The more things change, the more they stay the same: institutional transfers seen through the lens of reforms in Russia.

Author:Oleinik, Anton
 
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Reforms in most post-Soviet countries did not lead, contrary to widely cherished expectations, to the emergence of democracy and a full-fledged market. On the contrary, the elements of democracy, however weak and imperfect they have been since the start of the 1990s, are progressively disappearing and leaving only the facade, if that, of formally free elections. The idea of "strengthening the vertical of power" (i.e., all important political decisions are to be made only at the highest levels of the state's hierarchy), to use an expression that is popular in contemporary Russia, contradicts the principles of diversification and delegation of powers. Instead of market capitalism based on competition and private initiative, political capitalism emerges. "Profit is made through the state, via contacts with the state or under physical protection of the state" (Swedberg 2003, 60). The case of Yukos illustrates this. Once the major Russian oil company, its owners were prosecuted for fraud and tax evasion as soon as they lost their privileged relationships with state officials.

There are two perspectives from which the unexpected outcomes of post-Soviet transformations can be viewed. First, they can be seen as country-specific phenomena resulting from the particularities of political traditions, the heritage of the communist past and national culture. Second, one can put post-Soviet transformations into the context of universal problems observed recently in many other countries and emphasize their common features. Both strategies have their advantages and disadvantages. The first strategy appears more cautious than the second: any attempt to generalize and "universalize" the results of research in the social sciences raises doubts as to the validity of the conclusions (Giddens 1984, xxxii). Another advantage of the "particularistic" approach consists in a high probability of arriving at conclusions convenient for most Western scholars and observers. The failure of reforms is principally due to the heritage of the past; there is no point in comparing the post-Soviet case with the problems existing among many other countries, including Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.

On the other hand, the strategy of considering the problems of post-Soviet transformations separately from the global context deprives the analysis (and corresponding policy implications) of an important dimension. The missing elements are related to the processes of globalization. Post-Soviet transformations cannot be excluded from the global context since, during the 1990s, the Russian government depended on the financial resources provided by international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (at that time Russia became one of the world's largest borrowers with about US$123 billion of debt, as of early 2003). By the end of the 1990s, Russia stopped borrowing on the world financial market and started to pay off the foreign debt. It is estimated that Russia's oil and natural gas revenues (influenced by the situation on the world market of hydrocarbons) provide as much as 40 percent of the national government's budget and 55 percent of export earnings (U.S. Department of Energy 2004).

This article represents an attempt to overcome the opposition between the studies of the universal and country-specific problems related to the policies of modernization, by focusing on bureaucracy and the institutional constraints within which state officials act. The author explores the "third" path, which differs from both the claim to universal validity of neo-liberal models and the opposite belief in the uniqueness of the Russian experience. The proposed approach links the unexpected (and unexplained) outcomes of reforms to particularities of the institutional environment to a model of power relationships existing in many countries on the way to modernization. The model specifies on which grounds an individual acquires the right to control the actions of other individuals and to "carry out his own will despite resistance" (Weber 1968, 53). Technically speaking, the institutional model of power relationships will be considered as an independent variable. A first step toward testing this model will be made with the help of comparative and institutional analysis.

The article begins with a discussion of the qualitative impact of the global embeddedness of post-Soviet countries on the choice of reform policies and their outcomes. In this respect, one can gain some insight into the nature of the problems observed in several other countries whose reform policies have been heavily influenced, in varying forms, at the international level. The next section contains a brief survey of the key actors translating global tendencies and pressures into concrete reform policies. Special emphasis is placed on the state as a driving force of catch-up modernization represented by the state bureaucracy. The actors who behave according to a set of constraints are studied in the third and fourth parts of the paper. It is argued that the success of reform policies depends on the degree of "elective affinity" between the shape of reforms on one hand and the institutions and processes in which they are embedded, on the other. The assumption that power relationships have a higher relative weight than other constraints implies that feasible reforms (i.e., reforms that are not only desirable but correspond to the key actors' interests) tend to maintain/reinforce the prevailing model of power and contribute to its continuous reproduction. In the fifth section, the results of reforms carried out principally under only one efficient constraint, that of power relationships are summarized. If this case applies to a number of countries, then one can put forward a hypothesis of their negative convergence.

Modernization and Institutional Importation

No country exists in a void: financial and material resources, human beings and ideas have moved from one country to another since the very beginning of human history. For example, recent excavations in Labrador (Canada) provide evidence of intense tribal migrations leading to culture clashes well before European arrival (Smith, Bell and Rankin 2003). As a relatively recent phenomenon, globalization has simply increased the speed, scale and scope of these processes. "People, machinery, money, images and ideas now follow increasingly nonisomorphic paths ... the sheer speed, scale, and volume of each of these flows are now so great that the disjunctures have become central to the politics of global culture" (Appadurai 1996, 37).

Global exchange/interplay implies a comparison of different countries as well as keen explicit and implicit rivalry between them. Rivalry has taken diverse forms throughout history: from wars and military conflicts, to relatively peaceful competition for a larger share of world markets. Until recently, however, there was no set of rules acceptable for any global player, no durable consensus on the governance of global flows and interactions. The lack of commonly accepted frameworks and criteria for comparisons transforms competition at a global level into a zero-sum game--there are always winners and losers. Furthermore, in such a context, one can hardly imagine absolute winners and losers; they can be defined only in relative terms. This contributes to an endless cycle of rivalry. The concept of invidious comparison developed by Thorstein Veblen seems very pertinent here. "The invidious comparison can never become so favourable to the individual making it that he would not gladly rate himself still higher relatively to his competitors" ([1899] 1934, 31-2). Losers--in military, economic, political or cultural terms--are motivated to learn how to win (or at least how to improve their relative standing), in particular, through comparing themselves with and imitating more successful rivals.

The concept of invidious comparison is one of the central notions of Veblen's thought, but he does not define it in a formal manner. Invidious comparison means the actor's attempts to define his or her standing in relative terms, i.e. by comparing it with the situation of other people. Robert Frank and Philip Cook offer a suitable formal definition: "A contest whose payoffs are determined by relative rather than absolute performance" (1995, 24). The notion applies to relationships both within a group (most examples considered by Frank and Cook correspond to this case) and between them. Veblen seems to think that invidious comparison is most common and "natural" in the latter case ([1899] 1934, 224). At the present stage of the discussion, I apply this concept to relationships between societies.

The "social machinery" of invidious comparison lies close to "the activity of forecasting the psychology of the market" in which John Maynard Keynes saw the major source of instability of security markets. Speculation, as opposed to enterprise, refers to attempts to predict the reaction of other traders to changes in the news or in the general atmosphere "a short time ahead of the general public" (1936, 154). The incapacity of traders to find commonly accepted--and "anchored" in the process of production--references produces an endless spiral of cross-references, anticipations croisees (Orlean 1994, 19).

Invidious comparison refers to virtually any aspect of a country participating in global interactions. However, material wealth plays an increasingly important role in rivalry. On the one hand, "the possession of wealth confers honour; it is an invidious distinction" (Veblen [1899] 1934, 26), on the other, wealth gives an important edge in military conflicts and other cases of rivalry in explicit forms. Consequently, rivalry contributes to the spread of forms of socioeconomic organization having a comparative advantage in producing and accumulating wealth on a global scale. Modern socioeconomic organization in...

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