Law and Order: Recentralization and Life in Russia Today

Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for Peace and Security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, speaks with Brian Taylor, professor of political science at the Maxwell school at Syracuse University, and Alexandra Vacroux, Executive Director at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, about life inside Russia today.

MORAN:  Welcome to Episode Ten of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. This week we look at how domestic developments in Russia have affected the country’s diplomatic relationship with the United States. I’m Michael Moran, Visiting Media Fellow for Peace and Security at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. My guests today are Brian Taylor, professor of political science at the Maxwell school at Syracuse University, and Alexandra Vacroux, who is Executive Director at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard. Brian, can you start us off by tracing for us how Russia’s domestic politics has developed since the fall of the Soviet Union?

TAYLOR: If we look back over the entire 25-year span since the fall of the Soviet Union, there have been three major changes that have effected Russian domestic political institutions. The first was the end of Communist party control. Even though we still have an authoritarian political system, it’s a very different authoritarian political system, without the strong, centralized, unifying feature of the party that we had before. That would be the first thing I would point to. The second thing is the end of communism as an economic system, with centralized control over the economy. Now we have a form of market capitalism. The state still plays a large role, but both agencies and personnel working for state agencies are in some sense commercialized. They are often looking for material advantage out of decisions they make, ether for themselves or for their agencies in a way that simply wasn’t there before. The third thing is that Russia is opening up to the outside world. There’s been some retrenchment in that respect over the last few years, but looking back over the last twenty-five years, there’s more trade, more engagement, more flow of information and people. State officials can now orient themselves more outside the country. There’s been an attempt to limit foreign bank accounts and foreign property, and sending your kids to study, but that’s definitely a lure for state officials that they didn’t have during the Soviet period. So those are three major changes, regardless of any tightening of control that might have taken place under Putin.

MORAN: Alexandra, let’s talk about Putin and how he affected the domestic scene.

VACROUX: When Putin came back to power one of the first things he promised was law and order, and that meant in part reasserting law and order over the Russian regions. So we a saw process of recentralization that started in the early 2000’s and really picked up steam after 2004. That meant reasserting the control of the ministries over their issue areas in the regions. So for example, in the healthcare system, the local governors or regions ministries or health committees have had a lot of authority over funding and spending, and we saw the ministry of health reassert itself from Moscow in terms of priorities in the healthcare system. That tendency towards recentralization has only increased since 2010, and now we are seeing an increasing attempt particularly given the economic crisis to increase control over the regional tax revenues and budgets by further clawing back some of the money that used to go to the regions having it go to the federal government and then having it redistributed to the regions, but at the federal government’s discretion.

MORAN: We hear a great deal about the crackdown on dissent in Russia, and about the country’s overdependence on energy revenues. But let’s stay for a moment on health care, Alexandra. In the 1990s there was a sense the system was in a state of collapse. What has happened since?

VACROUX: There have been some improvements since the 90’s, certainly. The decentralization process and the cut-off of funding to the healthcare sector did result in some very serious healthcare problems. There was an increase in all sorts of epidemics, because vaccinations essentially stopped, life expectancy plunged, mortality increased. What we have seen now is that life expectancy has been steadily increasing. In 2007 it was about 66 years on average between men and women, now it’s closer to 67 and a half. The population has pretty much stabilized around 142 million – it’s not growing but it’s not shrinking any more. It is aging, which is a problem that many European countries have. But if you look at the health status of people, you still have a problem with tuberculosis, which is out of proportion with the income level of the country. Particularly worrisome is that Russia is one of the three world leaders in multiple drug resistant tuberculosis. They have about 39 thousand cases in Russia. That is something that is extremely hard to control, because the first and sometimes even second and third line drugs don’t always work. The other problem that’s been getting a little more press lately is that the HIV epidemic is still increasing, and that in 2016 Russia passed the rather depressing, 1 million HIV infection mark. So that means about 1 percent of the population is infected with HIV. And particularly worrisome is that this is mostly young people, so this is people that are supposed to be contributing to the economy and to society for many years to come, and they’re the ones being hit. Now only 37 percent receive anti-retroviral drugs, the WHO guidelines say that about 90% of those people are eligible and should be receiving them. So we still see a real under treatment of HIV both for stigma reasons and also for financial reasons. 

MORAN: Brain Taylor, let me bring you in again. President Putin is a product of the Russian security services – the KGB during the Soviet era. How have the security services evolved during his tenure?

