Civil Society and the Challenge of Russian Gosudarstvennost

By Squier, John | Demokratizatsiya, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Civil Society and the Challenge of Russian Gosudarstvennost


Squier, John, Demokratizatsiya


John Squier is program officer for Russia and Ukraine at the National Endowment for Democracy, in Washington, D.C.

Soon after being named acting president of the Russian Federation in early 2000, Vladimir Putin announced that one of his priorities would be the restoration in Russia of what he termed gosudarstvennost. Treating this term as more or less synonymous with "sovereignty," Western observers tended to interpret this declaration with a certain alarm (as indeed they interpreted most of Putin's initial declarations), emphasizing a hypothesized connection of the term gosudarstvennost to resurrected notions of Russian national greatness and international assertiveness. That Western observers would express such concerns, in the context of diplomatic disputes over U.S. intervention in Serbia and Russian policy toward "states of concern" such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, is understandable, but more recent events have demonstrated that Western concerns over gosudarstvennost, at least as far as international relations are concerned, were misplaced.

Western observers' initial negative reaction seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the term gosudarstvennost, which is, in and of itself, neutral; the Ozhegov Dictionary of the Russian Language (1986) defines it as "state system, state organization" (literally, gosudarstvennyi stroi, gosudarstvennaya organizatsiya). Gosudarstvennost thus refers less to sovereignty in the international arena than to sovereignty understood as an aspect of domestic politics--the ability of the state to act as an internally coherent governing body. Actual usage of the term seems to indicate that it means something like "statehood" or "the quality of being a state." In the aftermath of the chaos of the 1990s, when the Russian state virtually ceased functioning in some respects, restoration of gosudarstvennost seems an eminently sensible priority. The implications of this restoration for Russian civil society are the topic of this article.

Tto understand exactly what it is that the Putin government is trying to do in restoring Russian gosudarstvennost, it is necessary to understand what has happened to the Russian state over the past ten years. Thomas Carothers provides a helpful interpretive framework in a recent article in the Journal of Democracy. 1 Carothers criticizes the mainstream academic approach to the study of democratic transitions (which has also exerted considerable influence over the policies of Western governments and democracy-promoting nongovernmental organizations) for being based on the assumption--explicit or implicit--that a transition away from one type of nondemocratic, authoritarian political system is of necessity a transition toward a democratic political system. 2 More often than not, Carothers argues, states that have recently undergone a political transition exist in a "gray zone" between democracy and authoritarianism, combining some elements of democracy with "serious democratic deficits, often including poor representation of citizens' interests, low levels of political participation beyond voting, frequent abuse of the law by government officials, elections of uncertain legitimacy, very low levels of public confidence in state institutions, and persistently poor institutional performance by the state." 3

Even the most casual observer will immediately recognize much that is true of Russia in this description. However, establishing a category of gray-zone states and subtypes within them does not resolve a number of important analytical questions. Considering the past ten years of Russian history, one would be hardpressed to assign Russia to one of the two "syndromes" of political dysfunction that, according to Carothers, characterize gray-zone states. The two syndromes are (a) "feckless pluralism," characterized by genuine competition for political office but little substantive change in policies, because the state is weak, which limits its ability to implement reform, and (b) "dominant-party politics," in which one group "dominates the system in such a way that there appears to be little prospect of alternation of power in the foreseeable future" with a state that tends to be "as weak and poorly performing in dominant-power countries as in feckless-pluralist countries, though the problem is often a bureaucracy decaying under the stagnancy of de facto one party rule rather than the disorganized, unstable nature of state management . …

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