Elite Groups in Russia

By Coulloudon, Virginie | Demokratizatsiya, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Elite Groups in Russia


Coulloudon, Virginie, Demokratizatsiya


Since 1992, Russia has been inventing its own version of democracy. The Constitutional Court acts as a supreme judicial authority; a freely elected president acts as the head of state; a democratically elected parliament is elaborating laws; and a free press exposes the abuses of Russian politicians. Despite the existence of new democratic institutions, Russian officials sometimes seem to let themselves be guided by arbitrariness.(1) The notion that the rule of law should prevail over private interests is new in Russia and is shared by only a few politicians.(2)

The debate on the exact role of the institutions in the decisionmaking process prevails in contemporary research on the Russian elite. There are two opposite approaches: The first emphasizes that the Communist regime collapsed only recently and explains the lack of influence of institutions such as the Constitutional Court or the bicameral parliament by the absence of democratic tradition in Russia. Referring to the actual transitional period, such an approach implies that Russian democratic institutions have an important role of education in the actual state building. It considers of secondary importance the fact that those institutions lack influence on the decisionmaking process.

The second point of view emphasizes the supremacy of the Russian presidential decrees over laws and legislative documents. It points out that the 1993 constitution offers more powers to the president than to the parliament and gives him the last word in all circumstances.(3) This approach emphasizes the strategic role not only of the executive power but also of interest groups likely to act as advisers to this same executive power.

Since 1992, many scholars have detailed the emergence of new interest groups. There have been numerous studies of the new Russian industrial managers and bankers.(4) Konstantin Mikulsky has specifically concentrated on Russian businessmen, showing by in-depth interviews how they consider their own role in the new Russian society.(5) Surveys have also been published on the development of the Russian provinces and the role of local elites in regional and federal decisionmaking.(6) Among Western scholars, Amy Knight writes that the new security service functions the same way the KGB did and is accountable not to state interests but to individuals.(7)

In this approach, "individuals" is the key word. Because legislation is poorly applied, local governors often make their own rules, and decrees are considered more important than laws. Representatives of the executive and their advisers have a key role in decisionmaking. The main issue raised by sociologists is whether these individuals are part of a new elite or should be considered simply as representatives of the former nomenklatura.

To study them, many have done quantitative research. Here again, two points of view prevail. Olga Kryshtanovskaya and Yuri Burtin subscribe, for example, to what East European scholars call the "theory of elite reproduction."(8) This theory suggests that the institutional changes that have taken place in Russia since 1991 have not deeply altered the composition of the elite, which continues to grow in membership. The theory of elite reproduction recognizes that the elite may have to adapt to maintain its status, but it holds that the previous elite possesses the capacities to remain at the top of the social order.(9)

Focusing on the elite since perestroika, Kryshtanovskaya emphasizes that the power of the party-state nomenklatura now lies in its private ownership of economic property.(10) Burtin also argues that under President Boris Yeltsin the nomenklatura survives as a socioprofessional group that administers the state, possesses and distributes its riches, and shares the same political and economic interests.(11) None of them denies that the rule of nomenklatura and its privileges are the stuff of bygone days. But they agree with a survey conducted in 1994 by the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology that shows that the old nomenklatura represents 75 percent of Yeltsin's closest political allies, 60 percent of the parliament, 74 percent of the government, 41 percent of the businessmen, and 83 percent of the regional leaders. …

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