Russian Democracy Through the Looking-Glass

A new edited volume explores the future of democratization and stability in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Between 1989 and 1991, it indeed seemed that the world could change in the blink of an eye. Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes around the world—in Latin America, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia—crumbled overnight to be replaced by new governments promising to usher in Western-style liberal democracy. In addition, the vision of the Cold War was replaced by a “democratic peace” where the states that adopted democratic forms of governance and free-market economics would also support U.S. leadership of the international system and endorse an American global security agenda.

Today, that enthusiasm has been replaced by a more pessimistic assessment. Walter Russell Mead laments, “The grim reality is that democracy is in retreat in much of the world.” A number of efforts, notably the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions, headed by Ambassador Adrian Basora, who helped to spearhead the initial wave of democracy promotion efforts in Eastern Europe, are attempting to take stock of the democracy enterprise as we pass the twenty-fifth anniversary of the end of the Cold War and what the U.S. response ought to be going forward.

A different project was initiated several years ago by the New York branch of the Moscow-based Institute for Democracy and Cooperation, headed by Andranik Migranyan, designed to re-examine some of the assumptions about democracy at a time “when the value, the feasibility, and the prospects of democracy are under intense scrutiny in different parts of the world.” The project focused on the trajectory of democratic development in Russia as a way of assessing “challenges to our understanding of democracy and the paths to it.” Migranyan was joined by one of the world’s leading theorists and observers of democratic transition, Adam Przeworski (based at New York University), to hold a series of seminars and meetings which produced an initial Russian-language volume published by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) in 2013. Two years later, Cambridge University Press (via its Studies in the Theory of Democracy imprint) has published an updated English-language collection of the revised papers, a volume entitled Democracy in a Russian Mirror, in which Migranyan, Przeworski, and a distinguished group of American, European and Russian scholars and experts wrestled with a series of complicated questions on the nature and definition of democracy. To what extent is it defined by procedural matters (competitive elections and rotation of power) or by its ability to serve popular interests and reflect the views and wishes of a majority of the governed? How is consent transmitted? Should democracy precede state building or does development of strong and effective institutions come first?  What is the relationship between authority and democracy? Finally, and most critically, are there different paths to democracy that are equally valid? Ultimately, this touches on the most contentious question of all: who establishes the standards by which political regimes are judged—and specifically, who is in a position to evaluate whether post-Soviet Russia is democratic or democratizing?

Migranyan pulls no punches in his opening essay. A strong state is a prerequisite for establishing lasting democracy, he says, by creating institutions and setting down the necessary rules that can guarantee that groups can eventually compete for power “without destroying [the state] and allowing for the emergence of chaos and anarchy.” The ultimate goal of any democracy is to ensure the prosperity and well-being of the citizens under its care. A sovereign democracy is one whose institutions have evolved as a result of domestic processes rather than being imposed by outside powers (whose motives, it might be added, may not be to promote real democratization but a weakening of state capacity). To the extent that democracy has lagged in Russia, as in other countries, it is a result of a lack of time and the inability and unwillingness of current elites to engage in “constructive cooperation” that stabilizes and roots democratic procedures in society, compounded by a series of ongoing economic and security crises which have slowed the process of democratization.

In the preparatory meetings that led to this volume, Przeworksi had raised two questions: first, if a state is weak, must democracy be “directed” by authorities who can protect a nascent democracy from being derailed by unrestrained elites? And second, would a country like Russia more fully and deeply liberalize once the state felt itself reasonably secure from outside interference? Migranyan delivers clear affirmative answers to both questions, and furthermore locates problems with Russia’s democratic development in the inability of the Gorbachev and Yeltsin administrations to control the process and to prevent oligarchs and others from imposing their deformities of democracy on a weak Russian state and society, as well as in attempts by outside powers, starting with the United States, to use democracy and human rights issues as a way to interfere in Russia’s domestic development. Indeed, an ongoing complaint is that such issues are operationalized by Washington to be used against regimes that oppose American geopolitical interests—only to become less prominent once a government begins to adopt more pro-Western policies.