TAYLOR: … First and foremost, they’re affected by those three macro changes I discussed earlier: the end of communist party control, the end of the communist economic system, and the opening to the outside world. Those three factors have affected those institutions as well. One way it’s affected them is commercialization. For example, we can see how the police and the security services unofficially hire themselves out to businesses to perform various tasks or engage in various criminal investigations - not as a way of investigating or punishing criminals, but as a way of putting the screws on various parts of the economy. That’s one reason why Russia’s small and medium sized sectors of the economy are developing more slowly than one might expect for a country of Russia’s wealth and development. A second major thing that’s happened, and this started under Yeltsin, and was reversed somewhat under Putin, was the fragmentation of the services. In the Soviet period, there were basically three ‘power ministries’: there was the KGB, the military, and the internal police. The KGB was split into five different pieces by Yeltsin, because he feared its centralized power, quite reasonably. So it was split up, and then Putin reconsolidated part of it, but there’s still continual churning and reorganization going on. You mentioned the most recent one, the creation of this new National Guard, which was taken out of the interior ministry and made a stand-alone agency. Now, there are arguments that the government makes, and others have made, about this being a way to rationalize certain structures and reduce inefficiencies, but many people see the creation of this new national guard headed by Putin’s former bodyguard as a Praetorian guard designed to protect the presidency and the regime rather than playing important functions in terms of fighting terrorism or crime or that sort of thing. It remains to be seen, because things are still evolving. But, that said, the sense is that this has not just an administrative rationale, but a political rationale.

Brain Taylor, let me bring you in again. President Putin is a product of the Russian security services – the KGB during the Soviet era. How have the security services evolved during his tenure?

TAYLOR: … First and foremost, they’re affected by those three macro changes I discussed earlier: the end of communist party control, the end of the communist economic system, and the opening to the outside world. Those three factors have affected those institutions as well. One way it’s affected them is commercialization. For example, we can see how the police and the security services unofficially hire themselves out to businesses to perform various tasks or engage in various criminal investigations - not as a way of investigating or punishing criminals, but as a way of putting the screws on various parts of the economy. That’s one reason why Russia’s small and medium sized sectors of the economy are developing more slowly than one might expect for a country of Russia’s wealth and development. A second major thing that’s happened, and this started under Yeltsin, and was reversed somewhat under Putin, was the fragmentation of the services. In the Soviet period, there were basically three ‘power ministries’: there was the KGB, the military, and the internal police. The KGB was split into five different pieces by Yeltsin, because he feared its centralized power, quite reasonably. So it was split up, and then Putin reconsolidated part of it, but there’s still continual churning and reorganization going on. You mentioned the most recent one, the creation of this new National Guard, which was taken out of the interior ministry and made a stand-alone agency. Now, there are arguments that the government makes, and others have made, about this being a way to rationalize certain structures and reduce inefficiencies, but many people see the creation of this new national guard headed by Putin’s former bodyguard as a Praetorian guard designed to protect the presidency and the regime rather than playing important functions in terms of fighting terrorism or crime or that sort of thing. It remains to be seen, because things are still evolving. But, that said, the sense is that this has not just an administrative rationale, but a political rationale.

MORAN: Alexandra, last word to you:

VACROUX: No one knows what happens after Putin. It’s in his interest to keep it that way, because that keeps everyone guessing and focused on him. But we’re not sure what happens after 2024, when his constitutional ability to run for president expires, and I’m not sure Mr. Medvedev is a credible alternative now as he was before. The second problem is economic growth, again the economy is so focused on oil and gas and so dependent on international commodity prices which works fine when oil prices are high, but as we’ve seen when oil is low the economy is really struggling, and you see all kinds of cutbacks in major spending and quality of living and increase in the poverty level. Russia has been trying to deal with economic restructuring since the early 1990s and has not been able to do so, but I think that remains a persistent challenge. If that were dealt with effectively, it would make an enormous difference in Russia’s ability to grow in the future. 

MORAN:  Thanks to Harvard’s Alexandra Vacroux and Brian Taylor of Syracuse for being with me today on this latest edition of Diffusion: Russia in Focus. Join us next time when we look at US-Russia nuclear issues with Stanford’s David Holloway and Janne Nolan of George Washington University. For now, on behalf of my colleagues at the Car-NAY-gie Corporation of New York, this is Michael Moran. Thanks for joining.



Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.