The most important actors in post-Soviet politics are not formal institutions such as “parliament,” “political parties,” or even “the KGB.” Nor are they well-defined social collectivities like “ethnic groups.” They are not even individual politicians, strictly speaking. Instead, the lead roles go to extended and loosely hierarchical networks led informally by powerful patrons. These patrons usually do boast prominent formal titles. They are the presidents and prime ministers of countries, the heads of prestigious state agencies, the owners of corporate megaconglomerates, the elders of “clans,” and the governors of provinces. But these titles, and the organizations to which they refer, do not define their networks.
Instead, their networks stretch far beyond and across formal institutional and identity boundaries. Ukraine’s “oligarchs,” formally businesspeople, spread their tentacles throughout society and the state, often claiming clients in all three branches of power through ties of family, friendship, and, of course, finance. The bosses of Russia’s regional machines, formally governors, often controlled major shares of their regions’ economies through kin or crony well into the 2000s. Top Azerbaijani ministers, formally civil servants, manage vast economic empires that often have little to do with their jurisdictions as listed on paper. Even networks frequently referred to as “clans” in Central Asia are neither coextensive with nor actually limited to kinship or ethnicity, a point that is frequently misunderstood by outsiders who take the local slang too literally. The collective “actors” that actually wield the most influence in these countries, then, are precisely these extended informal networks, networks that constitute institutions in their own right – just informal rather than formal ones. These networks are the building blocks of which post-Soviet Eurasia’s power pyramids are made, the stuff of its vertikals of authority, the moving parts in its regime dynamics.