The Buzz

Why the West is Not Ready for a Democratic Russia

The rise of the Law and Justice party (PiS) in Poland and its “autocracy problem” have created a sense of political emergency in Europe, following the illiberal example allegedly set by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since the European Commission launched a formal rule-of-law investigation on January 13, much ink has been spilled to investigate the consequences of rising Polish illiberalism. Yet a plurality of writers has failed to acknowledge the inconvenient truth that the democratic crisis is of democracy’s own making: the PiS, as well as other illiberal political forces in Europe, have ascended to power not by violence but by winning democratic mandates through free and fair elections.

But a much wider issue is at stake here. Think about it: if we can barely prevent democratic Poland and Hungary (which are deeply embedded in NATO and the EU) from “going rogue,” what makes us think that we would be able to handle a democratized Russia? Here, the central European cases offer illuminating examples that foreshadow the possible future of a liberalized Russia—which, I argue, may not be the best interest of the West, at least for the present moment. Based on recent surveys and political trends in the region, this essay envisions three likely scenarios, all of which are alarming.

The first scenario is the emergence of a multiparty system in Russia, followed by free and fair elections. Recent European examples indicate that, however, free and fair elections may well embolden illiberal forces, especially during times of economic difficulties. Let us recall the case of Moldova, where the free and fair election of 2001 resulted in the landslide victory of the Moldovan Communist Party, making it the first post-Soviet state where an unreformed communist party returned to power. In a liberalized Russian political space, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF)—the successor of the Soviet communist party—would enjoy a reasonable chance of becoming a major political force.

Despite the formidable “anticommunist propaganda” put forth by the Yeltsin government, the KPRF received an unambiguous democratic mandate by winning both the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections, and served as the ruling party of the State Duma. Political realities in Russia have not changed much since that time. A survey conducted by the independent (and often openly antigovernment) Levada Center in 2014 revealed that 17 percent of Russians are satisfied with the current system and 22 percent would like to see Russia transformed into a Western democracy, while almost 40 percent support remaking the “Soviet political system.” This trend becomes even more pronounced in the economic realm: 51 percent would opt for “a Soviet-like system of state planning and distribution,” while only 29 percent expressed a preference for a market economy. As the economic crisis deepens in Russia, a 2016 survey revealed that 58 percent of Russians, a sizable majority, longs for the restoration of the Soviet system.

While many in the West have been skeptical of the Russian poll results, a recent study conducted by prominent Russia experts, including Timothy Frye of Columbia University, shows that the survey results generally reveal the true attitudes and genuine preferences of the Russian electorate. Indeed, while Vladimir Putin has been named the West’s public enemy number one, Western observers often conveniently forget that he has kept communists at bay in contemporary Russian politics.

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