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The Powerless Vertical


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is unhappy that presidential orders are not being carried out.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is unhappy that presidential orders are not being carried out.

In one of the oldest moves in Russia's political playbook, it appears that the good Tsars Dmitry and Vladimir are blaming the country's problems on the bad boyars -- or, in this case, on the bad bureaucrats.

At a Cabinet meeting on Thursday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin lit into the country's civil servants, ordering them to cut bureaucratic red tape or else:

"There are still refusals, formal write-offs, requests to bring in unnecessary paperwork," Putin said according to Moscow News. "Officials still keep sending citizens around in circles. There will be administrative responsibility for the violations. We need to break the vicious circle."

According to legislation introduced by the government, bureaucrats demanding superfluous paperwork will face fines of up to 5,000 rubles ($180) and those who do not respond to citizens' complaints within a 10-day time period could pay as much as 30,000 rubles ($1,075).

Earlier in the week, Medvedev surprised much of Moscow's political class when he complained that Russia's top-down administrative command-and-control system was not working and needed to be revised or replaced:

Whatever the president does not coordinate, nobody else bothers to coordinate it either. It's bad. It means that we have an obsolete and wholly inadequate control system that ought to be replaced [with something better]. When all signals must come from the Kremlin alone, it plainly shows the system to be unviable and in need of being attuned.

What Putin and Medvedev seemed to be saying -- without actually saying it -- was that the vaunted power vertical that was painstakingly constructed over the past decade and which was supposed to bring order to post-Soviet Russia's administrative chaos is not working.

Interestingly enough, this is the same conclusion reached in a report issued by Chatham House that I cited in my last post.

Here's how the report's author, Andrew Moneghan of the NATO Defense College, described the situation:

If the vertical of power is about the ability to ensure the fulfilment of the leadership’s instructions and goals, it has become apparent that it does not function. As one newspaper editorial noted in early 2010, the handpicked officials are not effective and often ‘quietly sabotage the orders of the prime minister and president’. If the shortcomings in the vertical of power could be ignored before the financial crisis (a good indication that it did not work under Putin either), the inefficiency of state officials now not only dissatisfied Medvedev and Putin but posed a threat to the budget.

Moneghan writes that Medvedev has become "‘particularly annoyed’ by the length of time it takes to prepare the paperwork for one or other activity."

And the reasons for the logjam?

The reasons for the failures of the vertical of power as a tool for the implementation of instructions and managing the state are numerous and unsurprising. They comprise bureaucratic rivalries and blurred lines of responsibility between institutions and ministries, including the White House and Kremlin, widespread (even systematic) corruption, incompetence and a bureaucracy so unwieldy that exactly where instructions fail is unclear.

"Nezavisimaya gazeta" spoke to several political analysts about the situation and the consensus was that the system needed to be opened up and made less top heavy.

"When control is executed from one agency only, its neutralization becomes very easy," Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center said. "I believe that was what the president was talking about. Bureaucrats at all levels care for nothing except retaining their positions. Whenever there is no accountability, there is no motivation to send accurate information upstairs. Why bother?"

Likewise, Olga Kryshtanovskaya of the Russian Academy of Sciences Center for Elite Studies -- and a State Duma deputy from United Russia -- called for the establishment of a meaningful separation of powers.

"You cannot just up and break the vertical because it will result in chaos and anarchy," Kryshtanovskaya said. There ought to be several management pyramids. We live in an authoritarian state within which democracy is growing. These two are incompatible."

Indeed they are. And therein lies the paradox facing Russia's ruling elite. To make the system more effective and rational, it needs to be opened up. But opening up the system would threaten the positions of those at the top.

-- 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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