Russia’s Tedious Political Theatrics

putin051908.jpgKommersant reported on Friday that Vladimir Putin has proposed to reorganize the structure of the Russian government (Kommersant, “Putin to Reogranize Govt”, 16 May, 2008). He wants to replace full cabinet meetings with a new body, to be called the “Presidium of the Government”. “It’s evident to all of us”, he explained, “that the government’s meetings are a slow, excessively bureaucratic mechanism.” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen these cabinet meetings. I have. It’s hard to miss them – excerpts are shown religiously on TV, right at the top of all the news programs on all the channels, which are all owned by the state. These are obviously stage-managed affairs designed to convey a certain not-so-subliminal message to the Russian public. And the message is not “We’ve got a competent team of professional civil servants efficiently running the country for you.” It’s more like “If it weren’t for the decisiveness and clear-headed wisdom of Vladimir Putin, these bumbling buffoons would have the country in an even worse mess than it is today.” In a typical meeting, Putin listens to reports from a few ministers, upbraids them for failing to fulfill the plan, and gives stern instructions on what they should do next.

Clearly, this theater is already getting tedious for the masses, who have been told by state television that their lives have been getting better than they have ever been before, but who can see with their own eyes that inflation (which is likely several times higher than the already high official figures) has cut their purchasing power precipitously in recent months, that the roads and schools and hospitals are only getting worse from an already bad state, and that all the reshufflings of portfolios at the top of the power pyramid aren’t making things any better. About the only good news lately seems to be that St. Petersburg’s Gazprom-sponsored football team «Zenit» has suddenly become a major European powerhouse. Russia’s best teams always came from Moscow, but with Gazprom’s money and Putin’s patronage, it seems anybody can become a star.And now, after having bloated the government to unprecedented proportions, and more than doubling the number of deputy assistant first vice-prime ministers in his entourage, Putin suddenly announces that the whole mess is too big and unwieldly, and proposes to reduce it with the creation of a sleek new super-cabinet. We’ve seen him perform this trick before, when he decided that the number of provincial governors in Russia was way too large at 89, and undertook a multi-pronged program of combining provinces to reduce their number, turning governors into personal appointees instead of elected representatives of the people in order to make them more dependent and hence controllable, and establishing a new tier of super-governors – the 7 presidential plenipotentiary representatives, who now have miraculously become prime-ministerial plenipotentiary representatives as Putin has changed the name of his position.Given the pliant rubber-stamp State Duma and Federation Council, we can expect that Putin’s proposal will soon be a done deal and we’ll no longer be subjected to the abject spectacle of craven toadies being reprimanded by il duce on TV. Because I’ll bet that the new super-cabinet won’t allow its meetings to be distracted by television cameras, and will hold its discussions and take its decisions behind closed doors. A small inner circle of unelected and unaccountable men, personally loyal to the chairman of the party, each with a vaguely defined broad portfolio reflecting his interests more than his skills… haven’t we seen that someplace before already? Yes – it was called the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and it ran Russia for many decades, while the country’s formal government, with its cabinet and its ministers, was relegated to the role of merely carrying out the Politburo’s instructions.