Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Fate of the Russian State

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Fate of the Russian State

Article excerpt

The key to the resurrection and development of Russia lies today in the state-political sphere. Russia needs a strong state and it must have one" Russian president Vladimir Putin wrote in an essay entitled "Russia at the Turn of the Millennium" released in the last week of December 1999, before he was elected president.(1) In a television interview shortly after he became acting president, he reiterated that point: "I am absolutely convinced that we will not solve any problems, any economic or social problems, while the state is disintegrating."(2)

Putin has it right, for the defining feature of Russian developments for the past decade or more has not been progress or setbacks on the path of reform, the focus of so much Western commentary, but the fragmentation, degeneration, and erosion of state power. During that time, a fragile Russian state of uncertain legitimacy has grown even weaker as a consequence of deliberate, if misguided, policies, bitter and debilitating struggles for political power, and simple theft of state assets. The erosion of the state has reached such depths that the central state apparatus, or the center, as it is commonly called in Russia, has little remaining capacity to mobilize resources for national purposes, either at home or abroad, while most regional and local governments lack the resources--and in some cases the desire--to govern effectively. The obvious weakness of the state has, not surprisingly, fueled fears about Russia's stability, integrity, and for some Russians, its survival.

Whether and how Russia rebuilds the state will have far-reaching consequences for Russia and the world. A review of the development of the Russian state over the past fifteen years, the structure of power in Russia today, and the international setting suggests that the country is not on the verge of breakup, but it also underscores how stiff a challenge rebuilding poses. Moreover, it indicates that success will require that more thought be given to reconstituting the state than was given to securing Russia's independence nearly a decade ago.

The Emergence of the Post-Soviet Russian State

The emergence of an independent Russian state was in many ways a historical accident, the unintended by-product of the struggle for power within the Soviet Union and not the end product of a detailed strategy. For most of the Soviet period, Russians conflated Russia and the Soviet Union; the union subsumed the Russian Federation but not the other fourteen union republics. Unlike them, Russia had few of the trappings of sovereignty. It lacked its own Ministry of Internal Affairs and KGB, its own Academy of Sciences, and its own television network. Ukraine and Belarus, not Russia, received seats in the United Nations along with the Soviet Union as a whole. Most important, Russia lacked its own subdivision of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU); the regional party committees in Russia were directly subordinated to the CPSU Central Committee.

The reason for this arrangement was obvious and, not surprisingly, based on power considerations. Russia, simply put, was too important to be treated as just another union republic. At the end of the Soviet period, it accounted for three-quarters of the territory, 60 percent of the economy, and half of the population of the Soviet Union. The overwhelming share of the Soviet Union's vast natural resources, including 90 percent of oil and gas production, was located in Russia. A full-fledged Russian republic could have provided a formidable base for challenging the Soviet leadership. Indeed, two axioms of Soviet politics were (a) he who controls Russia controls the Soviet Union, and (b) there can be a Russia without the union, but there is no union without Russia.(3)

Understanding this logic, the opponents of Soviet leader Gorbachev began in the late 1980s to press for the enhancement of Russia's status as a way of mounting a challenge to him and his policies. …

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