Electoral Democracy or Electoral Clanism? Russian Democratization and Theories of Transition

By Lukin, Alexander | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Electoral Democracy or Electoral Clanism? Russian Democratization and Theories of Transition


Lukin, Alexander, Demokratizatsiya


It seems clear that Russia's attempts at democratization and Westernization will not meet the expectations of Russia's democratic reformers. As happened in previous eras of Westernization, only some elements of Western liberal democracy have taken root in Russian soil, the most important of them being competitive elections. Other fundamental elements of liberalism have not only failed to flourish, but have degenerated since the late Soviet era. Compared with the late Gorbachev period of 1990-91, the mass media and courts in today's Russia are less independent, society's role is weaker, personal rights and freedoms are less secure, and even elections are less free and fair than they were in 1990. To understand this outcome of Russian democratization, the correlation between the electoral process and the development of liberalism should be examined.

Elections and Liberal Democracy

By the second half of the twentieth century, the belief that democracy is the ideal or at least the best possible organization of human society has become dominant among political scientists, and especially among the political elites of most countries of the world. There are virtually no discussions today of whether democracy is good or bad; opinions differ only on what kind of democracy is more democratic, or what kind of democracy is genuine. Some political scientists have pointed out that the desire of every leader and political movement in today's world to be seen as democratic led to such stretching of the term that it turned into "not so much a term of restricted and specific meaning as a vague endorsement of a popular idea."(1)

But the meaning of "democracy" has not withered away completely. Authors of its numerous modern definitions can be divided into two major groups. Those who belong to the first, following Joseph Schumpeter, maintain that elections are the only practical criterion of democracy.(2) The other group believes that democracy cannot be defined by elections alone. It can in turn be divided into two subgroups. The first consists of those who include the fundamentals of political liberalism in their definition of democracy. They argue that a democratic society should be characterized not only by the freedom and fairness of elections but also by a broadly defined pluralism. Thus, they identify democracy with its liberal-democratic form.(3) Others add social and economic democracy, guarantees of social equality, or at least of some level of social justice.(4)

Discussions about democracy are carried on almost exclusively among political theorists. In practical politics, however, Schumpeter's definition has prevailed. In today's world, governments and nongovernmental groups in the West, and their supporters from the opposition forces advocating democracy and liberalization in nondemocratic countries, call for immediate general elections according to the rules that exist in contemporary, developed liberal democracies. Regardless of whether it is Bosnia, Russia, Rwanda, China, or Nigeria, elections are promoted as the first and primary remedy for societal evils. In many cases, this approach has led to success, and using the criterion of elections alone, the number of democracies in the world is growing steadily. On these grounds, supporters of the electoral approach have begun to speak of the "third wave" of democratization, which even led to the emergence of such bizarre concepts as Francis Fukuyama's "end of history."

At the same time, several theorists have observed that in many countries elections did not produce liberal democracy, with its widely accepted traits: a high level of freedom, the rule of law, secure rights and freedoms of individuals and minorities, and so forth.(5) In fact, in some cases they led to the reverse. Analysis of this phenomenon resulted in a new formulation that separated elections from liberalism and (when elections were still considered to be the essence of democracy) democracy from liberalism. …

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