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Russia's Moncloa Debate

Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov

Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov

References to Spain's Moncloa Pact have been popping up a lot lately in the Russian media -- particularly among liberal and opposition commentators.

The 1977 agreement among leading politicians, parties, and trade unions set the ground rules for the Spanish economy and political system during the transition from Francisco Franco's dictatorship and the democratic system that followed.

And why are Russian intellectuals and political commentators suddenly so interested in a three-decades-old Spanish agreement? As we have written here on several occasions, there is a growing sense that the authoritarian social contract that dominated Russia since Vladimir Putin's rise to power in 2000 -- that Russians give up civil and political rights in exchange for economic prosperity -- is perilously close to being null and void and needs to be replaced.

Igor Yurgens, director of the Institute of Contemporary Development and an aide to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, got the ball rolling back in February, saying that "at the current moment, economic well being is shrinking" and therefore "civil rights should expand."

Others soon followed suit. Arkady Dvorkovich, the head of the Kremlin's experts directorate, said the current elite was incapable of dealing with the economic crisis and called for "a new elite, which will be more open to society."

Yevgeny Gontmakher, director of the Center for Social Policy at the Institute of Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences, has long warned of social upheaval if the crisis deepens and called for the political system to be liberalized.

There has, of course, been pushback from those who want to keep things just as they are.

As we have noted, deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, widely seen as the regime's "chief ideologist," ridiculed claims that Russia's social contract was teetering:

The authorities have been handing out petrodollars, feeding everyone, while in return society has been waiving its rights and freedoms. Now that petrodollars have dried up, it has suddenly come back to people's minds - 'give us our freedom'.

In a recent article in "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, weighed into the debate, arguing that historically, Russian social contracts have little in common with their Western counterparts. In Russia, Orlov argues, "the main (and decisive) contracting party...was always the state," which imposed the social order from above. This "vertical contract" contrasts with the "horizontal contract" prevalent in Western societies, "where the estates and social groups agree first and foremost among themselves."

And whenever Russia's "vertical social contracts" have collapsed, the result has been chaos and disaster:

The "vertical contract" is far from ideal. But the "liberal" alternative is much worse. In our country, a severe weakening or disintegration of authority has always been followed not by...a transition to the "horizontal" model beloved of the West, but by the rapid disintegration of political and social institutions and social interconnections. Examples are the Time of Troubles, the February Revolution, and the collapse of the USSR.

Orlov's argument dovetails with recent warnings by pro-Kremlin analyst and political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky that a cabal exists in the Russian elite that is seeking to exploit the economic crisis and bring down the current regime. Pavlovsky is a close ally of Surkov's and nothing he says for public consumption is an accident.

The strong pushback against Yurgens, Dvorkovich, and Gontmakher seems to indicate that there is real fear in high places -- mostly among those associated with the 'siloviki' clan -- that a liberalizing agenda could gain traction in the current environment.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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