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Pikalyovo and the Reverse Connection

Andrew Wilson of the European Council on Foreign Relations has a piece on Transitions Online which takes a look at some opinions of Gleb Pavlovsky and Yevgeny Gontmahker to debate what the Pikalyovo incident did and did not teach us about politics in Russia.

Pikalyovo was also an attempt to address the inefficiencies in Putin’s authoritarian project by creating what Russians call obratnaya sviaz (“reverse connection”). The system works, but only just. Russia still needs a modernization project, albeit not the “prosperity project,” backed by good finances and sound macroeconomics, which the Putin-Medvedev tandem was originally supposed to implement. Not only will Russia have to proceed with fewer resources, it will have to tackle the flip side of a stronger state, what even Pavlovsky calls “severe monopolism in all social spheres,” not just in government and the economy, but in the mass media and in society at large. The intermediary structures he helped set up are passive and inert, particularly “the party,” now normally referred to in the singular as in the days of the CPSU, i.e. United Russia, which, unlike the CPSU, is mainly a vehicle for governors and lower bureaucrats to advertise their loyalty. Hardly anybody in the Kremlin belongs to it. Moreover, the stasis extends to society as a whole. After the “20-year crisis” of the 1980s and 1990s, “all social spheres are static. There is a conservative mood, even in business. There are no risk takers. The atmosphere is against innovation.”

Pikalyovo was supposed to spark an inert bureaucracy into life. Thesearch for “reverse connection” has also led to some outreach to civilsociety, but one that will be very different to the kind ofliberalization advocated by Russia’s surviving liberals, men likeGontmakher and Igor Yurgens, the head of the Institute of ContemporaryDevelopment, the think tank currently favored by Medvedev. Gontmakherhas recently argued that the system needs “Khrushchev-ization” – likeKhrushchev after Stalin, Medvedev (or Putin) needs to break with thesystem he helped create. In his first year in office, Medvedev hasmanaged to maintain the impression that he isall-things-to-all-liberals, and that he might be willing to create abigger tent, bringing in some survivors from the 1990s. In fact,Medvedev’s job is to promote a “soft form of cooptation.” The newKremlin-sponsored “liberal party” Right Cause and the new Civil SocietyForum are designed to prevent liberals reaching out and making commoncause with protestors. Medvedev’s job is to persuade civil society toplay along, or it will be subject to re-control by real hardliners. Theregime needs NGOs to improve the upward information flow, but the chiefKremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov, who was responsible for theoriginal law restricting the operation of NGOs in 2006, made the termsof the bargain crystal clear at the last meeting of the Civil SocietyForum in June. Civil society leaders are requested to provide concreteproposals on specific policy areas, but should not think of gettinginvolved in politics and should not speculate about the system as awhole.

There is, as yet, no real sign of any second summer of perestroika.Medvedev has yet to prove that he is some kind of chrysalis liberal.The Institute of Contemporary Development, which has become the firstport of call for Western visitors seeking to spot the first greenshoots of reform, is in fact complaining it is starved of money,resources, and influence. Russia’s gamble is to keep with the system ithas for now. It has run down its reserves, but kept most of its moneyin the bank, and is banking on oil price recovery to lift it off therocks. The one thing Russia is not doing is using the crisis writ largeas a new form of shock therapy. Russia had had too many shocksrecently.