At the height of his failed campaign to reform Communism, Mikhail Gorbachev complained to Kremlin aides that all his initiatives quickly became lost in the byzantine channels of Soviet bureaucracy, where they "gradually suffocate, as if in layers of cotton wool."
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be voicing similar frustrations as he watches his bold plans to restore Kremlin authority over the country's far-flung regions, revamp the military, and streamline the economy amid official bickering, foot-dragging, and creative reinterpretation.
"It is becoming clear that Putin is not the strong president he was advertised to be," says Alexander Konovalov, director of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "All the announced reforms are dissolving into a war of bureaucratic clans, and he seems incapable of asserting control."
Experts say Mr. Putin is up against an unreformed bureaucratic machine that is actually larger and more obstreperous than its communist-era predecessor. Twenty years ago there were fewer than 800,000 officials in the entire USSR, as calculated by historian Martin MacCauley in his book The Soviet Union Since 1917.
By 1994, Russia alone had 1 million bureaucrats and the number has since risen to almost 1.2 million, according to a study last year by sociologist Vladimir Slatinov published in the political science journal Politika in autumn 2001.
The collapse of communist control a decade ago led to an explosion of official bribe-taking, graft, and influence-peddling that does not appear to have abated under Putin. A January poll by the independent Public Opinion Foundation found that 64 percent of Russians believe that all or most public officials are corrupt. More than 57 percent in the same survey agreed that "corruption in Russia is impossible to uproot."
But experts say corruption is a small problem compared with the suffocating political influence of untrammelled officialdom. "The nature of Russian bureaucracy is absolutely different from a Western civil service," says Vladimir Gelman, a political scientist at the European University of St. Petersburg. "Our bureaucrats are unprofessional, badly paid and, most important, they exercise power not in the public interest but in their own. Until the state machinery in this country is completely redesigned from top to bottom, no other reforms can be reliably implemented."
One of Putin's ambitious ideas upon assuming the presidency two years ago was to divide Russia into seven administrative zones and place a Kremlin watchdog over each to whip regional elites into line. Instead, the new presidential representatives appear to have merely added another layer to the existing bureaucratic confusion.
Plans to downsize Russia's bloated military and introduce an all-volunteer force seem to be backfiring. The Defense Ministry is now threatening to revoke student draft exemptions next year, and a decree published last week ordered the re-introduction of Soviet-era compulsory summer military training for 16-year-old males.
"It is an ancient rule in Russia that bureaucrats strangle any initiative - not because they desire to contradict the leader, but because any change contradicts their interests," says Sergei Mikhailov, deputy head of the Russian Public Political Center, an independent think tank. "The rule is that the longer the bureaucratic chain, the more the original policy becomes transformed into something else entirely."
Another key reform pledged by Putin was to commercialize housing, gas, electricity, and municipal utilities in order to attract the capital needed for rebuilding dilapidated infrastructure and modernizing services. That plan has been delayed repeatedly, and last week Economic Development Minister German Gref announced that its objectives will be sharply scaled back.
"Unlike their Western counterparts, Russian officials are heavily politicized," says Mr. Gelman. "In fact, most receive their jobs through networks of friends and keep them on the basis of personal loyalty rather than competence. The housing reform would have eliminated the jobs of huge numbers of bureaucrats. Because it is unpopular, the officials have a good pretext to scuttle the whole program."
In recent weeks Putin has attempted to shake things up by appealing directly to the public, over the heads of officials, by declaring Soviet-style "campaigns" on important social issues.
In December he used a TV broadcast to berate his social affairs minister, Valentina Matvienko, for not doing enough to help the estimated 1 million homeless children living on city streets, and promised "decisive steps" to address the problem. The next month he urged regional leaders to launch mass fitness programs to improve the country's declining health and flagging sports performance. Last week it was a war on crime, and the turn of police officials to face televised presidential wrath.
"This is an old story in Russia: when a leader feels helpless, he declares a campaign," says Mr. Konovalov. "Putin hopes to translate his continuing public popularity into political momentum, but he is really just admitting that the state machinery does not function."
Russia's official bureaucracy was created by Peter the Great in the 18th century, complete with a table of ranks and privileges, and has remained remarkably unchanged ever since. Political dissidents have railed against it, writers from Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn have derided it as a parasitical caste rather than a civil service. Czars and Soviet commissars alike have despaired of ever controlling it.
Dictator Joseph Stalin succeeded in imposing his will, but the price was mass terror.
"We cannot return to Stalinist methods, and we cannot go on pretending that this machine can ever be made to serve the public interest," says Mr. Mikhailov. "I hope Putin understands that he has limited time to tackle the bureaucracy head on - or all his other reforms will disappear like water into the desert sands."