Has Democracy Failed Russia?

December 1, 1994 Topic: Civil SocietyDemocracySociety Regions: RussiaEurasia

Has Democracy Failed Russia?

Mini Teaser: The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union was immediately taken as vindication of Western values and proof of the superiority of both market economics and a democratic system of government.

by Author(s): Peter Rutland

The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union was immediately taken as vindication of Western values and proof of the superiority of both market economics and a democratic system of government. America had won the Cold War, and "market democracy" (to use President Clinton's concise term) would spread from Belgrade to Bishkek. No one stopped to question the teleological assumption that events in Russia could be understood in terms of a transition from point "A" (a state-socialist political system with a command economy) to point "B" (a democratic polity with a market economy).

Few were inclined to ponder the special problems that the concepts "democracy" and "market" might encounter in the post-socialist landscape. On the contrary, building democracy and a market economy were assumed to be compatible and complementary processes which could be introduced to any country on the planet. This left Yeltsin playing the double role of George Washington and Adam Smith--either of which on its own would have strained even his considerable thespian skills to the limit.

This article challenges the Panglossian complacency of the "market democracy" paradigm, on three fronts. First, it will question the model of democracy which is being propagated by Russia's Western advisers and well-wishers. Second, it will consider democratization in the context of unresolved problems of state- and nation-building in Russia, challenges which most other countries in political transition do not have to face. Third, it will probe the linkages between flawed democratization and market reform.

The key point to bear in mind is that Russia is still on the downward path of disintegration rather than the upward march of transition. The abrupt collapse of the Soviet state unleashed turbulent centripetal processes which are still coursing through the political, economic, and social fabric of Russia. Yeltsin and the democratic movement managed to mobilize sufficient political force to destroy the old system, but have not been able to agree among themselves on the shape of the new order.

The democratic opening of 1988-90 created two new political actors: a broad but shallow democratic movement, geared to election campaigns and mass protests; and a ramshackle parliament with minimal legislative power, which was temporarily graced with legitimacy as the symbol of democracy. Alongside these two new players were the serried ranks of the old elite: the military, the bureaucrats, the managers, the secret police, the ex-communists. This transitory political regime has been dominated by presidentialism and regionalism. Presidentialism refers to the pivotal role played by Boris Yeltsin in mediating between the old and new political groups. It may be something of a misnomer, since the authority wielded by Yeltsin adheres more to his person than to the office he holds, and for the most part it is neither defined by law nor checked by institutional structures. Regionalism surfaced because the loss of control of the old bureaucracies led to a shift from functional to territorial representation of political interests. This is good for democracy in the long run, but makes the national leadership's task much more difficult in the short term.

The Working Model Applied

Most discussions of the spread of democracy to Russia share similar assumptions about the elements which constitute a democratic political system. The checklist includes:

1) free and fair elections;
2) separation of powers;
3) a fair and independent judicial system;
4) a free and inquisitive press;
5) the widespread sharing of democratic
values in society at large;
6) respect for human rights: at least
individual rights, and possibly collective
rights (e.g., for ethnic minorities); and
7) the presence of civil society, i.e., a plurality of social organizations.

Each of the elements in the liberal democratic canon has been introduced in Russia, but in a curiously distorted form. To paraphrase Trotsky, it is democracy reflected in a samovar. Its faltering steps down the road to democracy have been accompanied by economic disintegration, rampant crime, the collapse of public morals, rising death rates, loss of international influence, and the continuation in power of much of the old communist-era elite. Rather than question the applicability and appropriateness of their own model of democracy, Western liberals typically blame these problems on Russia's political culture or the personal qualities of its leaders. We are told that Russia has failed democracy, and not that democracy has failed Russia.

In fact, the checklist approach is extraordinarily naive in reducing democracy to a set of values and institutions. What is absent is any consideration of politics: the struggle for resources and clash of ideas between different social and political groups. The assumption is that once democratic values and institutions are in place, parties will emerge to compete for the popular vote, and sound policies and good government will follow. Democracy is seen as a source of political legitimation rather than a forum for policy resolution. After all, the market democracy paradigm assumes that the new Russian government had no choice but to introduce market liberalization. When one thinks about it, it is a curious sort of democracy which begins by telling people that they have no alternatives.

