What Should America Do? : The United States Retains a Substantial Influence in Russia and Can Have a Signficant Impact on Economic and Political Reform There

By Bjorkman, Tom | The World and I, December 2001 | Go to article overview

What Should America Do? : The United States Retains a Substantial Influence in Russia and Can Have a Signficant Impact on Economic and Political Reform There


Bjorkman, Tom, The World and I


Russia made dramatic progress toward a democratic order in the last years of the USSR and in the first years of an independent Russia. The 1993 constitution established a strong legal framework for democracy. Under former Soviet President Mikail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Russia adopted a series of laws that fleshed out the formal framework for a fully functioning democratic state. Regularly scheduled competitive elections are now accepted as the only legitimate way to choose political leaders. In the context of Russian history and the highly authoritarian Soviet regime, these are significant achievements.

But observers inside and outside Russia agree that progress toward democracy stalled by the mid-1990s. Russia has not been able to complete the job of filling its formal institutions with real democratic content, that is, to complete the transition to a vibrant democratic state.

To a greater degree than in the United States and European democracies, political power remains concentrated in the presidency, while the legislature and the judiciary remain weak.

Protections for civil liberties are weak. Government harassment of independent journalists and civic activists who are critical of the president and his policies is on the rise.

Official corruption--the abuse of public office for private gain at all levels--remains pervasive.

The ratings assigned to Russia by Freedom House, an organization that tracks the progress of democracy across the globe, graphically display this trend over time. Freedom House ratings for Russia's political and civil liberties improved dramatically in the late 1980s and early 1990s but have gradually eroded since then (see figure 1).

American scholars disagree on the reasons for Russia's failure to make the transition to an effective democratic order. Former President Yeltsin's reluctance to build viable institutions to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of communism, and his increasing disengagement from the affairs of state in the second half of the 1990s, undoubtedly played a part. But, at least in retrospect, the hopes of Russia's proponents of democracy and their American supporters for a rapid shift to democracy were unrealistic.

An effective democratic political order requires not just formal institutions but democratic habits--such as willingness to compromise and tolerance of opposing viewpoints--that develop incrementally and only over a period of many years. It took from decades to centuries for the United States and western Europe to develop what now seem to us to be ingrained democratic habits. Seventy years of highly authoritarian rule under the Soviet regime allowed no room for these habits to develop in Russia and dimmed the legacy of the democratic habits that had begun to emerge in the last years of the czarist era.

Risks and opportunities for democracy

Western observers concerned about Russia's future view faster movement toward Western-style democracy as the solution to its problems. Public opinion polls show that most Russians continue to support free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and other core democratic values. But the failure of democracy to bring the prosperity that Russians expected in the 1990s has sharply reduced the influence of political leaders who argue that the best way toward prosperity is to move even more boldly toward Western-style individual freedoms.

A sharp drop in living standards, the ability of privileged members of the elite to exploit the shift toward a market economy for their own benefit, and the state's inability to pay wages and pensions or provide essential goods have opened the way for political leaders who argue that Russia's first priority is a stronger state, not stronger democracy. These proponents of what many in Russia call "managed democracy" express support for the idea of democracy, but they back policies that, in the pursuit of a more powerful state, give the government a stronger role in managing political life. …

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