Democracy in Russia since the Soviet Union

Following the dramatic decline and break up of the Soviet Union, Russia faced a set of new challenges, hopes and fears as a nation. There was a new leader – Boris Yeltsin – and a new form of government and state to be built. Yeltsin was in 2000 replaced by the current president, Vladimir Putin, who declared on 2001-06-13

Democracy in Russia has been established forever. A new era in our history begun, the history of a democratic state based on civil freedoms and the predominance of law. Today we are living in a different country. The very nature of Russian power, its constitutional system, has changed, and the power has acquired a new democratic face. Refuting pessimistic predictions, we have rapidly mastered the basics of democracy and a market economy.”
In order to examine whether democracy really has been established in Russia forever, it is necessary to examine first what ‘democracy’ means for a country such as Russia. From this base, it will be possible to evaluate the strength of Putin’s claims, considering the institutional democratisation under Yeltsin and the present leader, and the changes that have occurred through out wider society.

Democracy

Due to the bipolar nature of Cold War politics, the demise of the Soviet system left only one alternative in Western eyes: “Many in the West made the facile assumption that democratic systems would replace the communist regimes.” Furthermore, these ‘democratic systems’ were to be Western style liberal democracies, such as those in the United Kingdom and Unites States. The basic tenets of such systems are regular, competitive elections; popular participation in politics, and widespread civil liberties. Due to the debate over what the word ‘democracy’ represents, when considering Russia’s development towards democracy it is most appropriate to use the word in the sense in which is was assumed when the expectations of the country’s future were presented. In this case, therefore, ‘democracy’ shall be taken as meaning the liberal democratic model referred to above.

Yeltsin's presidency

One of the first features to emerge in the post-Soviet Russia was a particularly strong presidency in the form of Boris Yeltsin. A new constitution, ratified by national referendum in December 1993, presented the president with a wide range of powers with few constraints, including the power to issue decrees on force of law, and directly oversee foreign policy and national security. Although such concentration of power is often considered ‘undemocratic’, it is important to note that perhaps

“presidential power and dominance of other branches of government was needed in a period of transition to democracy, because only a strong presidency could push Russia along the road away from its authoritarian path.”
However, many of the new leadership, including Yeltsin himself, were old members of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and so “...They did not have several years of experience in negotiating with an opposition and at least partly accommodating it. This their authoritarian reflexes were largely undisturbed.”
This can be illustrated with several examples: in 1993, the new president ordered the Russian military to shell the parliament building to destroy the remnants of a group who had tried to seize power. Similar degrees of authoritarian command were employed as Yeltsin pushed for economic reform: “In doing so he has, at times, used undemocratic methods.”
The strength of the postcommunist leadership was perhaps indicative of Russia still being in transition to democracy, rather than a democratic state. There is a “broad consensus on what democracy is, though not on how a system becomes democratic”, so it would, at this stage be inappropriate to evaluate Russia’s democratisation as a completed process. It can be said, however, that Russian governance was significantly more democratic under Yeltsin than under the Soviet system.

Putin's presidency

The ‘authoritarian reflexes’ left from the Soviet era should however subside as the process of democratisation advances. Unfortunately, this does not appear to have been the case under Putin: during his presidency he has extended presidential powers – particularly with regards to national security and the war with Chechnya – and heavily centralised control. The New York Times reported on 2000-06-26

“Putin’s search for order begins with the construction of a pyramid of support, built Lenin style from top down. The vertical of power, as Russians call it, places the president firmly in charge of the federal government and the federal government in charge of pretty much everything else...”
Similarly, Putin has been described as having a “campaign against oligarchs, regional governors and other elite actors... to erode the power of the new bourgeousie and other elites.”

With regards to democracy, the Russian presidency represents some progress in that the president is popularly elected, however the authoritarian reflexes that remain can defeat this, for example in the 1996 election: “Yeltsin’s victory owed a good deal to the prerogatives of the presidency itself. Yeltsin made full use of his influence over the state media.” Putin’s systematic “drive to reduce the number of Russia’s regions from 89 to seven ‘federal districts’, and to curb the power of the governors, is designed to enhance central power, not democratise the regions.” This centralisation of power also reduces participation levels, dealing a further blow to democratisation.

