Inside Out: Domestic Political Change and Foreign Policy in Vladimir Putin's First Term

By Charap, Samuel | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview
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Inside Out: Domestic Political Change and Foreign Policy in Vladimir Putin's First Term

Charap, Samuel, Demokratizatsiya

Abstract: In the 1990s, scholars began to investigate the impact of democratization on the foreign policy behavior of transition states such as Russia. In the era of President Vladimir Putin, however, such analyses became problematic in light of the contradictory nature of Russia's recent political development. The author suggests a new framework for analysis that focuses on the explanatory variable of executive strength. Executive strength is defined in terms of the degree of internal fragmentation and the relative authority of the executive vis-a-vis other political institutions. The author then analyzes two relevant aspects of political change in Putin's first term: center-regional dynamics and business-state relations. The strengthening of the executive that resulted from these two shifts had several important effects on Russian foreign policy.

Keywords: executive branch, foreign policy, Putin, Russia


How does political upheaval at home affect a state's behavior abroad? The vast domestic political change in Russia in the past twenty years has given political scientists occasion to address this question as it pertains to Moscow's foreign policy. In the 1990s, they sought answers through the lens of regime change, assessing the impact of democratization on the country's international conduct. (1) The notion that democracies do not go to war with each other (democratic peace theory) was refashioned for transitional regimes. New theories--most prominently, one that held that democratizing states are likely to behave belligerently in international affairs--were built and tested. (2) Although the operational assumption of the early studies--that politics, and thus foreign policymaking, in post-Soviet Russia was more "democratic" than it was during the Soviet period--was relatively uncontroversial, there is disagreement about the democratic trajectory of Russian politics under Putin. There is a consensus that pluralism has declined significantly since 2000, but academic analysis is divided over the impact of Putin's first term political reforms on the overall democratic quality of the Russian political system. Moreover, the apparent "consolidation" of a hybrid regime calls into question the utility of the term "democratization" in the Russian case. (3) Focusing on the regime's democratic credentials in a study of the links between domestic politics and foreign policy under Putin could therefore obscure more than it would illuminate.

This article addresses the external consequences of domestic political change in Putin's first term while avoiding assessments about the democratic quality (or lack thereof) of his regime. Given the degree of change, it seems likely that Putin's reordering of domestic politics has affected Russia's international behavior. For the most part, however, little work on this question has been conducted. (4) This article fills this gap by suggesting a framework for analysis and then investigating the empirical evidence from the political change that took place in Putin's first term.

Accounting for Change: A Domestic Politics Framework

One aspect of political change in post-Soviet Russia that seems likely to have an impact on foreign policy output is variation in the authority and capacity of the executive branch in domestic politics. (5) This analytical lens, which I call executive strength--derived from the political science literature on state strength (6)--provides for a higher degree of analytic specificity than state-centric approaches. A focus on the executive--in the Russian case, the president, the presidential administration, the government (pravitel'stvo) and the executive ministries--avoids certain assumptions in the state strength literature that have proven problematic in the post-Soviet context. (7) This concept is applicable across the post-Soviet states, where the executive has, on the one hand, played a central role in public life and, on the other, varied in strength.

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Inside Out: Domestic Political Change and Foreign Policy in Vladimir Putin's First Term


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