Russia is a halfway house, says Maxim Trudolyubov, the opinion page editor of the business newspaper Vedomosti. It has private companies, markets and all kinds of consumer wares, but it lacks crucial institutions that help us enjoy all those material goods. There are no such things as impartial courts, honest law enforcement or respect for the rules, he writes for the New York Times:
The lack of political clout from businesspeople and civil rights groups has allowed the Kremlin to respond quickly to isolated cases of resistance while staving off comprehensive reforms of the judiciary, the police and most public services. The pressure has been low because, paradoxically, Russia’s business community has never really championed private property rights in any substantial way. Most businesses have long been registered in offshore jurisdictions, most entrepreneurs have long ago acquired foreign residency permits, and their money has been safely parked abroad. The elite have learned to use the education and healthcare systems of other nations while ignoring the deterioration of those services at home.
“The people who are the most likely to be upset by the poor quality of governance in Russia are the very same people who are the most ready and able to exit Russia,” the political scientist Ivan Krastev warned in the Journal of Democracy back in 2011. “For them, leaving the country in which they live is easier than reforming it. Why try to turn Russia into Germany, when there is no guarantee that a lifetime is long enough for that mission, and when Germany is but a short trip away?”
Relative ease of access to Western jurisdictions has prevented pressure within the Russian political system from growing. But this safety valve may soon malfunction, according to Trudolyubo, a Wilson Center fellow in Washington, and the author of a forthcoming book on power and property in Russia:
Given the half-built state of the institutional system, isolation will make whatever legal protections Russians still possess an even more scarce resource. This, in turn, will lead to a heightened role for informal “guarantors” of property and safety — the Kremlin and the high-ranking security officials it relies on. These guarantees are always ambiguous. If Russia, helped by sanctions, closes its doors, the country will degenerate in wild infighting, the outcome of which it will be impossible to predict.