TCS Daily

St. Potemkinburg

By Meelis Kitsing - June 16, 2003 12:00 AM

ST. PETERSBURG - Recent celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg led me to wonder whether it might have made more sense after the collapse of the Soviet Union for the city to change its name from Leningrad to St. Potemkinburg. In preparing this city of many names for its big anniversary and the convergence of world leaders, Russia in effect built a "Potemkin village."

It's not just that inadequate funding and poor planning led to some quick fixes to historical buildings instead of substantial renovations. Facades were dressed up in time for the festivities, but the insides of the "collective apartments" that house one-fifth of the city's population are forever crumbling and their residents see no way out. The temptation to polish the city's image ran much deeper than just the architectural landscape. The spin went as far as having local police clear the streets of homeless people, sending them to special camps in the middle of woods to spend the anniversary celebration in inhumane conditions. The approach taken by authorities in St. Petersburg is a clear reflection of the reform process in Russia as a whole. Most people get constant shock treatment in order to provide therapy for a privileged few.

Truth be told, this widely used metaphor undermines the significance of Prince Grigory Potemkin in the history of Russia. Sebag Montefiore's book The Prince of Princes: the Life of Potemkin (St. Martin's Press, November 2001) showed that his accomplishments were greater, in Russian terms, than those of any other Russian save Peter the Great.

At the same time, Potemkin is a better symbol of the current semi-democratic and quasi-market Russia than Peter the Great. Peter came from royalty and inherited his position. Potemkin was a self-made man, whose role in the palace coup of 1762 that brought Catherine the Second to power made him Catherine's favorite and thus a partner in ruling the Russian Empire. Most of his problems stemmed as a result of his command of the wars against the Ottoman Empire along the southern borders of Russia. The Russian army was ill-equipped to take on such battles and Potemkin did not bother to calculate the cost of colonization schemes, wasting both money and men. Similarities with the current war in Chechnya are self-evident.

Most importantly, Potemkin demonstrated that a few individuals can make it to the top in Russia by exploiting the feudal structure, close ties to rulers and competition among different power bases. A report titled "Russia: Facing the Future" by Adam Stulberg (Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2001) suggests that modern Russia, to a great extent, still reflects the feudal structure in which power centers evolve around powerful individuals rather than a sustainable institutional framework secured by the rule of law. Russia is governed by ad hoc contracts between the central power base of the Kremlin and various power bases around the country, depending on short-term political will rather than long-term constitutional obligations. Despite formally being a democracy, the actual role of the president in Russia is in many ways more similar to that of a medieval emperor than a leader of a democracy. "The system thrives on the arbitrary use of power and distorts the process of democratization and marketization," writes Stulberg.

Vladimir Putin's rise to power should be seen in the same light as Potemkin's. It is an outcome of political favoritism and the struggle among different power bases of the current Russian elite. Interestingly, two recent books on the reform process in Russia use the term "Putin's Russia" in their titles. Russian political scientist Lilia Shevtsova published Putin's Russia (Carnegie, April 2003) a few months after the publication of a collection of scholarly articles by U.S.-based political scientists titled The Putin's Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain edited by Dale Herspring (Rowman & Littlefield, December 2002).

Both books come to a seemingly similar conclusion, finding Putin's record somewhat of a "paradox" and "mixed." He has made progress by simplifying the tax system, making legal changes, decreasing the power of oligarchs and strengthening the state's administrative capacity. Although Putin the Administrator seems to have brought stability to Russia after the tumultuous 1990s, Russia's economic recovery has more to do with oil exports than the achievements of a particular prime mover.

Russia's dependence on the state of world oil prices may prove to be a Trojan horse that has prolonged further economic changes in the name of temporary stability. As some have pointed out, Putin's approach bears more of a resemblance to that of Brezhnev than that of Khrushchev or Gorbachev. Most significantly, Putin has demonstrated a distrust of democratic institutions and a penchant for limiting individual liberties. His emphasis on "the dictatorship of law" instead rule of law is not simply a linguistic difference.

The achievement of his ends has come without much questioning of the means. But more than anything else, Russia needs a credible institutional framework to set equal rules for all participants in both the political and economic processes. Instead of employing arbitrary use of power to achieve the aims, the focus should be on improving rules to make individuals less dependent on the short-term priorities of the leader in power and bargaining between political and business elites.

Russia's aspiration to join the World Trade Organization, a move that would certainly benefit the aggregate welfare of ordinary Russians by increasing competitive pressures in the market, is characteristic of stop-go economic reforms and the dual nature of the country. According to its government's rhetoric, Russia is eager to join the WTO; yet the state's inability to implement basic economic reforms as a prerequisite to accession reveals a harsh reality.

So, the claim (sometimes dismissed as a plot by political opponents) that the powerful administrator Potemkin might have built fake villages in Crimea to create a favorable impression of his achievements isn't so hard to believe after all. For the sake of Russia's future, let us hope Potemkin's name in the metaphor won't be replaced with Putin.

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