Antiliberal Perestroika: A New 'Transition' in Russia

By Shlapentokh, Vladimir | The World and I, August 2004 | Go to article overview
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Antiliberal Perestroika: A New 'Transition' in Russia


Shlapentokh, Vladimir, The World and I


Vladimir Shlapentokh is professor in the sociology department at Michigan State University. The author wishes to thank Joshua Woods for his editorial contribution to this article.

In late January 2004, Egor Gaidar, a prominent Russian democratic leader, was asked on television to assess the parliamentary election procedures and talk about the total debacle of his political party. Unlike many of his comrades-in-arms, Gaidar refused to speak pessimistically and predicted instead that Fortuna would smile on the liberals in the next election. He was clearly mistaken. While the country's future is uncertain in many respects, one trend is quite evident. A new zeitgeist has emerged in Russia that will make the liberals' political life difficult in the years ahead.

Indeed, despite some progress (over the last years, the gross national product has grown 5 to 7 percent annually), the country's economic prospects remain dubious. Many experts have pointed out that the current growth rate has been produced largely by the high price of oil, which provides the lion's share of the budget. At a recent conference in Moscow on the topic of Russia's future, a leading Russian economist, Evgeny Yasin, explained that it is difficult to predict which road the country will take in the next decade, because the process of modernizing the economy has not yet begun. Economic uncertainties are compounded by the ambivalence of the Kremlin's policy toward big business. This concern heightened after the arrest of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and several of his colleagues from the Yukos company.

It is not easy to forecast the progress of the Russian military in the next 5 to 10 years. On the one hand, the Kremlin has made enormous efforts to modernize the army and improve its material status. On the other, the actual progress is minimal, and the military continues to complain about the lack of funding for training pilots, feeding soldiers, and housing officers. The future of the war in Chechnya is unclear, particularly because terrorist acts continue to haunt the country and its capital. The Russians--ordinary people and experts alike--are divided in their attitudes toward this conflict.

The fate of the Kremlin's struggle against corruption and crime is also uncertain. While many people are skeptical about whether Putin's administration will curb the lawlessness in society, some optimists believe that progress can be made. Russian foreign policy is even more difficult to predict, particularly in regard to the United States. Russia could emerge as America's adversary or ally, or it could play both roles simultaneously. Relations with China and the Muslim world are difficult to project in the long term, as are Russian attitudes toward the former Soviet republics--Ukraine and Georgia in particular.

Autocratic rule

Only one element of contemporary Russia has demonstrated a steady trend: the move from nascent democracy to a society with autocratic political rule. Putin has been shaping this transformation since he took control of the country. In only three years, he eliminated all traces of the division of power. He turned the parliament into a puppet institution, not unlike the Soviet Supreme Council of the past. The judicial system has become as obeisant to Putin as it was to the Soviet masters of the Kremlin. The president has also reduced the independence of the media, which had been autonomous during the Yeltsin regime. Russian TV is now a direct instrument of the Kremlin. Putin appears on TV no less than five to seven times during a 30-minute news program. In fact, he makes more television appearances than comrade Brezhnev did in Soviet times. In most cases, the president is portrayed as a great leader who takes care of everything in the country.

Putin has actually surpassed his icons, Stalin and Yuri Andropov, in some areas. For instance, never in the Soviet past did the KGB and the army play such a prominent role in the management of society as they do today.

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Antiliberal Perestroika: A New 'Transition' in Russia
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