Let us look at the seven items on the West's democratic list and consider how they relate to Russian realities.

1) Free and Fair Elections
Partially-free elections were held in the USSR in 1989 and 1990, and in June 1991 Boris Yeltsin was elected President of the Russian Republic. Gorbachev refused to submit himself for popular election, and Yeltsin came to be seen as the legitimate voice of the Russian people. This experience showed how dangerous it can be for authoritarian regimes to toy with elections, no matter how unfair the electoral process or how pusillanimous the powers of the legislature. Gorbachev's experiment set in train a dynamic of democratization which swiftly undermined the authority of the Communist party.

So far, so good for the liberal democratic model. However, after the failed coup of August 1991 Yeltsin proved strangely reluctant to pursue the electoral path. In Eastern Europe, free elections were held within months of the cracking of the socialist regime. Yeltsin found he could not agree with his democratic allies on the key issues of the day--market reform and the creation of a post-Soviet federation. Thus he chose to go it alone, and delayed calling new elections until December 1993. If elections had taken place in late 1991 the democrats would probably have won handsomely. After the price liberalization of January 1992, however, the economic collapse accelerated, and in the eyes of the public the democrats had to share some of the blame for that.

The crucial problem is that even by the end of 1994 no credible political parties worthy of the name have emerged in Russia. Political parties come from one of two sources: they either grow upwards from social movements or downwards from parliamentary factions. During the elections of 1989 and 1990 a loose coalition of voters' clubs emerged, which came together as the Democratic Russia movement. They showed they could win elections and bring thousands of followers into the streets. The sole issue on which they agreed, however, was the need to dislodge the Communist Party from power. Given the postponement of elections, there was no opportunity for the fledgling parties to develop through campaigning. Instead, their leaders had to engineer crises and confrontations around which to mobilize their followers, which added to the polarized climate in Russian politics.

The top-down route of party formation was also weak. The Interregional Deputies Group, which democratic deputies formed in the USSR Supreme Soviet in 1989, never coalesced into a coherent political party. It was riven by personal jealousies and divided over the national question (i.e., the viability of the USSR). All decision-making power rested in the presidential apparatus, which left nothing of substance to bargain over in parliament and provided no incentive to forge lasting political coalitions. Instead, there was an endless succession of small parties--"taxicab parties"--which were used as launching pads for politicians seeking entry into government. Communists and nationalists aside, it was hard to differentiate between the various parties on the policy spectrum.

The key distinguishing characteristic of politicians was whether or not they were part of Boris Yeltsin's patronage network ("Ours or theirs?"). The political map of Russia did not consist of a left-right policy spectrum, but a series of concentric circles of diminishing access, radiating outwards from the Kremlin. To the annoyance of the democrats, Yeltsin refused to take over the leadership of Democratic Russia, arguing that the president should be "above politics." He instead chose to forge a new ruling elite out of old and new politicians by doling out individual jobs and favors.

When fresh elections were finally held in December 1993, in the wake of Yeltsin's crushing of the old parliament, there was a frantic scramble among the democrats to come up with viable parties. The campaign turned into an American-style media blitz, with the three leading democratic parties spending $85 million on their media campaign, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats $14 million. The U.S. National Democratic Institute issued a handbook on the art of campaigning, with detailed instructions on handling the press and the role of the sked'yuler in managing the candidate's time.

It was hard to tell the parties apart on policy grounds. Everybody was in favor of stopping inflation, ending subsidies to the other republics, and so on. Dissatisfaction with Yeltsin's use of force against the parliament and the ongoing economic crisis meant that the four democratic parties only polled 35 percent of the vote. The Communists and their Agrarian allies won 20 percent from their traditional constituencies. The Liberal Democrats topped the party list with 23 percent, thanks to the nationalist rhetoric of their charismatic leader.

