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24.06.2022, Friday. Moscow time: 23:17

Power and Society in Russia. A Dialog of the Deaf and the Blind

Updated: 18.07.2002
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Parties and NGOs in Russia as Connectors between the Power and the Citizens

Today's relationship between political parties and non-governmental (public) organizations is haunted by the legacy of the past. Generations of Soviet citizens had been raised brainwashed about superiority of the state over the private, of the public over the personal, of the abstract over the concrete. The entire life had been compelled to service the ideas that substituted normal human values.

At the moment of dissolution of the Soviet Union different republics ended up with a different degree of preparedness for radical social changes. Population of Russia had served the object of unhealthy social experiment for generations. It had inherited a warped social structure and a system of governance with irrational economy. With no private property and no recognition of human values, totalitarian control and no feedback from the citizens, with military build-up out of proportion, the society was haunted with a combination of complexes of inferiority, superiority and exclusiveness.

Russia is believed to have walked a long way since the moment the Soviet Union split up and it's important to understand how many more miles are still to go.

External repairs that allow calling Russia a democracy have influenced social development to a smaller degree than it could have been expected. Multiparty system born in 1989 did not flourish regardless of the attempts by the power or the opposition to create political parties with real field structures. Non-governmental organizations had come into existence even before political parties but failed to become an integral part of the society. They present little problems to the state and do not pretend to express voter's will. So they were left to their own design.

Funny how the power identifies the environment it exists in. It continues to be a state within the state. The classic Freudian slip of the power is when they call the society the populace [1]. In today's Russian civil society there are not enough citizens. The society is atomized and fragmented, divided geographically and socially. Connections between different parts are either broken or inexistent.

The citizens are paying back with the same money - withdrawing from the governance and relying on whoever is in power to solve all problems. The authorities are viewed by the majority as something separate from the state, but the majority itself doesn't feel they owe anything to the state, not really counting on getting anything in exchange. There is a certain contradiction though: the populace is trying to evade military draft, taxes, paying utility bills, but demands things that once were proclaimed as available to everyone - free medical assistance, public transportation, free apartments, law enforcement, etc. Many of these should operate on an absolutely different basis but still are available for free only to those who are in charge of distributing the public wealth.

This contradiction is also a Soviet heritage and it has preserved perfectly despite all the years passed after the deceased Union [2].

There must be explanations as to why the Russian social structure didn't suffer radical changes. By the end of the millennium old Soviet society had decayed but nothing was created to replace it. The state that is meant to be an outer form of a self-organized society now exists as a thing-in-itself. At a certain moment this part fell off the society believing it can live on its own.

To a considerable degree this is explained by the unique situation that may conserve the state of things in Russia for indefinite period. It is important to see, however, whether social changes may happen over the next decade.

Russia owns the richest natural and mineral resources that should be used wisely as they belong not to us but to our grandchildren. Before mid-seventies these resources had been used to finance insane ideas of a superpower, later - to cover the deficit of inefficient economy, and then simply in a desperate effort to stay afloat. Unfortunately, none of the above had social development as a priority, or such things as improvement of living standards or conservation of natural reserves for the future generations. All this leaves the feeling that the power never tried to plan the nation's development for 10 years in advance and was only trying to stay in power...

This figure illustrates sources of income and allocation of public wealth in today's Russia.

As a point of reference, the place of the Soviet distribution system by late `80s is indicated in dotted line. (As the state, the public and the social were all blended into one, under communism any life outside of these boundaries was next to impossible. The division was vertical and sectors B and D oriented on equal misery and relying on state support hated sectors A and C. Misbalanced social structure and irrational redistribution of resources led to total economic insolvency and evetual collapse of the regime.)

Horizontal axis divides the governmental and non-governmental sectors; the vertical axis shows dependence or independence of citizens in generating their income.

The white indicates the current Russian population; the orange indicates the amount of public wealth redistributed to different sectors.

Sector A - Government, state and other top officials from federal and regional structures; army, police, KGB, the Customs, tax police officers, etc;
Sector B - Local self-government staff, military, police, KGB, customs, tax police rank-and-file, etc. Social workers, education, public health, public transportation, culture, etc.
Sector C - Citizens generating public wealth;
Sector D - Non-working youth (younger than 18) and students; retired and disabled citizens.

The situation didn't change after 1992 - the resources are being sold and now the power is not sure they will be able to keep the territories they manage. Hence they are trying to sell as much as possible now. Lack of communication between the citizens and the power, their inability to influence the budget or its distribution allows the power to manipulate redistribution of funds in their own interests.

The role of democratic institutions and parties is closely connected with their place in real life and with what social groups they service. While trying to simplify the picture we come to a graphical fried egg design. When we try to focus on the fried egg we get two major social groups with different functions.

