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Russia – in Dire Need of Reforms

Russian society is cooling off after an unusually heated presidential race, which is only natural. The society has accepted the results of the elections while various political powers are taking a breather in order to get their thoughts together. However in the nearest future the debates and discussions will heat up again, as the country anticipates the next steps that the new leadership will be taking. And what those steps should be is quite clear - today Russia is in dire need of deep, systematic reforms on major levels.

Reforms in any country always become the reason for public dissatisfaction and upheaval, just as much in case of successful reforms as failed ones. The period of reforms might lead to the restructuring of relations between various social groups within the state, the resetting of existing social priorities and most importantly to the temporary loss of control to a certain degree. In case with Russia the latter is especially dangerous, considering that historically reforms in Russia have always shared spontaneous and sudden nature and were only used as the last resort.

The examples of such unplanned, poorly prepared reforms can be easily found within annals of Russian history. Majority of the reforms were never prepared in advance but were passed in order to close yet another gap between Russia and its more advanced foreign partners/competitors or to make up for the lack of reforms when they were needed most. Never have the reforms been passed to anticipate future difficulties. By the time the reforms would finally gain momentum it would either be too little too late, or the society would be simply exhausted by the radical changes and demand return to stability. And Russian authority was all too happy to provide such stability, which in most cases led to stagnation. In other words Russia has always suffered from a lack of a political system capable if recognizing the need for reforms and providing their strategic implementation. The process of political evolution was always replaced by vicious circle of reforms and stagnation. But if in case with Russian monarchy or communism it was at least acceptable, in modern Russia this mostly shows the inferiority of its system of public administration. Unfortunately it is still unclear whether the new leadership will be capable of successfully solving this crippling, deep-rooted issue of Russian politics.

In order to successfully reach the goals of reformation it is necessary to have a clear and realistic understanding of those goals as well as the order in which the process should be undertaken. For example it seems completely worthless to discuss the staffing of the future government if it is still completely unclear what role the government will play with Putin as a new president. What will be the role of the governors, which now will be elected by the people instead of being appointed by the president? What will be the role of the new prime-minister? How can a new policy concerning election of deputies within Russian Duma be passed, if there is no consensus within the society on what the role Duma actually is? What will be the functions of the ministers and how will the national budget be distributed between the federal and local governments? First it is important to understand the role that each of the bodies will play and only then think about staffing those bodies. That seems to be logical, but exactly the opposite of what usually takes place in Russia.

All this leads to the fact that passing effective reforms is impossible without serious re-staffing, since the reforms must be and can be successfully passed only by those who are sincerely interested in succeeding. However today it is questionable whether the imminent re-staffing would be fundamental enough and it is unclear by which criteria will be the candidates for the positions picked. As we could witness in the past, things such as personal loyalty, common friends and past promises would usually out weight professional qualities and qualifications, which over the last decades turned Russia into a country governed by a network of “unprofessionals”. Today there are no compelling reasons to believe that the situation will change – the leadership is avoiding questions about the future re-staffing, the system of choosing successors, the scale of resignations of the key officials etc. which naturally destroys the hopes of the society for successful reformation.

The public support of reforms, its ability to understand the goals and purposes of the reforms is extremely important however, especially when it comes to unpopular reforms, which would inevitably cause upheaval of certain social groups. It is not a secret that it is the majority of Putin’s electorate from the past election that would be most negatively affected in case of economy’s modernization as well as in case of many potential social reforms being passed.

It is obvious that reforms are absolutely necessary for Russia today. However many aspects of the upcoming reformation are quite unclear. How systematic will those reforms be and what exactly will they address? How adequate will the imminent re-staffing be? What will be the measures taken to reduce the negative effect of reforms on certain social groups, especially those who have supported the new leadership in hope of stability? And the most important question of all – how to embed the practice of timely reforms into the governing mechanism in order to prevent another period of stagnation and catching-up? If this chance is missed now, it might be too late to think about it in the future.  


Published in “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” on March 27, 2012
Translation by Gennady Gladkov

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