Russia's De-Democratization

By Shlapentokh, Vladimir | The World and I, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Russia's De-Democratization

Shlapentokh, Vladimir, The World and I

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. Gaidar was clearly mistaken. While the country's future is uncertain in many respects, there is one trend that is quite evident. A new zeitgeist has emerged in Russia that will make the liberals' political life difficult in the next years.

Indeed, in spite of some progress (over the last years, the GNP has grown 5 to 7 percent per year), 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, Evgenii Yasin, explained that it is difficult to predict which road the country will take in the next decades, 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 five to ten years. On one hand, the Kremlin has made enormous efforts to modernize the army and improve its material status. On the other hand, 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 (in particular 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, there are some optimists who 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 an American adversary, ally, or 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.

There is only one element of contemporary Russia that has demonstrated a steady trend: the country's 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. Putin 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 the 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 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. Asked in a recent poll about Putin's major constituency, 51 percent of the Russians said "people in uniform" (15 percent pointed to "ordinary people"). …

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