One group is the state (or the governmental, as having the income directly from this source and servicing the state, and supposedly, the society). It has an obscure and non-transparent structure. About 17 million people officially get their income from the state (Sectors A and B). Only Sector A is what can be called public servants although in Russia this would be an insult, so let's call it Management. Sector B includes other officials - local self-government, rank and file military, police and the customs officers and also scientists, education, state and municipal medical staff, kindergartens and other social structures of the defunct socialist state. In other words, Sector B shows how much the society can afford to spend for its maintenance. "Maintenance" is the name we assign to Sector B.

The other group is the civic one (non-governmental), with Sector C producing enough income for the entire society and Sector D dependent directly on state support or indirectly on other sectors (supported by relatives, social services or charity).

What links all the sectors is the finances and access to social benefits that ideally should reach each citizen.

The orange indicates the amount of state (government) funds and social benefits available to each sector. The white shows that some people are left out of this social process (alienated from the society or marginalized).

The dotted line indicates the approximate place of the state/public (governmental/nongovernmental) sectors in the Soviet Union.

This is roughly the division per sector in today's Russia:

    Sectors A (Management) and B (Maintenance) - about 17 million people.

    Sector C (Production) - working age citizens (about 50 million).

    Sector D (Reproduction) - non-working youth (35-40 million), retired and disabled (about 30 million).

    (Rough estimates)

(Although it's hard to compare Soviet Union social structure with modern Russia due to many differences, we can identify major differences for Sector B, which is explained by insolvent Soviet economy when everybody was working for the state. When compared with Soviet Union times, Sector B now is generating public income without gobernment planning but most of the income is shifted to Sector A.)

The horizontal axis indicates citizens' dependence or independence in terms of income generation. It shows that Russian society is in need of change as the orange is accumulated in the state managerial sector and other sectors are neglected. What this leads to is problems in each sector - decay for Sector A, corruption for Sector B, poverty and pauperization for Sector D, mafia crime and instability for Sector C.

Noticeably, the distribution of public funds is totally out of proportion, as citizens have no say in it.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed its social structure and state efficiency could not respond to the challenges of global competition; the planned economy had exhausted itself. The defeat suffered in the cold war, the disintegration of the "socialist camp" allowed some redistribution of resources but it already couldn't help the nation's development.

The predominantly paternalistic society was very slow to react and while the state was trying to optimize the costs the society started disintegrating. After more than ten years of living in new conditions the state managed to keep basically intact the structure of governance and absorbed most of the Soviet Union federal governmental structures in Sector A. Compared to other sectors it now represents a much bigger burden on the state budget. Sector B was left without funding in hopes that people would simply migrate to other sectors (meaning primarily Sector C); no money was going towards science and research, new hospitals, universities, kindergartens, etc. As Sector B continued shrinking, it left a lot of people outside - mostly those who couldn't adapt or protect themselves. It was too dangerous to do the same with the army, which also belongs to the same sector as servicing the entire nation. Other officials and social workers from this sector found a way to survive by converting their positions into cash.

Sector D also suffered since those people have no means to protect themselves and rely on the rest of the society to take care of them. Sector C is still surviving and trying to adapt regardless of the new inventions of the government.

To be able to shift the income to themselves, the Government destroyed the savings accumulated by generations of Soviet people - they exceeded by far the system's resources, initially not available for money. Such a shift could have been justified only if the funds were directed to social and economic reform, but it didn't happen. In new conditions a big portion of the society was left out of the process and became marginalized. These people are not fully citizens as they abstain from social life - they barely have income and don't pay taxes, they don't use social benefits for lack of those, they are not linked with other sectors of the society and don't hope to get anything from the state (or the society). The government gets to remember about such citizens only when it needs them for the army or on election day.

Without changing the structure for redistribution of public wealth the government adapted rules and laws to ritualize democratic procedures (multiparty system, elections, etc). How viable is this construction if no changes take place in it? That is the question.

We have observed how the Kremlin has changed its priorities several times during the past election cycles - from no need for political parties to imposing mixed election system even at the regional level, where people don't know what a party looks like. Curiously, the regions where mixed elections have been practiced for about a decade can't boast flourishing political systems. Nevertheless the law was pushed through the Duma in hopes to get better positions for Kremlin in bargaining with local chieftains.

The only party that has local structures, activists and volunteers nationwide is the Communist Party. It's almost entirely placed in sectors D and B and apparently has some support from Sector C. The party is used by Kremlin to scare western creditors but has no real influence over the government as the Duma is under full control of the executive. Other parties are entirely in the governmental sector (Otechestvo, Edinstvo, SPS and other center parties), between A and C (LDPR) or beyond the margin in B, C and D (Yabloko).

