Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy chief of staff of the presidential administration, has been hard at work training Russian government officials in the art of corporate governance—a sign that the Kremlin has decided to reduce politics to cut-and-dried numbers, and itemize and grade the government’s interactions with the public.

Bureaucrats will now be evaluated with the help of key performance indicators (KPIs), while meetings of the State Council, chaired by Kiriyenko associate Alexander Kharichev, already feature elements of business training and brainstorming sessions. Apparently, the Kremlin believes that rigid corporate structures—with a Soviet tinge—are an appropriate response to growing discontent.

A former Rosatom head, Kiriyenko has introduced numerous business practices into Russian politics since being put in charge of “curating” domestic politics in 2016. For example, the Kremlin now holds training sessions for gubernatorial candidates, who jump off cliffs, charge at tanks, participate in brainstorming sessions, and play business simulations.

Sponsored by Sberbank and hosted at its resorts, the school for governors embodies the presidential administration’s new philosophy, with Kremlin appointees sold to the public as specially trained technocrats who are ready for anything. Large corporations frequently organize such training sessions, though these are usually for team-building rather than educational purposes.

Kiriyenko is also behind Leaders of Russia, a national competition resembling the team spirit-boosting activities that large companies organize with an eye to creating a loyal cadre of managers. Its overseers in the presidential administration believe it will promote career growth for ambitious young people who are willing to work for the government. Successful candidates participate in training sessions, play business simulators, and are coached by politicians and government officials.

President Vladimir Putin, for his part, supports the introduction of elements of corporate governance into Russian politics, having been swayed by his domestic policy team’s narrative of recent gubernatorial elections, in which, Kiriyenko’s colleagues insist, young technocrats prevailed while old-school politicians and government officials were defeated.

In a sign that Kiriyenko’s approach has been well received, Kharichev now heads the State Council’s operations office. The first session he held closely resembled a corporate gathering, with participants—governors, government ministers, and heads of state corporations, dressed casually and tieless—taken to a Sberbank resort in Sochi. Two days of brainstorming and problem-solving exercises were followed by the actual State Council meeting, a roundtable discussion on said exercises. Underscoring the event’s significance, the seating arrangements were discussed in great detail on Telegram channels associated with the presidential administration, as well as on federal television channels.

The introduction of the use of KPIs was the logical next step, and it coincided with a dramatic decline in the regime’s approval ratings and the growth of discontent over unpopular changes to Russia’s pensions system. This fall’s provincial elections demonstrated the increasing instability of Russian politics, from widespread protest voting to the unexpected defeats of some Kremlin favorites at the hands of weak rivals whose chances of victory were universally regarded as bleak. Electoral outcomes have become unpredictable, and the government does not know how to respond.

The power vertical built over the last two decades does not envision a return to genuine political competition, so the Kremlin is trying to react to chaos with rigid corporate organization. The logic is simple: if something is out of tune, the mechanism must be reassembled to make it more predictable and understandable. The officials responsible for increasing the regime’s approval ratings will now be evaluated, problems tackled at brainstorming sessions, and freshman governors specially trained. The government has clearly articulated its goals and methods and assigned officials respective KPIs, so the desired results—the elimination of social protest and the preservation of the regime—now appear to be within reach and easily achievable.

The new format of State Council meetings suggests a possible revamping of Russia’s structure of power. Putin’s fourth presidential term is set to expire in 2024, which poses a problem for the power vertical. Constitutional amendments allowing Putin to remain in power have been extensively discussed, and a new role for the State Council—as an advisory body headed by Putin and tasked with designing the government’s strategy—contemplated.

For now, the State Council does not play a critical role in political life. It includes governors as members; its composition is changing constantly; and news about State Council sessions is forever obscured by coverage of more pressing issues. But expanded State Council sessions look quite different, featuring, as they do, deputy prime ministers, government ministers, and the heads of provinces and state corporations. Two-day-long brainstorming sessions appear to serve as prototypes for a permanent structure with Putin at the helm. Its participants will actually do something, rather than just hold meetings.

One can detect elements of both Soviet administrative tradition and corporate management. On the one hand, the State Council resembles a corporation’s board of directors. On the other hand, it looks a lot like the Politburo, which wielded the real power in the Soviet Union, despite the Supreme Soviet’s formal status as the country’s collective head of state.

With its emphasis on rigidity, rather than dialogue and compromise, this fusion of Soviet and corporate managerial approaches is problematic, especially against the backdrop of a growing political crisis. Its nonlinear nature means that while the authorities may view a particular move as tactically unsound, they may nonetheless take it on the expectation of strategic benefit. Such reasoning will be poorly received by the public, as the backlash to the government’s pension changes, which the authorities justified as necessary in the long term, has already demonstrated. Plus, corporate culture breeds elitism and thus threatens to further erode the relationship between state and citizen.

The dangers of the Kremlin’s new approach to governing Russia are already making themselves known. Newly appointed government officials deflect the people’s complaints by deriding them as lazy. From a corporate perspective, they are merely putting slacking employees in their place, but from a political standpoint, their arrogant statements simply contribute to the growth of discontent. Instead of introducing some order into Russia’s increasingly unstable politics, the Kremlin is fencing itself off—at the risk of completely separating itself from reality.

By:
  • Andrey Pertsev