Putin and His Enemies

Article excerpt

WILL RUSSIA remain a democracy or will it slowly evolve into authoritarianism, or even dictatorship? This is the question most often asked in the West. But let us put forward an alternate question: Was Russia a democracy before Putin?

At best, Russia under Boris Yeltsin was a manipulative democracy; at worst, it was a pseudo-democracy, cloaking Yeltsin's personal rule and the free reign given to oligarchs and big bankers. Indeed, by the end of his administration, only the oligarchs and liberal reformers closely connected to the Kremlin remained as Yeltsin's base of domestic support. Yeltsin-type "democracy" was applauded in the United States and Europe, but had weak support among most Russians. Many in the West have chosen to ignore how the electoral process under Yeltsin was repeatedly manipulated in ways that negated the essence of democracy. The elections of 1996 were a fiesta of manipulation, outward falsifications, use of dirty money and the servility of the so-called free media--in fact mainly controlled by oligarchs and financial groups. The majority of Russians believed that democracy "Yeltsin-style" meant freedom--to loot, commit crimes and be corrupt. The financial default of 1998 was a clear verdict on Yeltsin's economic and social policies.

Most Russians believe that Yeltsin's pseudo-democracy has brought only turmoil, decay and corruption to Russia. And while opinion polls indicate that most Russians value basic political freedoms, they do not want to live under a faux-liberal regime dominated by big money. For the majority of Russians, what is most important is for Russia to become an economically developed, rich and powerful country.

Therefore, the only democracy Russia had known--Yeltsin's manipulative pseudo-democracy--appeared as an obstacle to, rather than an instrument of, Russia's national revival. This is why most Russians have not shed a tear for the defunct Yeltsin regime. In contrast, Vladimir Putin has identified his main task as raising the living standards of the Russian people and doubling the country's GDP in a decade--goals enthusiastically endorsed by most Russian citizens.

But how does Putin plan to bring this about? If we can describe the Yeltsin system as a pseudo-democracy, what is the Putin system of rule and what are its guiding principles? In the most general terms one can speak of an authoritarian model aimed at economic modernization. But Putin is far from being a Russian version of Pinochet, who came to power through a bloody coup and remained a dictatorial ruler for most of his time in power. No, Putin seems to be inspired by a different type of leader--such as Peter the Great or Charles de Gaulle.

Certainly, there is a more pronounced penchant for liberal economic and social reforms in this system of rule than for the development of democratic institutions. Predictably, economic modernization in Russia will precede the next round of political democratization, as it happened in a number of societies throughout the world (including those where a much stronger authoritarian model had been in place for many years, like South Korea).

What are the main features of Putin's authoritarian model? The Duma and the Federation Council have been devoid of the influence they had previously. Often the Duma nowadays looks like an extension of the executive branch. The upper chamber, composed of appointed senators, appears to be another rubber stamp. The separation of powers in these conditions becomes more of a slogan rather than a reality.

The Duma and presidential elections of 2003-04 were marked by excessive use of so-called "administrative resources", whereby the center influences the outcome of the vote by exercising pressure on the regional governors and local mayors all over the country. They, in turn, used their own abilities (patronage, control of financial flows and the like) to "turn out the vote." However, it is important to note that Russian "electoral postmodernism", defined by use of administrative resources and control of the mass media, was first introduced by the Yeltsin team in 1996. …