WILL RUSSIA remain a democracy or will it slowly evolve into authoritarianism, or even dictatorship? This is the question most often asked in the West. But let us put forward an alternate question: Was Russia a democracy before Putin?
At best, Russia under Boris Yeltsin was a manipulative democracy; at worst, it was a pseudo-democracy, cloaking Yeltsin's personal rule and the free reign given to oligarchs and big bankers. Indeed, by the end of his administration, only the oligarchs and liberal reformers closely connected to the Kremlin remained as Yeltsin's base of domestic support. Yeltsin-type "democracy" was applauded in the United States and Europe, but had weak support among most Russians. Many in the West have chosen to ignore how the electoral process under Yeltsin was repeatedly manipulated in ways that negated the essence of democracy. The elections of 1996 were a fiesta of manipulation, outward falsifications, use of dirty money and the servility of the so-called free media--in fact mainly controlled by oligarchs and financial groups. The majority of Russians believed that democracy "Yeltsin-style" meant freedom--to loot, commit crimes and be corrupt. The financial default of 1998 was a clear verdict on Yeltsin's economic and social policies.
Most Russians believe that Yeltsin's pseudo-democracy has brought only turmoil, decay and corruption to Russia. And while opinion polls indicate that most Russians value basic political freedoms, they do not want to live under a faux-liberal regime dominated by big money. For the majority of Russians, what is most important is for Russia to become an economically developed, rich and powerful country.
Therefore, the only democracy Russia had known--Yeltsin's manipulative pseudo-democracy--appeared as an obstacle to, rather than an instrument of, Russia's national revival. This is why most Russians have not shed a tear for the defunct Yeltsin regime. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has identified his main task as raising the living standards of the Russian people and doubling the country's GDP in a decade--goals enthusiastically endorsed by most Russian citizens.
But how does Putin plan to bring this about? If we can describe the Yeltsin system as a pseudo-democracy, what is the Putin system of rule and what are its guiding principles? In the most general terms one can speak of an authoritarian model aimed at economic modernization. But Putin is far from being a Russian version of Pinochet, who came to power through a bloody coup and remained a dictatorial ruler for most of his time in power. No, Putin seems to be inspired by a different type of leader--such as Peter the Great or Charles de Gaulle.
Certainly, there is a more pronounced penchant for liberal economic and social reforms in this system of rule than for the development of democratic institutions. Predictably, economic modernization in Russia will precede the next round of political democratization, as it happened in a number of societies throughout the world (including those where a much stronger authoritarian model had been in place for many years, like South Korea).
What are the main features of Putin's authoritarian model? The Duma and the Federation Council have been devoid of the influence they had previously. Often the Duma nowadays looks like an extension of the executive branch. The upper chamber, composed of appointed senators, appears to be another rubber stamp. The separation of powers in these conditions becomes more of a slogan rather than a reality.
The Duma and presidential elections of 2003-04 were marked by excessive use of so-called "administrative resources", whereby the center influences the outcome of the vote by exercising pressure on the regional governors and local mayors all over the country. They, in turn, used their own abilities (patronage, control of financial flows and the like) to "turn out the vote." However, it is important to note that Russian "electoral postmodernism", defined by use of administrative resources and control of the mass media, was first introduced by the Yeltsin team in 1996.
The mass media, especially leading TV channels, came under stronger controls from the government. By summer 2004, some popular political shows were closed down, and state-controlled channels clearly took the line that their prime mission was to entertain the audience rather than introduce it to the culture of political pluralism.
RUSSIA'S SWING from the Yeltsin to the Putin system may be compared to yet another swing of the pendulum of Russian history, from "reform" to "restoration." In Boris Yeltsin's two terms, the pendulum swung from the Left--the communist command-and-control system--to the Right--marked by the breakdown of state regulation over the economy and the rule of oligarchs and rightwing liberals. The ultra-liberal Yegor Gaidar, hated by the majority of Russians, as the head of the government, and the robber-baron Boris Berezovsky as deputy head of the Security Council--those were indeed telling signs of the Yeltsin epoch.
Under Putin the pendulum swung back--to stronger state controls (for instance, against tax evasion), to new limits on the political influence of big money and to a centralization of power in Moscow. However, its present position is very far from the place it occupied in the communist epoch. The point at which the pendulum stopped can be described as moderate authoritarian rule politically and limited market liberalism economically. An important feature of Putin's Russia is a consensus about private property as the basis of economic and social life. This was still an unresolved question at the time of the 1996 elections, but since then it has been accepted by society at large. Another important development is the gradual weakening of the Communist Party, which today has no chance whatsoever of coming back into power. Finally, the diversity of political opinions and platforms and the freedom to profess one's views show that Russia is generally developing along democratic lines rather than sinking back into Soviet times.
The definition of "managed pluralism" suggested by Nikolas Gvosdev in the Spring 2004 issue of The National Interest may be one way of describing the present Russian political system, although it refers only to the socio-political dimension of Putin's rule. If one is to describe it in more general terms, one can speak of soft authoritarianism or state-controlled democracy (state primacy over society coupled with democratic institutions, elections and basic democratic freedoms). At any rate, comparisons with the Soviet Union are misleading. What we see today in Russia is a qualitatively new development and a deeply changed social and political reality.
It is also interesting to note that the most vocal opposition to Vladimir Putin comes mainly from those quarters that had benefited the most from the Yeltsin system. Indeed, the current political opposition is an odd combination of Communists and their electorate; members of the Yeltsin elite, who did not find their place in Putin's pyramid of power; part of the liberal reform movement and various right-wing politicians and activists, who, like Anatoly Chubais, have been marginalized politically; and a number of oligarchs, who are strongly opposed to Putin's methods and want to bring down his administration. But the democratic movement that was so strong from 1987-91 (and which most Westerners have in mind when they talk about supporting "democrats" in Russia) has largely dissipated. Such an opposition, where an oligarch like Boris Berezovsky appears at the side of the head of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, can hardly be considered democratic, although it brandishes the banner of democracy. The real goal of its leaders is not to bring democracy to Russia but to use democracy as a slogan against Putin.
Putin said once that he considered himself the top manager of Russia. Today his managerial position is so strong that it has become a virtual monopoly on power. The pyramid Putin created seems to be stable and strong. But, as in any pyramid, strategic actions, key decisions and main responsibility are not diffused among autonomous managers, but concentrated in the hands of the leadership. And political monopoly, asserts the opposition, leads to stagnation. Vladimir Putin has to prove this wrong.
The wind seems, however, to blow into Putin's wings. High prices for oil and gas on world markets serve as a powerful motor for the Russian economy which has grown at the impressive rate of 6-7 percent a year. It also allows Russia to service its foreign debt. By the end of October, Russia's gold and foreign currency reserves have--for the first time in the history of the new Russia--crossed the $100 billion mark and now stand at $105 billion.
IT IS TRUE that Putin still faces formidable challenges. He has to make the state bureaucracy--and especially the security services--much more effective, and this has become an overriding task after the terrorist attack on a school in Beslan. The unresolved issue of Chechnya also poses a major challenge. Unless Putin finds a way to crush armed separatism in Chechnya, terrorist activity will not stop and will subvert Putin's rule.
The key battle Putin has to fight is economic modernization. If Russia continues to maintain the present rate of economic development until 2008, in conditions of political stability, Putin's presidency will have been judged to be a success. In his first term, the main source of his strength was his enormous popularity. Putin was the opposite of Yeltsin--and this is why Russians supported him. The last elections brought him an even greater level of support. Putin's success depends on whether he preserves this support throughout his second term. It will depend on three key factors: his capacity to assure economic growth, to limit terrorist attacks and to preserve social stability while pursuing liberal reforms. If he displays such a capacity, the "Right-Left" opposition composed of Communists and oligarchs will hardly be a danger to him. If he does not, then political and social stability, and therefore his presidency, may be shattered. In the event that Putin's strategy fails, Russia may either fall back into the worst kind of criminal oligarchic capitalism or face the danger of political radicalization and a growing anti-Western orientation.
IN THIS respect the pressure some in Western circles try to put on Russia is missing the point. When the authors of the now famous "Open Letter" to the heads of NATO and the EU call for the West to undertake a new crusade for "Russian democracy", they strengthen anti-Western, and especially anti-American, feelings in Russia. The main reason for this is simple: Russians are weary of Yeltsin-style "democracy", which they hold responsible for the large-scale looting of the country. After all, consider what Paul Klebnikov, the American author and publisher of Russian descent, who was tragically murdered in Moscow earlier this year, wrote in his famous book, Boris Berezovsky: The Godfather of the Kremlin:
Corrupted capitalism of Yeltsin's Russia did not appear by chance. The government gave huge wealth to Berezovsky and a narrow circle of those close to Yeltsin in exchange for their political support. The Yeltsin clan and friendly businessmen conserved power, but they ruled over a bankrupt state and an impoverished population. It was supposed that the young democrats would bring order to Russia, introduce a new legal system and give a green light to the market economy. Instead they headed a regime that turned out to be one of the most corrupt in the history of mankind. (1)
So, when Mark Brzezinski and Richard Holbrooke call for support for those they term "reformers", they seemingly fail to understand that this is a call for support for those people who are considered by most Russians to be directly responsible for its recent degradation. (2) It is something of an irony that many Westerners--calling for democracy in Russia--argue that the forces most worth supporting are the ones massively rejected by Russian voters in the last elections. The voters failed to support the Union of Right-Wing Forces (with Nemtsov and Chubais at the helm) not because it could not get its message to the voters, but because Russian voters knew its message all too well--and rejected it. But the authors of the "Open Letter" cannot face facts: The liberal parties did poorly in the last election, not primarily because of the electoral technologies used by the Kremlin, or because they had less access to the media than other parties, but because their platform is not popular with the voters.
So those in the United States who call for the next administration to administer a dose of "tough love" to Russia should ponder the consequences of such a policy line. Does the United States want to deal with a country that can be a partner in the fight against world terrorism and in the solution of complex regional issues threatening world security--or does it prefer to antagonize Russia by engaging in an anti-Putin crusade with Boris Berezovsky, Chechen separatists, some disaffected oligarchs and marginal political circles?
It is true that there are dangers for the fragile roots of democracy in Russia. However, they are coming not only from attempts at a bureaucratic restoration, but also from attempts at political revenge by corrupt and greedy oligarchs, rib choose sides in this fight would hardly be wise for America.
Russia is still struggling with the dramatic legacy of its recent and not so recent past. Democracy in Russia is far from established. The Russian pendulum needs some more time to reach a balanced and stable position. In order to reach such a balance the country needs political stability and firm leadership.
Taking into account the turmoil of the 1990s, authoritarian modernization seems in those conditions not so much Putin's choice, but the only way to proceed. A number of countries that faced this challenge moved along similar lines. They are now respected and established democracies. If Russia follows the same path with the same result--it will be not only in its own interest, but in the interest of the world as well.
(1) Taken from p. 14 of the Russian version.
(2) "America must give Russia a dose of 'tough love'", Financial Times, October 7, 2004.
Alexey K. Pushkov is professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He is the anchor of a weekly television program on politics (Postcript) and a board member of the Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policies.…