Logically, an NGO would prefer to cooperate with a party that has resources for a project that interests both. Unfortunately, such a party has to be a ruling one... or must have the will and possibility to conduct projects important to the public. However, any cooperation with opposition parties even on social projects damages future opportunities for cooperation with the government structures.

Political parties should be interested in contacts with NGOs for sheer need to adapt their platforms with issues of importance for the citizens. The fact that you can't tell one party platform from another tells that they do have such practices, or similar jobs are done by contracted PR companies. With the new law on political parties some of them got institutionalized and now don't need to worry about platforms or talk to the citizens - their future in Duma is more or less guaranteed.

In a scoop, these are the perceptions of Russia in the last 10-12 years:

    1. Public wealth is not enough to reach everyone, or it is simply pointless to waste it on all Russian citizens.

    2. The government can't optimize management over such a big territory.

    3. The government fails to reduce the number of officials or to make them more efficient or responsible - in a democracy they would be hired and fired by the society, in Russia they are hired by higher official... The bureaucracy has been growing during the last decade because Sector A is where all the money and perks are.

    4. No funds are available to spend on the science and research, education, culture, public sports and social projects.

    5. The government can't finance social benefits, one of its major functions.

    6. The government prefers to finance projects in Sector B (like defense budget) from Sectors C and D, or simply wait for changes in the oil market.

    7. Sector C has little connections (other than economic) with any other sector of the society while in fact it should take care of everything (hire and fire managers and maintenance staff).

    8. The government is not transparent nore subordinate to any part of the society. The management is in a unique position to allow other sectors access to public benefits they distribute.

    9. The governance in general relies on redistribution of public wealth that is formed primarily from exporting oil, gas and raw materials, not from production and/or services. The managements doesn't really depend on other sectors.

    10. The government objectively is not interested in developing Sector C as the only independent part of the society that can and may eventually ask for an account or total audit to see how efficient public servants are.

    11. Since 1999 all activities of Sector A are directed to consolidation of existing situation through total control over potentially dangerous institutions: media, courts, armed forces and law enforcement bodies, legislative bodies of all levels and political parties.

    12. Any opposition is declared destructive and is pushed out to the margins of social life. Remaining parties compete to please the powers.

    13. Sector A has a way of buying off (through redistribution of resources) the most notable critics and most disgruntled representatives from other sectors to prevent dangerous developments.

    14. Independent NGOs with funding from sources outside of public funds are viewed with suspicion.

    15. Coordination of projects with the government is encumbered by eagerness of the power to control everything.

    16. Certain number of NGOs was created with the sole purpose of using budget or municipal funds; even when not, they still are strictly controlled by the state.

    17. Cooperation between political parties and NGOs depends on their access to funds and resources.

    18. Parties are foreign element in the current Russian landscape; they are created by the government and don't leave Sector A. They have no need to conduct fieldwork or cooperate with NGOs.

    19. No conditions to reform the Russian social structure are created.

    20. Existing structure is being cemented to stay as is for indefinite time. In the long run the entire working age population should move to Sector A as the only worthy place of residence. This will not happen because it will reduce the share of income, whose aggregate value is constant.

    21. NGOs and socially active citizens can still use the contradictions within sectors in the interests of the whole society, and they can use political parties wisely.


Russia has no stockpiled reserves that could guarantee undisturbed future. The current social structure is behind the requirements of the new millennium. The exports of our natural resources have become a drug addiction that our economy can't get over with. The warped distribution system is preserving the situation.

Instead of investing money from selling our grandchildren's resources in preparing new and qualified personnel, in science and public health, they go to finance bureaucracy that grew out of proportion, maintain inefficient defense and law enforcement and ensure security of the regime.

We have seen no clear strategy for the nation's development for at least 20-30 years.

Unfortunately, if this situation is conserved for another 5-10 years Russia will be left behind the civilized world and will eventually become a raw material base and a buffer between Europe and Asia that will protect themselves by a new Iron Curtain.

If we don't want this happening we should knock down the walls between the government and non-government sectors and shift the priorities to the people. This should be done not in a traditional Soviet way that doesn't fit anybody else because it's authentically and indigenously Russian - such a way will inevitably lead back to paternalistic totalitarian state based on geographical expansion or abuse of natural resources. What needs to be done should encourage popular initiative and businesses. With laws and independent courts we should accumulate enough energy to compete in the third millennium.

An important role in this process belongs to NGOs as conductors of popular will, but a lot more will depend on how many more years the public servants that were never elected by us are planning to live here. They will never start acting unless they are forced to do it.

S. Lanauskas

[1] We are fooling our population way too often. Well, not we, but the state. President Putin

[2] They pretend they're paying us salary, and we pretend we work. Old Soviet saying.

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