“Better the rule of One, whom all obey, than to let clamorous demagogues betray our freedom with the kiss of anarchy”
So said 19th-century Irish poet, playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde. The relevance of this Victorian view of leadership is inspired by those clamorous demagogues at Open Democracy – more specifically, Grigorii Golosov. Along with the common western view (which actually looks increasingly possible) that Mr. Putin will stand for election in 2012 as United Russia’s candidate, Mr. Golosov advances the somewhat more oddball notion that the solidity of support behind Putin (not to mention the relative weakness and chagrin of political movements that oppose him) is due to his obsessive micro-management.
Working from that premise, please join me as we take a bemused look at “Putin-Medvedev: Russia’s Managed Drama”.
Is Mr. Putin a micro-manager? If not, what would better describe his management style? If so, what are the national consequences of such micro-management? Is micro-management, in this context, undesirable?
As is often the case, it’d be helpful to proceed from the definition of the term. Therefore, according to Merriam-Webster, micro-management is “managing especially with excessive control or attention to details”. Although I didn’t quote Wikipedia (and generally don’t unless I can’t find the information I want to pass on anywhere else), their definition broadly agreed – while adding the proviso that micro-management was “generally seen with a negative connotation”. Further substantiating that view, two professional management consultants agreed that “…micro-managers cause serious problems for their staff members and for the companies that employ them” while one offered, “Micro-management is a personality aberration of insecure individuals”.
Everyone agreed; micro-management is a negative quality that typically results in degraded performance? Right, then; armed with our new-found knowledge, let’s look at Mr. Putin under the micro-manager lens.
A good place to start might be the Prime Minister’s calendar. What’d he have on his schedule for, say, April 15th? Let’s see….click on “Working Day”….That’s odd. Hockey practice with the Chelyabinsk White Bears and the Penza Forward. Whoops – the Prime Minister had apparently never skated on ice before February, when he made a vow to learn. I wonder where an obsessive micro-manager like Putin found time for skating lessons? Anyway, let’s try another date – April 19th. Well, that’s more like it; a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Kozak, on preparations for the 2014 Olympics at Sochi. The narrative reports, “Mr. Putin pointed out the need to ensure high construction quality, emphasizing that the Olympic venues will be used by people in decades after the Games”. There, that’s micro-management, surely? No? Well, then, how about April 21st? Mmmm….a meeting with Francis Gurry, Director-General of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Teach your grandmother to suck eggs, Putin – that’s not your area of responsibility! Oh, oops – it is. Look, you can pursue this on your own if you like; I find the way the page is set up to be a little awkward in randomly selecting a date to see what the Prime Minster’s working day was like, because you can’t just jump from month to month (or if you can, I don’t see any guidance as to how). But my point is, when does Mr. Putin find time to micro-manage his ministers and other government officials? Along with the events I’ve just detailed, there have been well-publicized occasions of the Prime Minister driving across the Far East in a Lada to celebrate the opening of a new highway (allegedly stopping along the 2000-km route to inspect key construction sites), shooting whales with special skin-sample darts with a crossbow (the same report stressed his personal involvement with conservation projects in general, although the Khimki Forest episode casts a bit of a pall over that), driving a Formula One racecar, roaring around on a Harley-Davidson and fishing in Siberia. Jeeze – does the guy ever work?
As well as the face-time spent in death-defying stuntery above, Mr. Putin has conducted 16 international State Visits since 2009, and 6 internal visits to different Russian regions in the past 4 months. He must have a platoon of micro-managers to micro-manage in his absence; either that, or a Blackberry bill bigger than the defense budget.
Mr. Golosov is insistent that a “mechanism of micro-management” has resulted in a “dictatorship of one man, camouflaged by its democratic institutions”. But it seems clear that Mr. Putin does not have enough time to actually dictate to everyone in person, which is pretty much the heart and soul of micro-management: I hope nobody, including Mr. Golosov, actually believes every bureaucrat in a country the size of the Russian Federation lines up outside Putin’s office every morning to get his or her marching orders. How’s it work, then? Well, “Putin gives personal orders to key bureaucrats he trusts, and these bureaucrats ensure that his orders are carried out…”
Oh, my God!! I just realized – that’s exactly like every other major top-down leadership organization in the civilized world!!! By no stretch of the most conspiracy-theory-fevered imagination is a system whereby the boss passes his direction to subordinates through department heads (it’s OK to call them “ministers”, because that’s what they are) accurately described as micro-management. But just to be sure, let’s go back to our definition. “Managing…with excessive control or attention to details”. I don’t see how a guy who’s only in the office half the time can exert excessive control over details.
Seriously – what kind of government would you prefer? One in which there’s nobody really in charge, and where individual ministers just get their targets at the beginning of the year and everyone gets together for a barbecue at year-end to see what kind of shape the nation’s in? Is that how a Nemtsov or a Kasparov would govern? Hardly: but just in case such a notion occurred to either, I can preview for you what the press would say about that kind of leadership. Ready? “The leader is out of touch with the country!!!” You know – like when the Cabinet made the decision in 1998 to default on $40 Billion in debt and devalue the ruble, but Yeltsin wasn’t there, so they flew out by helicopter to tell him, and First Deputy Prime Minister Nemtsov didn’t know until he heard about it on Interfax. How’d that work out, as an example of leadership, do you think? You certainly couldn’t accuse Yeltsin of being a micro-manager, though, could you?
But since I brought that example up, let’s go with it for a minute. I realize Yeltsin was the President and Putin is not at the moment; but he has been president before, and for sources like Open Democracy it makes no difference – Putin has always been the inflexible dictator who squeezes Russia until it gasps in his iron fist. So just for fun, let’s assume Mr. Golosov’s analysis is accurate, and Putin is a micro-manager who ruthlessly controls everything that happens in Russia.
