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Bureaucrats and Russian Transition: The Politics of Accommodation

The "Russian bureaucrats were very successful in accommodating reforms to their own gain—they won, and the nation lost," declared Yevgenia Albats, columnist, Moscow Times; host, Echo Moskvyi; and Professor of Political Science, Moscow Higher School of Economics, at a 15 June 2004 seminar at the Kennan Institute.

Albats spoke about the role that state officials have played in Russia's transition following the collapse of the Soviet state. According to Albats, across the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe, the new governments of the region confronted the choice of whether to force Communist bureaucrats out of government or to co-opt them to work in the new system. She argued that the most successful transitions occurred in those states that forced Communist bureaucrats out of government and pursued an aggressive strategy of de-communization. Russia, like most of the other former Soviet republics, choose to pursue a policy of co-opting Soviet-era bureaucrats. As late as 2001, Albats noted, seventy percent Russia's bureaucrats had worked in the government during the Brezhnev era. A consequence of the policy co-optation, according to Albats, is that these state officials have prevented real liberal political or economic reforms from being successfully implemented.

Albats suggested that democracy should be viewed as a commodity that needs to have buyers. In order for democracy to develop in Russia, there must be a class of "consumers of democratic politics," consisting primarily of people involved in small and medium businesses. Unfortunately, Albats warned, this constituency is in decline in Russia. The number of people employed in small and medium business has declined from a peak of 8.9 million in 1995 to only 6.3 million in 2001. At the same time, the proportion of bureaucrats relative to the population has been increasing: In the last days of the Soviet Union, there was one bureaucrat for every 75.6 citizens, and in Russia today there is one bureaucrat for every 49.6 citizens.

Thriving in a system rife with corruption and little accountability, Soviet-trained bureaucrats have stifled the growth of small businesses in Russia, according to Albats. She noted that the majority of regulations existing in Russia today were issued not by the Duma or the President, but by various state agencies—between 1991 and 2001, Russian federal ministries imposed 1474 regulations on business, compared with 156 passed by the legislature. Albats contended that bureaucrats find it easier to control several large businesses than many small businesses, and have set up a regulatory framework to reflect that preference.

Another aspect of bureaucratic dominance is the rise of secrecy in the Russian state. Albats noted that according to the Russian constitution, any document that becomes an executive order is supposed to be registered in the Ministry of Justice before it can be enforced. However, only 0.3 percent of governing documents issued by various ministries were submitted as required by law to the Ministry of Justice in 1996. In the first half of 1997, that figure had fallen to 0.15 percent. "They did not want to share these orders and regulations with the rest of the population, and they did not feel as if they had to," stated Albats. Based on surveys and interviews conducted with 706 Russian federal officials at different levels of authority, Albats reported over 50 percent of her respondents were opposed to basic transparency.

In response to the conventional wisdom that Russian bureaucrats are underpaid, Albats conducted a media survey to find out how many senior bureaucrats left government service for the private sector between 1993 and 2001. Across all levels of service, from regional administrations to ministries to the presidential administration, Albats could find only 97 top bureaucrats that took a job in the private sector. Albats noted that her survey data also indicated a lack of interest among bureaucrats at all levels in leaving the government. In her research, she found that salary was not a factor that influenced bureaucrats' desires to remain in or leave government service. This is because, Albats argued, the value of the benefits that executive-level bureaucrats receive, including apartments, cars, and medical care, is many times greater then their nominal salaries. Factoring in such benefits, Albats found that top level officials receive over $500,000 per year and top managers about $40,000 per year. These figures do not factor in income from bribes to bureaucrats of all levels, which the Moscow-based INDEM Foundation calculated as costing Russia $33.5 billion per year. Nevertheless, Albats stated, "in accordance with the latest administrative reform underway, the salary of bureaucrats will increase 5 to 12 times."

Russia missed out on the opportunity presented by the collapse of the Soviet Union to dismantle the structures of the "ultra-bureaucratic state," declared Albats. If Russia had removed the Soviet-era bureaucrats, as the post-Communist countries of Central Europe did, it would have ushered in a new group to run the apparatus of the state, which in turn would have helped expand the number of small and middle-sized businesses, who are natural consumers of democratic politics. It would also have ensured the irreversibility of the political and economic reforms. Instead, a consolidated, pervasive bureaucracy dominates Russia today.


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more