Civil Society

A second feature of the process of change is the emergence of civil society in Russia. The development of autonomous social and civic organisations demonstrates that increased civil liberty Russians now have: under the Soviet regime, all ‘civil’ associations were under the cultural dominance of the leadership, and were ideological ‘transmission belts’. Now, however, “the intrusive communist party mechanism for enforcing ideological discipline in public discourse is gone, and with it, political censorship.” This political freedom is embodied in the results of a 1993 survey that found that 2/3 of Russians felt they had “significantly more freedom of religion, freedom of speech|speech] and association.” The notable third of the population that did not feel more freedom could be representative of the lack of democracy in practice: “a large body of research suggests that commitment to democratic principles of individual rights is widely shared although not uniformly practised... Citizens’ ability to defend these rights against encroachment by central or local authorities remains tenuous.”
Furthermore, Putin’s pursuance of important media figures such as Vladimir Gusinsky – head of ‘Media Most’, Russia’s largest independent media conglomerate – amounts to an implicit censorship on private sector media. This encroachment of freedom of speech represents a definite backwards step for what civil liberties had been acquired in Yelsin’s time.

Competitive Elections

Between 1989 and 1996 there were 8 nationwide contested elections : this is clearly more democratic that the dynastical succession of power during the height of the Soviet era. These elections did, however, “vary in the degree to which they were honest, open and fair.” Neither does ‘competitive elections’ imply that a manifesto was followed by the elected once in power: “there was little popular control over the actions of government, in spite of elections that were genuinely competitive.” Some commentators note that “unreconstructed communists, nationalist authoritarians (including some monarchists) and other anti-democratic groupings have obtained significant proportions of the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections”. However, although constituting a possible threat to democracy in the future, it is questionable whether electing the member of a political party of personal choice goes against the nature of democracy. This election of less ‘democratic’ politicians reflects that Russians are less used to, and accommodating of “seemingly inefficient methods of decision making”, again demonstrating that Russia is in a process of unfinished democratisation as the political culture which surrounds established democracies has not yet fully emerged.

Appropriate Government

It is clear that since Gorbachev, Russia has made substantial steps towards the kind of governance that was expected for it. In several ways, however, Putin has negated some of what was achieved under Yeltsin, but, as demonstrated by his speech on the Day of Russia in 2001, he at least subscribes publicly to a democratic school of thought, if not in practise. His actions aimed at eroding Russia’s ‘new bourgeoisie’, controlling media and concentrating power in his position are not positive steps for democracy. There are indications, perhaps reflecting the weak democratic culture in Russia, that Putin’s strong leadership is favoured: “Putin’s high ratings in opinion polls, even in the wake of the Kursk submarine disaster in Summer 2000 indicate that most people favour a strong or even dictatorial leadership.”

Russia today, in leadership and society, is not democratic by Western standards; however a political system has emerged that is far more democratic than the previous one, and the current system appears to fit the current demand for democracy among the population: “Russia is not a democracy, but a stable system with a durable division of power among a fairly stable group of elite actors.” This ‘stable’ system is perhaps the best situation for Russia: firstly, the assumption that Western liberal democracy is the best form of government in Russia may be unfounded. Each of the world’s democracies has distinct traits that are necessary for the smooth running of politics along with national culture. Secondly the slow transition towards democracy may be necessary in preventing a backlash towards authoritarianism – the system the country has worked so hard to progress from.

Sources

Books

Gill, G and Markwick, R “Russia’s stillborn Democracy? From Gorbachev to Yeltsin” Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000
Remington, T. “Politics in Russia” Longman, New York, 1999
White, S. “Developments in Russia’s politics” Duke University Press, Durham, 2001


Newspapers

Pravda, 2001-06-13 (pp1-3)
New York Times 2000-06-26 (p 18)

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