Ummm….how is that bad for Russia? I mean, let’s look at inflation, which Russia-watchers like Open Democracy are forever playing up as The Rampaging Dragon That Ate The People’s Paychecks. Inflation in Russia today is about 7% – not great, a little more than double what it is in the USA, but manageable and forecast to steadily decrease. What was it when Yeltsin was President, again? The first records available were from 1993, when he had already been President for 2 years. Inflation stood at 874.6%. It never got out of double digits, and when he left office it was on its way back up again, at 85.7%. The following year – under President Putin – it fell to 20.7%, after which it declined steadily until the global financial crisis in 2008. At that point, when Putin was no longer President, inflation briefly spiked – although it never went as high as the lowest figure it had ever achieved under Yeltsin – and then began once more to steadily decline. Let’s recall; by definition, micro-management is supposed to be bad news for the company (or the country, in this instance). It’s also the characteristic mark of the “insecure individual”.
Is Vladimir Putin insecure, would you say? The same guy who sang in a foreign language in front of an international audience? Anybody?
Let’s take a look at GDP. Growth was stable under Putin, never falling below 4.7% (2002). What’s it look like in the World’s Largest Economy (not for much longer, by the way)? Ooooh…not so good, I’m afraid: first-quarter forecasts were revised downward a full point last month, to 1.9%. In 2002, Russia’s worst year under Putin for GDP growth – a paltry 4.7% – GDP growth in the USA was 1.8%.
Once again; hard to see Vladimir Putin as a micro-manager at all – but if he is, I’m hard put to perceive how this is wrecking the country he serves.
Oh, but wait: there’s more. Putin micro-manages the “Russian Propaganda Machine”, too. In fact, United Russia is guaranteed to win, because “Russian legislation on political parties and elections virtually eliminates [the] possibility” that a genuine opposition candidate will take part. Do tell. I’d be interested in seeing that legislation, and understanding more on how it eliminates the possibility of opposition, because that sounds like a non-democracy to me. Have the laws on elections and political parties changed significantly, in a non-democratic direction, since Yeltsin ran the show (actually, to be perfectly accurate, his leadership pointed out what a narrow difference there is between “running” the show and “ruining” the show)? The reason I ask is because when Yeltsin was elected, the western media had a collective democratic orgasm, and couldn’t stop talking about what a great democratic advance it had been for Russia.
Are we talking about the ruling party monopolizing political advertising, and the difficulty opposition politicians have with getting equal representation? Yawn. I sincerely hope you brought something better than that, because media manipulation happens every election in the iconic I’m-Rubber-You’re-Glue (so everything you say bounces off me and sticks to you) democracy. What does Open Democracy think would be fair, then; United Russia should start at zero votes, but they should spot the Liberal opposition, say, a twenty-percent head start? Seriously, it reminds me of when Boris Nemtsov lost the election for mayor of Sochi, his home town, polling less than 14% of the vote. He complained then, too, that he didn’t have fair access to advertising to spread his message. For one thing, he was First Deputy Prime Minister of the entire Russian Federation only 10 years before – is it possible there was nobody left alive in Sochi who had ever heard of him? For another, the western media enthusiastically spread his message for him via the Internet, just as they will this time. Internet penetration is at around 43%, over 60 million users in Russia – I’d bet neither television or newspapers can match that as an information medium in the country.
Mr. Golosov is not the only bullhorn for the “God Damn It, Putin Wins Again” doomcriers. From her new journalistic perch as Foreign Policy‘s Moscow correspondent, Julia Ioffe offers us a gloomy election preview; “Of course, on March 11th, a few voters will go to the polls and cast their votes”.
Julia seems to have retained little of her Russian heritage except the ability to speak the language fluently and her good looks (which are neck-snapping, if her photographs are any standard of measure). At this point in her life she is American to the marrow of her bones, with the all-too-common propensity for projection. In fact, as pointed out in a recent post, voter turnout in Russia since there was a democratic vote in that country has consistently surpassed that of the United States. If that doesn’t seem like such a big deal, I’d have to suggest it is; according to statistics at NationMaster, there is a 51% correlation between Democracy, Presidential Elections and Voter Turnout, the strongest hit on the Democracy correlation board. Remember the history-making 2005 parliamentary elections in Iraq? Who can forget, all those Republicans running around with purple fingers like they just pulled them out of a purple monkey’s bum or something….great days. What was the voter turnout? Less than 60%, or about what it was for the lowest turnout recorded in a Russian election. You’d never know it from the democracy orgy that went on in the western press.
Will there be irregularities in the 2012 elections in Russia? I’m sure there will. Are there irregularities in presidential elections in established democracies? My, yes; I did a post on it once. The ruling party in every democratic process endeavours to increase its chance of winning, by fair means and otherwise. In Russia, people vote – in larger numbers than in most established democracies. The votes are counted, and the count is substantially easier to verify than in democracies that use, say, voting machines which can demonstrably be hacked in two minutes by a college student. Whoever wins the most votes gets to be president. By every current indication, that will be either Mr. Medvedev or Mr. Putin, whichever of them stands for election. That doesn’t mean the fix is in, as twittering neoconservative mouthpieces would have you believe. It means more Russians trust United Russia to continue leading the country than wish to take a chance on liberal oppositionists who have yet to articulate a national plan, being mostly content to disparage the thus-far-successful one that is unfolding. It really is as simple as that, I promise you.
Rock on, President Micro-manager.