Thus Russia's first free election produced a propaganda victory for an eccentric neo-fascist whose campaign pledges included irradiating Lithuania and seizing Alaska. The Democrats had little choice but to cooperate with the Communists and Agrarians in order to keep Zhirinovsky well away from power. Because of Yeltsin's reluctance, the election had come two years too late. By the end of 1993 the voters had lost their faith in all politicians. Ironically, while free elections had been vital in destroying the old communist system, they came to be seen as an awkward obstacle in the path of building the new market democracy.

2) Separation of Powers
Yeltsin's second crucial political error after August 1991 was procrastination in drawing up a new constitution. His advisers urged him to model the Russian political system around a U.S.-style presidency, with a Constitutional Court policing the separation of powers between president and legislature. There were several problems with this approach:

First, Yeltsin was in no rush to create a strong legislature which could rival his power. Despite the fact that it was the Russian Congress that had propelled him into power, Yeltsin felt himself to be an independent political actor after his election in June 1991 and his pivotal role in facing down the August coup.

Second, while the idea of a strong executive had plenty of parallels in Russia's past, the other elements of the American model--an independent constitutional court and a powerful legislature--were totally absent from Russian history.

Third, there are grounds for arguing that the U.S.-style separation of powers is less universally applicable than is often assumed. (The Founding Fathers themselves were all too aware of the uniqueness of the model they were devising.) The U.S. system assumes civilian control over the military and a reasonably wide dispersion of economic power in society--neither of which pertain in Russia or in countries like Brazil. Presidentialism in Latin America has typically resulted in deadlock with a hostile congress. One can argue that Russian democracy would have been better served by a parliamentary system, in which the executive and legislative branches of government are joined rather than separated.

After the coup of August 1991, Yeltsin persuaded Congress to grant him emergency power to rule by decree for one year. He then appointed a team of young technocrats, led by Deputy Prime Minister Egor Gaidar, to implement radical economic reform along Polish lines. The stage was thus set for two years of increasingly tense political confrontation between a truculent Congress and a president determined to pursue his own political and economic agenda. The rivalry between Yeltsin and Congress was not driven by alternate conceptions of Russia's future, or even by the interests of different social groups. It was not a dispute over policy, but simply a struggle for power. Yeltsin tried to rule the country directly, with scant regard for the opinions of Congress.

The presidential apparatus grew to more than twenty thousand officials, and took over the former Central Committee building in addition to the Kremlin. This hastily assembled bureaucratic leviathan operated in a very inefficient manner. Yeltsin's own chief of staff, Yuri Petrov, admitted that he was unable to keep track of the thousands of decrees the president was signing.

There followed two years of political trench warfare between Yeltsin and Congress. Yeltsin used television addresses and calls for referenda to appeal directly to the people. He continued to play the anti-communist card--accusing the parliamentarians of seeking the restoration of Soviet socialism. He lured parliamentary deputies into jobs in his administration. Each side accused the other of corruption on a lavish scale. Yeltsin's half-hearted efforts to forge a coalition with centrist forces fell apart at the Seventh Congress in December 1992. He challenged Congress by holding a referendum on presidential power in April 1993. While voters expressed their confidence in Yeltsin's rule and in his economic policies, the questions calling for new elections for President and Congress in 1993 failed to win the required majority. When Yeltsin summoned a Constitutional Assembly to discuss his draft constitution in June, Congress blocked its approval.

Yeltsin decided to lance the boil by disbanding the parliament on September 21 and calling for fresh elections. Neither of these actions was within his legal powers. Parliamentary deputies occupied the White House, and were ousted by troops on October 4. The striking television images of tanks shelling the White House would cost Yeltsin dearly in the December election.

In the wake of the October events, Yeltsin disbanded all the regional councils, suspended the Constitutional Court (whose members he himself had selected), and banned eight political parties and their newspapers (although these bans were subsequently lifted). Yeltsin also dropped his pledge to hold early presidential elections (not due until 1996).

