RFE/RL has a fascinating interview with London-based political scientist Alena Ledeneva in which she explains her research into the term ‘sistema’ (‘система’) and why it allows Vladimir Putin to have the support of the majority, despite increasingly unpopular policies. ‘Sistema’ was the third most-used word that cropped up in interviews with Russian elite, says Ledeneva. It translates into English as ‘system’, but, according to Ledeneva, has a more complex meaning within the upper echelons of Russian politics:
It is a shorthand term for a system of governance that usually refers to things that are not to be named. It is like the open secrets of governance. That’s where we talk about “the sistema way of doing things” or “sistema pressure” on people. We never explicitly refer to what they are, but we assume we all understand what we are talking about.
She explains that the informal system is a byproduct of inefficient institutions, whose various failures require intervention at the top of government. The official system doesn’t work, so a shadow ‘sistema’ develops in order to take its place. The problem is, of course, that the informal system ends up ‘undermining the workings of formal institutions, which remain weak [and] unoperational. And you then suck yourself into the whirl of informality that is very much personalized and cannot be used in a controlled way.’ But, she says this is also ‘what works in Russia’, and people understand this.
The people’s view — I suppose they might be criticizing sistema, but they also assume its legitimacy in some way. And that is why, once Putin brought that order to the system, he has been supported. He is still supported for that because you could see that what he is getting or what his government is getting is trickling down in ways that are understandable to people. That’s why 62 percent vote for Putin, even for a third term, even if that negates the [spirit of the] constitution (i.e., the Russian Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms).