Russia today is an electoral democracy. Political leaders come to power through the ballot box. They are not appointed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. They do not take office by seizing power through the use of force. Most elites in Russia and the vast majority of the Russian population now recognize elections as the only legitimate means to power. Leaders and parties that espouse authoritarian practices--be they fascists or neocommunists--have moved to the margins of Russia's political stage. Given Russia's thousand-year history of autocratic rule, the emergence of electoral democracy must be recognized as a revolutionary achievement of the last decade.
Russia is not a liberal democracy. Its political system lacks many of the supporting institutions that make democracy robust. Russia's party system, civil society, and rule of law are weak and underdeveloped. Executives, both at the national and regional levels have too much power. Crime and corruption, forces that corrode democracy, are still rampant. Over the last several years, Russia's media, while still independent and pluralistic, have become increasingly dependent on oligarchic business empires. The Russian state still lacks the capacity to provide basic public goods, and the economy continues to sputter along. All these attributes impede the deepening of democratic institutions.
In recognizing these shortcomings, many have predicted for several years now that Russian democracy will collapse and be replaced by a new authoritarian regime. In 1996, many analysts affirmed that President Boris Yeltsin could not win reelection and therefore would hold on to to power by nondemocratic means. It did not happen. Instead, Yeltsin faced the voters and won reelection.
After the August 1998 financial crash, this group of Russia watchers predicted that Yeltsin and his entourage would resort to authoritarian rule to stay in power. It did not happen. Instead, Yeltsin changed his government several times in accordance with the constitution. The latest prophecy of democratic collapse gained prominence when Yeltsin entered the final year of his second term in office as president.
According to the constitution, he was obligated to retire at the end of this second term, but many warned that Yeltsin would never step down from office willingly and peacefully. But he did. In a dramatic last hurrah, Yeltsin announced on the eve of the new millennium that he had resigned and had handed over the reins of power to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In accordance with the constitution, the acting president then called for new elections to be held in March 2000.
The dismal record of predicting Russia's democratic demise in the 1990s suggests that the basic rules of electoral democracy may be more robust than we in the West understand. At the same time, the very survival of electoral democracy in Russia for several years is not evidence that the system is becoming more liberal or democratic. Pessimists see a trajectory heading toward democratic collapse. Optimists see a trajectory pointing toward greater democratic consolidation. Both may be wrong.
Instead, Russia may simply be stalled in the middle between authoritarian rule and full-blown liberal democracy. Rather than moving toward one or the other outcome, Russia's political system might very well be in equilibrium right now as an electoral democracy--that is, a system that lacks many features of a liberal democracy but also lacks those of a dictatorship.
This essay explores this hypothesis about Russia's current political system by examining several attributes of the system, including elections, the executive-legislative balance of power, the party system, civil society, the rule of law, and the state. Each section briefly discusses the positive and negative features of these components. The final section discusses the prospects for both reform and the collapse of Russian democracy. …