Kleptocracy is a system in which national economies are exploited for the illicit enrichment of a well-connected elite, according to the Kleptocracy Initiative. Kleptocracies promote widespread, systemic corruption, affecting the lives of all citizens, and compromising many individuals and institutions abroad.
In Putin’s Kleptocracy, Karen Dawisha compiled an extraordinary dossier of malfeasance and political corruption on an epic scale, notes Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent and an Associate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. She draws on a remarkable document drawn up in the Kremlin just before Putin’s inauguration in May 2000 that outlined how the new authorities would rule, including the management of the media and the public sphere, he writes for the Times Literary Supplement.
“The fundamental picture that emerges is of a Russia that has been hijacked by an elite that quite consciously set out from the beginning of its rule to increase its wealth, and needed to take over full political control to safeguard this process,” says Sakwa the author of Putin and the Oligarch: The Khodorkovsky – Yukos Affair; Putin Redux: Power and contradiction in contemporary Russia and Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the borderlands.
Dawisha’s argument “effectively delegitimizes the current Russian government in its entirety, and justifies the personal demonization of Putin,” but, he asks, is Russia really a “kleptocracy” (a term which is never given theoretical grounding in Dawisha’s book)?
“If such a system is defined as one where the government exists purely to increase the personal wealth and political power of its officials and the ruling class more broadly, then the power system under Vladimir Putin has kleptocratic features (as in many other countries), but it is not a kleptocracy tout court. …More specifically, there are at least four problems with the approach to contemporary Russia pursued by Dawisha, argues Sakwa:
- First, the case is far from incontrovertible. Much of it consists of investigative reporting, published mostly in the press. Some brave journalists and politicians have risked their lives to report their findings. Nevertheless, the evidence is often circumstantial, conjectural and partial. It would not stand questioning in court.
- Second, it is not clear when the kleptocracy was established and the precise form that it takes. Dawisha has provided powerful evidence of the convergence of former Party resources and the elements of what in other contexts is called the “deep state”: in this case the coming together of former and active security officials with the power system. But the various elements identified by Dawisha do not necessarily cohere to create a dominant force. At certain times and on certain issues, notably with the expropriation of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company from 2003, the siloviki were given their head to create a powerful state-owned oil company, Rosneft. We also know that the security services were used in the early Putin years to tackle organized crime, but this does not mean that ex-security officials became in turn a new mafia. Too many security officials were placed in important positions in state enterprises, undermining their transformation into more competitive and liberal bodies, but even within these bodies there is a constant struggle to achieve at least a modicum of good corporate governance. The sanctions will now precisely weaken the forces that have tried to make advanced sectors of the Russian economy internationally competitive.
- Third, the relationship between the alleged “kleptocracy” and the formulation of policy is far from clear. The much-vaunted stability of the Putin regime has, after all, delivered significant public goods. ….. The purse strings were loosened from 2011 to invest in some major infrastructural projects, including the Sochi Winter Olympics, the modernization of the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Baikal–Amur Mainline, building stadiums for the 2018 World Cup, a new ring road round Moscow, and some high-speed rail lines. In other words, the regime has a developmental dynamic. Above all, the country has embarked on a major rearmament programme that seeks to create a modern, well-equipped armed force by 2020. At the same time, until the recent sanctions began to hit, standards of living have risen faster than at any other time in Russia’s history. This does not look like the policies of a kleptocracy, although of course without the diversion of wealth to the elite and misguided dirigisme the economy might have become more dynamic and diverse.
- Fourth, Dawisha’s argument appears to operate in a geopolitical vacuum. One corollary of it is that foreign policy must also be shaped by the elite’s narrow corporate interests, but this is far from demonstrated. The broad shape of Russian foreign policy is based on a deep social consensus on its aims and purposes. At its base is a vision of Russia as a great power, an equal partner of the West, something that the latter finds hard to accept. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 enjoyed overwhelming public support, although views are far more fragmented over policy in the Donbas.
“Instead, the system, as Alena Ledeneva has argued in Can Russia Modernise? (see the TLS, November 8, 2013), is surprisingly segmented and made up of a series of cross-cutting obligations. It can be understood through a number of shifting prisms, each reflecting specific concerns but thereby presenting only a partial picture of the whole,” Sakwa contends.
“Putin’s Kleptocracy is a courageous and scrupulously judicious investigation into the sinews of wealth and power in Vladimir Putin’s Russia; but when it comes to shaping policy towards Russia, it is a deeply deceptive guide.”