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

"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 protégé 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 theirgreatest 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.3 The massive reinforcing of the presidency vis-à-vis the parliament and local government, assaults on the media and political opponents, and bolstering of the security apparatus have all been considered indicators of a dangerous "antidemocratic" tendency and even as stepping stones to a new authoritarianism. We wonder, however, whether Putin's initiatives are so different in their ultimate intent from those designed by Gorbachev and his associates in the latter 1980s.4 Indeed, as we reflect on the evolution of the late Soviet and post-Soviet Russian polity over the period from 1985 to 2005, we are struck by the similarities between the two regimes in their thinking and broad institutional-policy prescriptions intended to address the challenges of Russia's "failing state."

Both Gorbachev and Putin were confronted by a similar domestic political reality: a weak economy and highly bureaucratized state, increasingly unable to efficiently implement policy and ensure economic productivity. On the one hand, Gorbachev had to cope with serious problems of corruption and with the resistance of both central and local political institutions and elites to needed political and economic change. His set of reforms was designed to overcome these obstacles through guided political decentralization and openness, with an expectation that central political executive policymaking prerogatives would be reinforced. One seasoned Russian observer, Alexander Zinoviev, described perestroïka as centered on four objectives: (1 ) creating a new superpower structure that would stand above the communist party apparatus, (2) establishing order in the country by harnessing the masses and compelling them to cooperate with the leadership, (3) overcoming economic difficulties, and (4) modernizing Soviet industry, especially its military component.5 The overriding end was to restore political and economic order, with such order designed to infuse dynamism to the economy and society. …

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