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  • What Went Wrong in Russia?The Feudalization of the State
  • Charles H. Fairbanks Jr. (bio)

In the essay in this issue by Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski, as well as that by Zoltan Barany, I feel myself sniffing the Moscow air I have experienced; Michael McFaul’s vision of the state of democratic transition, in spite of the enormous knowledge of Russia that informs it, seems somehow less recognizable. I would emphasize even more than Reddaway and Glinski the impotence of administration and the privatization of the state, which are intimately related: The state is weak because it has privatized away crucial powers to businessmen like the Moscow bankers. This is important for political scientists because it is the key development we did not foresee. We were prepared for the success of democracy and the market, but also for the antidemocratic attitudes all our authors point to and for the possibility of a reversion to authoritarianism.

We had an excuse for anticipating authoritarian rule rather than weak states. There have been many failed democratic transitions, sometimes followed by brief periods of anarchy, but most of them in the last 200 years have ended, within a few years, in authoritarian rule. The outstanding exception is China after 1911, and closer study of that transition might reveal something about the Russian case. As McFaul ably argues, the democratic forms of the Russian state have proved to be very resilient; I wonder how Reddaway and Glinski would explain that resilience. I myself would be inclined to argue, as G.M. Tamás has, that communist rule has somehow damaged not only the legitimacy of the state but the legitimacy of politics and political opposition, even by military coups. [End Page 47]

What we were not ready for was the quick transformation of an overly strong state into a very weak state. But this has occurred in a large number of former communist areas with widely differing histories and cultures. I cite only the cases I know best. In Chechnya, there is essentially no state. In Albania, Republika Srpska (the Serb part of the Bosnian Federation), Bosnia, Transdniester, Abkhazia, Georgia, Eastern Tajikistan, and Cambodia, the state seems, on balance, about as weak as it was in feudal Europe between 1100 and 1200. Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan have weak states; Ukraine and Kazakhstan, stronger states that are getting weaker. We need to ask whether there is something about transition from communist rule that predisposes to a weak state.

“Feudal” Privatization

Perhaps the connection begins to emerge if we speak about the “feudalization” of the state, which underlines that a clientelistic relationship is involved. In exchange for support or the carrying out of a service, the state turns over to an official a resource to be exploited. Thus, just as the Carolingian Emperors dealt with the attacks of the Vikings, Hungarians, and Saracens by turning over provinces to their officials as fiefs, Yeltsin turned over the interest on the state’s money to the new bankers in return for (illegal) campaign contributions, and turned over control of the Fourteenth Army in Moldova to General Lebed in return for his putting pressure on Ukraine’s flank. That these privatizations are not indiscriminate decisions is shown by the fact that nuclear weapons have not been privatized. In the military realm, there is not only the tendency toward privatization of military units by local governors noted by Zoltan Barany. The “multiple militaries” (the Interior Ministry, the Presidential Guard, the Federal Security Service) also “moonlight” as bodyguards, protectors of private shipments and warehouses, and the like, relieving the budget while doing political favors. Only a thin line separates this activity from a protection racket. In light of the intermittent but sometimes decisive role played by the KGB in Kremlin power struggles (March and June 1953March and June 1964March and June 1980–85), Russian democracy may not be as safe from the “multiple militaries” as Barany rightly suggests it is from the army proper.

We can find feudal relationships in Soviet history, just as we saw them in the fascist states. To a surprising degree, the Soviet system empowered informal, illegitimate private powers in order to run important institutions. This...

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