Citizenship and the Social Contract in Post-Soviet Russia: Twenty Years Late?

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Abstract: Russia does not have a social contract in which citizens have traded political quiescence for improving standards of living. Rather, state-society relations are defined more as a divorce in which citizens exchange quiescence for economic autonomy, not prosperity. In these conditions, citizens have little loyalty to the regime if it violates the terms of the deal. The question remains, however, whether civil society activists can redefine citizenship to mean that an active population forces public officials to obey the law, at least in some cases.

There is a peculiar difficulty in trying to reflect on 20 years of history and scholarship at a moment of crisis. Fittingly, the crisis at hand as this essay is written--as Vladimir Putin squares off against an unprecedented and largely unpredicted wave of resistance in his bid to return to the presidency--is both empirical and theoretical in nature. To make matters worse, this essay is written without the benefit of knowing how the story will end. But the current crisis of both politics and analysis does more than cause uncertainty about the future: it causes uncertainty about the past. As we ask ourselves how we got to this point--how a depoliticized, atomized Russia came to be captivated by a contested election, and how scholars (many, though not all) failed to see it coming--we would do well to ask first, Where are we? Are we at a turning point? Do we understand this moment as one at which a previously nonexistent dynamic emerged, or one at which we began to take notice of a previously unobserved or misunderstood dynamic (7) And that means asking questions about where we began.

In the teleological way in which we approached the emergence of postSoviet Russia, we imagined the future as a democratic one, not necessarily devoid of the detrimental legacies of a totalitarian past, but nonetheless endowed with the institutional attributes inherited from normative democratic theory and political philosophy. Reasonable people could disagree about formal institutional and constitutional design, about the sequencing of reforms and so on, but there was a broad consensus--and one seemingly shared by Russia's liberalizing counter-elites-turned-power-elites of the early 1990s--that civil society was a crucial part of the equation. An informed and engaged citizenry, combined in voluntaristic and solidary initiatives, would gain sovereignty over the state, limiting the autonomy of elites and embarking on a shining future replete with public goods and social harmony. The fact that none of this came about became the subject of much academic handwringing in the mid- and late-1990s, as civil society was declared a failure almost everywhere in the post-communist space, and in Russia in particular. We now seem to understand the relationship between Russians and their state as adversarial and predatory, underpinned by an illiberal quid-pro-quo social contract of democratic franchise abandoned for a measure of prosperity. But that analytical framework does not provide parsimonious solutions to the crisis of analysis mentioned earlier. And so, in my view, it bears returning briefly to first principles.

The Meaning of Citizenship

What does it mean to be a citizen of Russia? This is a different question from that of what it means to be Russian, with all of the ethnic, linguistic, religious, cultural, and historical attributes that implies. Being a citizen of the Russian Federation carries with it a set of formal rights and responsibilities enshrined in the Constitution and other laws, including those pertaining to voting, military service, social services and so on. Citizenship also carries an inherited attachment to territory, a set of symbols, national sports teams and the like. Certainly, all of these have meaning, but only in the broader and deeper context of the basic nature of the relationship between a Russian citizen and the Russian state. And while that meaning has over the last twenty years been shaped by the way in which the new Russian state has behaved during transition, the meaning of Russian citizenship may by now be argued to have become sufficiently consolidated that it will, in many respects, shape the future development for the state itself. …