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Voting Often.But Does It Bite?

By Sakwa, Richard | The World Today, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Voting Often.But Does It Bite?


Sakwa, Richard, The World Today


Stephen White

Richard Rose

Ian McAllister

How Russia Votes

By Stephen White, Richard Rose

and Ian McAllister

Published by Chatham House Publishers,

Chatham, New Jersey. 1997. 332 pages.

Reviewed by Richard Sakwa

Elections came late to Russia, and although the country today is formally a democracy, with everyone enjoying the right to vote and with free competition between and within parties, this is a democracy of a special type. As in Weimar Germany, there are parties which participate in the electoral process but whose commitment to free elections and democracy might be considered less than whole-hearted.

The subordination of the authorities to the rule of law and the unfettered acceptance of electoral outcomes is questionable. If Boris Yeltsin had lost the 1996 presidential elections, for example, there is some doubt whether he would have voluntarily relinquished office. As the anecdote circulating at the time put it: `Zyuganov (the Communist candidate) will win the elections, but Yeltsin will remain president.' His peculiarly sultanic style of rule, allied with the new oligarchs of capital, only tangentially intersects with popular accountability, governmental responsibility and the pursuit of the national interest.

Above all, the complex institutional arrangements of Russian governance lead to confused lines of accountability. Elections take place, but their impact on governmental change remains arbitrary and discretionary. This is quite apart from the prevalence of corruption and the criminality of the mafiya, many of whom got rich very quickly through privatisation - more commonly known as 'piratisation'. The old saying that Russia has spent most of the twentieth century proving that communism does not work, and is now doing the same for democracy, has an awful ring of truth about it.

Broken-backed

It is this twilight world of broken-backed democracy that this book explores. Interspersed with fascinating detail on individuals, parties and the evolution of the constitutional framework, it follows the thread of successive electoral campaigns. The nascent Russian democracy has had no shortage of opportunities to vote - beginning with Gorbachev's hesitant acceptance of the principle of competitive elections in local polls in 1987; through the choice of a Soviet Con

gress of People's Deputies in the spring of 1989; the elections to the Russian Congress of People's Deputies the following spring; the referendum on the future of the Soviet Union of March 1991; the Russian presidential poll of June 1991; the referendum of 25 April 1993; the elections and referendum on the constitution of December 1993 (following the violent overthrow of the Congress of People's Deputies in September-October); the parliamentary elections of December 1995; and on to the June-July 1996 presidential contest.

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