Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Addressing the Challenges of Russia's "Failing State": The Legacy of Gorbachev and the Promise of Putin

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Addressing the Challenges of Russia's "Failing State": The Legacy of Gorbachev and the Promise of Putin

Article excerpt

Abstract: Concerns about the prospects for democratic consolidation in Putin's Russia have been heightened with the further expansion of the hegemonic presidency and the strengthened position of the federal authorities vis-a-vis the regions. Such developments, mirroring earlier institutional reforms of the Gorbachev period, are strongly tied with late Soviet and post-Soviet political regime efforts to address the challenges of Russia's "failing state." The authors focus on the political dimension of Russia's "failing state," illuminating Putin's and Gorbachev's efforts to reinforce the state capacity for implementing those structural reforms necessary to sustain democratization. They contend that Putin's efforts to control federal-level institutional rivals and to rein in regional elites are designed not to recreate an authoritarian system but to bring balance among powerful political interests and to raise policy-making efficiency through "managed democracy." A strong parallel can be drawn with the objectives of Gorbachevian reformism, intended to bolster the "failing state" by enhancing the accountability and effectiveness of political executives throughout the country. They assert a sort of organic link between Putin's and Gorbachev's political-institutional reforms, albeit granting significant contextual differences between the ossified Soviet system of the 1980s and the corruption and post-Soviet system weaknesses of the early 2000s. The authors conclude that many judgments offered by Western (especially American) observers about the weakening of democracy have been more guided by a projection of those observers' own conceptions of democracy than by an understanding of Russia's traditions or thinking in establishing the necessary conditions for democratic consolidation.

Key words: democratization, dictatorship of the law, failing state, Gorbachev, managed democracy, Putin, Russian and Soviet state


"Perestroika is a pressing necessity that has arisen out of the profound processes taking place in the course of the development of our socialist society. That society is ripe for change--one might say it has suffered enough. Any delay in pursuing Perestroika could lead in the very near future to a deterioration in the situation in Russia." (1)

"For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly that should be gotten rid of. Quite the contrary, they see it as a source and guarantor of order, and the initiator and main driving force of any change.... I am not calling for totalitarianism.... A strong state power in Russia is a democratic, law-based, workable federative state."

Vladimir Putin, "Russia on the Threshold of the Millennium," December 1999. (2)

When Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, informed Soviet observers were positive about the prospects for reform, with even their Western counterparts guardedly optimistic. The former protege of Yuri Andropov did not disappoint them, launching what was arguably the most important set of system and policy changes since Stalin's building of the command economy. However haphazard and disconnected in their creation and implementation, perestroika, glasnost, and demokratizatsiya were ultimately intended to breathe new life into an ossified Soviet polity and economy, although their greatest consequence was to generate the implosion of the Soviet state. Despite the overwhelmingly positive post-facto assessments of Western observers regarding these reforms' original intent, they have subsequently been dismissed by many in the wake of the failure both to increase economic efficiency and to salvage the crippled institutions of the Soviet state.

In contrast, the agenda and reforms put forward by Vladimir Putin have been received with almost universal skepticism in the West, being widely perceived as measures against democratic consolidation and an overall setback from the democratic market transformation of the Yeltsin regime. …

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