Deepening Russian Democracy: Progress and Pitfalls in Putin's Government. (Democracy)

By Allison, Graham | Harvard International Review, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Deepening Russian Democracy: Progress and Pitfalls in Putin's Government. (Democracy)


Allison, Graham, Harvard International Review


In December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. In its place, a newly independent Russian democracy was born, alongside 14 other republics. The 10th anniversary of that momentous event provides a fitting occasion to pause and take stock, to consider how much has been accomplished and how much remains to be done. It is also an opportunity for advocates and students of democratization to reflect on the Russian case, as well as other cases across the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It is an opportunity to reassess our conceptualization of Western-assisted democratization. This essay provides a sketch of a new conceptual framework for analyzing democratization in terms of institutional developments. Against that backdrop, I offer a brief assessment of Russia's democratic development over the past decade.

Although the last decades of the 20th century witnessed a fast march to democracy in Eastern and Central Europe, they also revealed powerful tendencies toward greater central authority in the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Russia. This dynamic is apparent in leaders who believe they are undertaking great tasks in rebuilding and modernizing their countries and who seek to mobilize cooperation and support, not criticism and dissent. Public demands for both order and a higher standard of living create an environment that allows for backsliding toward centralized authority and even authoritarianism. It is no accident that such ideas resonate with leaders whose formative political experiences occurred in communist party structures.

Despite romantic enthusiasm and expectations to the contrary, democratization is neither linear nor quick. Consolidation of democracy occurs across several dimensions both in the economy and in the society. The process advances in fits and starts. The path of democratization resembles stairs; each step forward provides a foundation from which a state can move forward or slide back. Once some steps toward democracy are taken, it becomes much harder to reverse the process. Therefore, in striving to deepen democracy in transitional states, the primary challenge is to think strategically about the types of institutions, sources of power, and forms of behavior that can work to encourage early democratic steps and secure them against countervailing pressure. These institutional and behavioral pillars constitute, in effect, barriers against backsliding into authoritarianism.

Barriers to Backsliding

We need a working definition of democracy. While Robert Dahl and others have taught us how complex a concept democracy is, for this article's purpose we will take Joseph Schumpeter's definition of democracy as our starting point. Democracy is a political system that provides for (1) meaningful and extensive competition among individuals and organized groups (especially political parties) for all effective positions of government power at regular intervals, excluding the use of force; (2) a "highly inclusive" level of political participation in the selection of leaders and policies, at least through regular and fair elections, so that no major social group is excluded; and (3) a level of civil and political liberties--freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association--sufficient to ensure the integrity of political competition and participation.

Democracies survive because of social forces that can withstand inevitable pressures toward backsliding.

One of the most significant institutional pillars of democracy is the pluralization of economic power, meaning that centers of economic power are independent of the state. The more pluralistic the ownership of sources of finance and what Karl Marx called the "means of production in a country, the more widely power is dispersed. Economic pluralization provides substructure" for political democratization. The middle class operates in much the same way. …

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