Putin and the Parliamentary Elections in Russia: The Confluence (Slijanie) of Russian Political Culture and Leadership

By Kernen, Beat | East European Quarterly, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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Putin and the Parliamentary Elections in Russia: The Confluence (Slijanie) of Russian Political Culture and Leadership


Kernen, Beat, East European Quarterly


In its general form, an authoritarian polity can be defined as a system in which the government or the state, dominated by an elite, focuses on the maintenance of order and security, usually at the expense of at least some individual freedoms. More specifically, the classical definition of an authoritarian system has been provided by Juan Linz who regarded it as one with

   limited, not responsible, political pluralism, without elaborate and
   guiding ideology, but with distinctive mentalities, without
   extensive nor intensive political mobilization ..., and in which a
   leader or occasionally a small group exercises power within formally
   ill-defined limits but actually quite predictable ones. (1)

To the extent that citizens in such a system can freely express their political preferences and condone or even seek a degree of authoritarianism (for whatever reason), they would tend to support governmental leaders and political organizations that implicitly or explicitly endorse or symbolize values of "law and order." In the Russian context, this focus on "law and order" translates into a popular desire for security (derived from the Soviet premise of "cradle-to-grave" nurturing or support of the individual by the state), a strong state (a hallmark of both tsarist Russia and the former Soviet Union), and a leader who is in control (the Stalin phenomenon without its excesses or ideological package). It also may signify a rejection of the principles of self-reliance, state non-intervention, and "anarchism" or individualism often associated with Western-type capitalism and democracy and vilified for many Russians by trends and events in Russia during the last twelve years. There can be no doubt that the "Yeltsin factor" with all its attributes of personal weakness, alcoholism, sickness, as well as of cronyism and corruption, further intensified these notions commonly held by many Russians. In its mildest form, the return to authoritarianism may be a "Russian version of managed democracy," (2) whereas a more sinister interpretation may be that "there is no democratic basis to Putin's 'dictatorship of the law' and 'strong state' statements." (3) From this perspective, Putin's leadership and personality would be a reflection of Russian political culture which is "less conducive to liberal democratic development" and in which some form of autocracy prevails. (4) In most likelihood, the type of authoritarianism that has been evolving during the Putin presidency will correspond to the "soft" version which constitutes a peace-meal process that imposes some restrictions on individuals, groups, and the media, rather than the "hard" variant that would witness the actual dismantling of constitutional guarantees. (5)

Whether a long-term alignment in Russian politics has taken place remains to be seen, but post-Soviet elections may signify that a majority of Russian voters have found the kind of leadership and party preferences that reflect their political culture. By using Russian elections to assess political attitudes, these elections can be put into a more comprehensive framework and their results interpreted from a historical perspective. Such an approach will also allow us to look at the likely relationship between the executive and the citizens, make some predictions about Putin's direction in the foreseeable future, and forecast the outcome of the next presidential elections with relative ease.

Notwithstanding one's position on the degree to which the former Soviet Union remained a model of totalitarianism throughout its 70 years of existence, most people in the West as well as many Russians expected post-Soviet Russia to transform itself shortly into a Western-type democracy. They largely derived that notion from Boris Yeltsin's "democratic" credentials, but also assumed that aid, assistance, investments, and advice from the West would guarantee the implementation of a "consolidated democracy" within a short period of time.

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