goes well beyond the wildest dreams of any buccaneer in history. Therefore the battle of the clans becomes one of life and death for the combatants.It is the failure to reconcile these two narratives that represents a crisis of western analysis. I can understand how many in the West, including some of our leading bankers and lawyers for instance, need to avoid this reality because they have their eyes on the quarterly returns and Christmas bonuses, but for those who are perhaps able to be more objective, this inability or unwillingness to focus on the impact of Kremlin corruption on the world’s citizens, consumers, competition, stability and security is not understandable.