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Prospects for Russian Democracy by Lilia Shevtsova


Reprinted, by permission of the publisher, from Lilia Shevtsova's Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,, 1999), 286-289.
Russia's progress toward democracy is the issue that most divides optimists and pessimists. The optimists argue that Russia has moved in important ways toward liberal democracy, while the pessimists are convinced that Russia is reverting to its traditional mechanisms of power and that it will always be a threat to democratic civilization. Both sides can find evidence to support their views in today's Russia.

Russian and Western analysts who study Russia's current transformation also differ in their assessments. The Westerners tend to be less pessimistic, while the Russians are usually more skeptical and even bitter, concentrating on the failures and the miscalculations. It is difficult for those who live in Russia to be unbiased and unemotional: they lament the lost opportunities and look for someone to blame for the failures. Pointing out that Europe and America also went through their own difficult historical transformations offers Russians little comfort; it is hard for them to become reconciled to not seeing a civilized and prosperous Russia in their own lifetimes.

Western observers, for their part, have the luxury of looking at Russia from a distance and in a larger context. It is indeed true that, compared with the not-so-distant communist past, Russia has made enormous progress toward democracy since 1991. Many have been surprised at how eagerly the Russian political class has rushed to hold elections, which are characterized by voter turnouts so high that they put Western societies to shame. Electoral politics in Russia is not, however, an outcome of the establishment's democratic convictions but of the fact that the establishment is divided and weak and cannot hold on to power by any other means. It is true that elections provide a society with the possibility of making choices, but Russians have had very limited options--and those not always reassuring ones. Although most Russians vote, they expect nothing from those they elect. Both sides--the voters and those who are elected--seem to be playing a game, silently agreeing to preserve the status quo and to leave each other in peace. Such elections prompt widespread cynicism, discrediting the concept of democracy.

Compared with the communist period, the Russian people today clearly enjoy far greater freedom of expression and more secure human rights. Yeltsin has not encroached on individual rights and freedoms as he might have done, given the enormous powers he has acquired as president. On the other hand, he has done little to expand or to strengthen the guarantees of these freedoms. Russia's press did experience a relatively short period of real freedom; now, however, the mass media have again become partisan and increasingly dependent on the state or on financial groups. And freedom of expression loses much of its significance if public opinion matters little to those in poser. Even more troubling is the fact that basic civil rights established by the Russian constitution--such as the rights to education, work, and compensation for work--are constantly violated. Although significant repression is largely absent, Russian citizens are defenseless before the governing structures, especially in the provinces, where semi-authoritarian ruling groups have risen to power. Moreover, the conflict in Chechnya demonstrated that the Russian government is not constrained from resorting to the barbaric destruction of its citizens at will.

After the October 1993 clash between parliament and the presidency, limits were placed on the parliament's independence. Because the political parties no longer influence the formation of the government, their role and power have diminished. Decision making has moved behind the scenes, which increases the role of interest groups at the expense of political parties. The public appears to be disappointed with existing parties, but the government has no interest in establishing mechanisms through which the will of the public can be expressed. Political pluralism in Russia remains weak.

Russia also lacks a system of institutional checks and balances. This has led to the overpersonalization of politics and to a political structure that is far too dependent on the characteristics, capabilities, and physical condition of the leader. The weakness of Russia's judicial system and the fragility of the rule of law are likewise troubling. Many members of the elite appear to have used public service as a vehicle for advancing their own private business interests. That they do not seem to care how their actions are viewed by ordinary citizens is perhaps an indication of how well their escape routes already have been prepared.

One essential characteristic of a mature democracy is the regularity and peacefulness of its political transitions. Although post-communist Russia has yet to experience its first presidential succession, there are some signs that leaders across the political spectrum understand the necessity of what a number of political scientists call a "democratic bargain"--a pact to preclude revenge-seeking after the current leader departs. Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that the next Russian leader will not turn to the typical Soviet model of survival through a new "cleansing" and reversal of the previous leader's legacy. The absence of any guarantee that members of today's ruling class will continue to have "life after power" means that the ruling team may not be willing to give up its place voluntarily.

Most Russians today would be happy to hear their country described as a democracy. In fact, Russia's present regime does not neatly fit any of the familiar categories. It is a regime in which elements of democracy, authoritarianism, post-totalitarianism, delegative democracy, bureaucratic-authoritarianism, oligarchic rule, sultanism, and even monarchy are intertwined in sometimes strange ways. A high degree of decentralization and the asymmetry of the Russian Federation also increase the patchwork character of Russia's political system. The system uses democratic rhetoric, but it often turns to statist and populist ideas. Its leadership is produced by elections, but the leader's rule is highly personal and arbitrary, without legal constraints. The ruling elite is drawn from among family members, friends of the family, or groups that anticipate some reward (as is characteristic of sultanism), and citizen participation in the decision-making process is minimal.

Russia's current political regime likewise resembles what Guillermo O'Donnell (writing about Latin America) calls "delegative democracy": a system that "rest[s] on the premises that whoever wins election to the presidency is thereby entitled to govern as he or she sees fit." The model is also a useful description of the Russian regime, which combines omnipotence and impotence, although it is unlikely that the outcome in Russia will be a Latin American-style military coup. There is also no reason to expect that a Russian delegative democracy, combined with a powerless patrimonialism, will endure once Yeltsin is gone.

Russia's elected presidency has a democratic legitimacy. With its immense powers, however, it is absolutely independent of any political force. In combination with Yeltsin's autocratic style of governance, it thus resembles a monarchy--but an "elected monarchy" is political nonsense. This nonsense, however, reflects the trap in which Russia finds itself. On the one hand, it seems unable to overcome the tradition of personal rule, while on the other hand, the political regime is required to take on some democratic procedures because it has exhausted all other means of retaining power. The incompatibility of the main features of such a regime makes it highly unstable and fragile; its structure is itself a source of major conflicts.

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