“The president is constantly forced to steer the system under ‘manual control’,” says Valeria Kasamara, head of the Laboratory for Political Studies at the Higher School of Economics. “It turns out that, in Russia, the head of state not only determines the fundamental course of domestic and foreign policies, but also steps down to the level below and becomes, figuratively speaking, a micro-manager.
Kasamara believes that the reason behind the fact that “in the 21st century, the president is forced to correct the tradesmen” is the underdevelopment of state institutions. Say, contact between federal and regional offices is often impossible without a nudge from “the top”. “Nothing will happen until they are manually brought together, linked into a single mechanism, forced to work together, so that they do not divide power, or conversely, do not evade responsibility,” noted Dmitry Badovsky, deputy director of the Institute for Social Systems Research at Moscow State University.
“The pubic control over the officials is also weak, and as a result, the highest-level superiors are forced to control them,” says Aleksey Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies. “The executive discipline is also weak. Such is the paradox. We have a vertical power structure, but on another hand, within the framework of this structure, one could successfully imitate work, while turning in fantastic reports.”
The problem is not only the fact that the government machine resembles the domestic car production – until you hit it, it won’t run. Officials could see the problem before them, but procrastinate to take action until receiving a signal from the top, fearing to make an independent decision. “In many cases, it is quite convenient for certain links in the state machine to give up responsibility and transfer it to the higher level of decision makers,” notes Vladimir Pligin, chairman of the State Duma Committee for Constitutional Legislature and State Building.
One illustrative example is the criminal case of Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergey Magnitsky’s death in a detention center, which was filed only after the president’s intervention. The phenomenon, when officials wait to act until they receive instructions from “above”, is also explained by the experts with the fact that the principle of separation of power is not fully developed in our country, as well as the inclination to personalize power. The high confidence in the leaders and low confidence in power institutions (the parliament, state agencies) often raise a kind of inferiority complex, if you will, among officials.
“Here, everything has always been decided on the highest level, this was the case in the Soviet times, as well as after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” says Elena Shestopal, head of the Political Psychology Department at Moscow State University. “Unfortunately, this defect in our system of governance continues to exist today. I think that this is an ancestral, hereditary trait. Medvedev, of course, does not support this system of governance. Neither does Putin, But, that is something they are forced to deal with, because they are forced to assume the responsibility of the lower-level officials, who are afraid of being responsible.”
Associate professors at the Higher School of Economics, Aleksey Titkov and Valeria Kasamara, believe otherwise, and say that the “manual system” was in many ways created by Vladimir Putin during his presidency. Showing that even the running water in an isolated village in the Krasnodar region is under his control – is the signature style of Putin. Medvedev, on another hand, after becoming the first person, was forced to search for his own approach to controlling the inactive bureaucracy. And he found it: instead of issuing orders to governors via videoconferences, he does so through blogger reports.
Be as it may, experts unanimously agree that “manual control” is eating away too much of the leader’s time and, in the grand scheme of things, does not benefit anyone. It’s no wonder that Medvedev regularly scolds his subordinates, demanding they meet the implementation standards (according to the Presidential Control Directorate, only every fifth instruction of the head of state is implemented within the original time frame), castigates them for hollow reports (“The problems are of outmost importance, but it’s impossible to listen to them” – he wrote on Twitter), as well as tries teaching them to independently respond to people’s concerns.
“Clearly at the ‘manual control’ level it is impossible to tackle a great number of tasks all at the same time,” says Dmitry Badovsky. “There are only a certain number of problems that can fit into one’s hands. It marks the limit. Therefore, the authorities of the highest level are interested in seeing a working bureaucracy. They are trying to awaken it. And now, from the wildfires and food prices, we see that Medvedev and Putin are trying to steer the situation toward enabling the state institutions, including the local institutions, to work without any special instructions.”
Another proven way to awaken a bureaucrat is to take the chair from underneath him. Dismissals followed after practically every loud scandal in which Medvedev was forced to personally intervene. This series of dismissals included a number of high-ranking officials of the Federal Service for Execution of Punishment (after Magnitsky’s death), and a number of officers of the Russian Naval Forces (after the fire on the base in the Moscow region, near Kolomna).
