July 06, 2015

Russia's Leaders: Thieves versus Policemen

Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-33290421

Yevgeniy Primakov, who has died aged 85, was briefly Russia's prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov's early career followed a classic Soviet trajectory: a specialist and postgraduate researcher in foreign afffairs, he became a foreign correspondent, a collaborator with the KGB's foreign service, and an Academician. After the conservatives' failed coup in 1991 he became the last first deputy head of the KGB and then the first head of the SVR, Russia's new foreign intelligence service.

I was in Moscow in September 1998 when President Yeltsin appointed Primakov prime minister. Primakov took the place of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the founder of Gazprom, who presided over a notoriously corrupt administration. In the company of friends I asked:

Well, what would you rather: to be governed by a thief or a policeman?

Without pausing for thought my friends responded with one voice:

A thief!

Why? (I asked).

When it's a thief, at least you know what they're up to.

Primakov did not last long in office. A few months later he was succeeded as prime minister by Vladimir Putin. A few months after that, the same Putin succeeded Yeltsin as President of Russia.

As time passed I often remembered this conversation, especially when I had to think about corruption and the rule of law.

Eventually I decided that my initial question was probably based on an error. In law-governed societies, the distinction between thieves and policemen is clear: thieves break the law and policemen enforce it. But there are lots of places around the world, including Russia, where the rule of law does not fully apply. In such situations the lines between thief and policeman become blurred to the point where it's hard to tell them apart.

When personal safety is at risk and property rights are not secure, thieves take on some of the functions of policemen because they need to protect their ill-gotten gains from robbery by others, or they find they can augment their gains by selling "protection" to others. And policemen become thieves by stealing from ordinary citizens while selling exemption from the law to their political masters and criminal friends.

Russia today is a mixed picture. I'm sure there are some honest policemen and honest politicians. But for such people it will be a struggle to survive and a danger to rise too high.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Jaime L. Manzano

    As a retired 30 year career senior executive and foreign service officer, I appreciate the stark lines drawn by the categories. Bureaucratically speaking, the U.S. public service houses both. When I began, the public service was more a profession under which the constitution and the law were administered. These days, the service has become dominated more by a self-serving, self-perpetuating cabal(?), dedicated to the growth of the public sector, and the politics that foster a command economy.

    10 Jul 2015, 15:33


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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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