“Medvedev acts tougher than Putin,” says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, head of the Elite Studies Center at the Sociology Institute, RAS. “Putin did not lay officials off immediately after emergency situations have taken place, but sometime after. Medvedev, when something does not go as planned, dismisses people quickly and more frequently. That is his style. He lowered the retirement age for officials, renewed the regulatory elite, introduced many younger workers and pushed the 60-year-old staffers to the side.”
Medvedev’s regular responses to people’s concerns – also serve as a warning to officials. The dismissal of Gregory Boos from the post of governor of the Kaliningrad region, due to his low ratings and suspension of the road construction through the Khimki Forest, serve as evidence.
“The message of many of the recent dismissals is rather edifying,” says Badovsky. “In other words, Medvedev is dismissing officials for violations, incomplete work, negligence, and so forth, but the point is not only to punish these people, but also to send a signal that such behavior, and such lack of discipline, will not be tolerated. In addition to terminating staff, this is an educational and disciplinary act for the entire state apparatus.”
It is not easy for the president to daily monitor the entire country, but changing the tradition is even more difficult, because this is the special feature of our democracy, a “birthmark” if you will. Aleksey Makarkin points to the fact that “manual control” permeates all branches of government: governors and ministers will not move until the president points them directly to the problem; meanwhile, mayors and district heads wait for the go-ahead from governors, and town representatives, in turn, wait for a signal from mayors and district heads.
“Not only are the president or the prime minister, but the regional heads or mayors able to demand from their subordinates to perform a task on time and as required,” says Makarkin. “And, they will report on time. It will be a good report. In reality, however, nothing will change. All levels of government function in accordance with these rules. Meanwhile, each level is perplexed when it learns that it is being misled by the lower level.
“Can this ‘perfect’ system be corrected in some way?” Izvestia asked the expert.
“That would be hard; it is engrained in us,” answered Makarkin. “The problem lies in mentality, and that is what needs to be fixed. But, the reign of Aleksandr II showed that that is impossible. Then, in time of the great reforms, a new generation of young, educated administrators had emerged (Golovin, Milyutin brothers), civil service became prestigious. Now, we need a new generation that will feel that deception is shameful, and that they cannot betray the trust of the leadership.”
Five of the most important decisions, made due to Dmitry Medvedev’s involvement.
1. A criminal case was filed in connection to the death of Sergey Magnitsy, lawyer with the Hermitage Capital investment fund, in a detention center (under the Articles: “failure to provide care to a sick person” and “negligence”). On the basis of the official investigation, Medvedev had dismissed 20 senior leaders of the Federal Service for Execution of Punishment and 16 prison officers, including the head of the Matrosskaya Tishina (Sailor’s Silence) detention center.
2. The construction of a highway through the Khimki Forest has been suspended. Before this, no one had paid any attention to the protests of ecologists and the public (their position is that the forest cannot be cut down, as it protects Moscow from environmental catastrophes). Medvedev had, in essence, forced officials to analyze the situation once more, as well as to consider alternative projects.
3. State Duma deputies began attending plenary meetings. Regulatory amendments, toughening discipline, were approved by the State Duma only after Medvedev had shamed the absentee parliamentarians on Twitter. “It is just a shame to look at the empty seats. People need to start showing up for work,” he wrote.
4. Professional photography was allowed on Red Square. One blogger asked Medvedev to lift the restrictions (it was allowed shooting with amateur cameras, but not with professional ones). After the presidential instruction, the Federal Security Service lifted the unusual ban, and now people are allowed to photograph the Kremlin and its surroundings without special permission from the Kremlin’s command.
5. Workers at the Russky Volfram plant were paid their salaries, and the plant, which was idle for several months, began to operate. The people living in the town of Svetlogorye in the Primorsky region had been raising the alarm for several months. Their salaries were paid on the day when Medvedev pointed out the problem to the presidential envoy and the governor.