The hastily-written draft constitution was weighed heavily in favor of presidential rule. For example, the president nominates the prime minister, and can dismiss parliament after three refusals of his candidate. The constitution was approved in a referendum on the same day as the congressional elections. Despite initial reports that 51 percent of voters endorsed the constitution, it was later revealed that the actual figure was 46 percent. Technically, this meant that the constitution was invalid, but in Russia people had long since stopped paying attention to technicalities.

3) An Independent Judicial System
The non-emergence of an independent judiciary has been one of the weakest spots in Russia's attempted transition to democracy. The old system of political controls collapsed with the banning of the Communist Party after the August coup. But politicians, Yeltsin included, continue to ignore or manipulate the judicial system as they see fit. This has been evident in his reliance on rule by decree, his reluctance to recognize the authority of the Constitutional Court, and his centralization of control over the judiciary.
Liberals hope that marketization will promote the rule of law, by creating a new class of property owners with a strong incentive to have their rights respected. In Russia's free-for-all economy, however, businessmen turn to private enforcement regimes (i.e., the mafia) and not the courts to ensure contract compliance.

4) A Free Press
Russia's democratization began with glasnost, and over the past decade the country has acquired a combative and broadly independent press staffed by a core of dedicated journalists. A broad spectrum of opinion is available, from the far right and far left to a clutch of pro-government newspapers. But it is still premature to talk of a completely free press. Financial constraints have caused a catastrophic decline in circulation, and only the tabloids have been able to remain profitable. The others all depend on business sponsorship and/or government assistance (through the allocation of subsidized newsprint).
President Yeltsin and his advisor Gennady Burbulis have proved all too willing to use their financial and political leverage over the press to serve their own partisan agenda--an issue which dominated Yeltsin's clashes with Congress. The television networks are particularly subservient to Yeltsin, and in some respects are less objective than they were back in 1991. In the provinces, liberal national newspapers are often hard to obtain, and most of the local press remains under the control of provincial political bosses.

5) Popular Support for Democratic Values
The presence or absence of a civic culture in Russia has been a topic of controversy among Western political scientists. Most of the research money allocated by bodies such as the National Science Foundation has gone into opinion surveys, whose findings appear to show that democratic norms such as free speech are widely respected in Russian society. Many Sovietologists have challenged these findings. In most cases the questions were taken straight from U.S. surveys, where the political context is quite different. It is well known that respondents tend to give what they suppose to be the "right" answer, and this is even more likely to apply in Russia, where citizens are unused to opinion polls. The surveys typically test attitudes in the abstract, without exploring the trade-offs between different values. The surveys have also shown a preference for strong political leadership. The results of the December 1993 elections did little to bolster the case of those who argue that democratic values have taken root in Russia.

6) Respect for Human Rights
Human rights at least have seen dramatic progress. Just about all the political prisoners inherited from the communist era have been released, although some people remain in prison for "economic crimes" which would not feature on Western statute books. Freedom to travel and emigrate is enjoyed by all. Although the lack of due process is worrying, measured in terms of human rights Russia has moved decisively towards democracy.

Ironically, the use of human rights as a political tool has switched sides. It is now the Russian government which is invoking the Helsinki Accords, to protest the denial of citizenship and language rights to Russians living in Estonia, Latvia and elsewhere. And Western governments are worried not about the denial of the right to emigrate, but about the prospect of a flood of impoverished migrants heading West.

7) The Growth of Civil Society
De Tocqueville argued that the strength of democracy in the United States lay in the dense network of social organizations characteristic of American society. Reflecting this belief, U.S. aid for democratization in Russia has focused on the promotion of associative behavior, from independent trade unions to environmental action groups, in the belief that this is the best long-run foundation for democracy.

In the 1980s some academics began to argue that elements of a civil society were sprouting up under the surface of Brezhnevite stagnation. This Tocquevillian vision seemed to be coming true during the Gorbachev era, when there was an explosion of informal groups, ranging from Buddhists to body-builders, anti-Semites to amateur theatricals. The informals played an important role, chiseling away at the mortar holding together the communist monolith.

Once glasnost gave way to democratization, however, these groups proved unable to make the transition from the social to the political sphere. In the Baltic republics and Armenia they helped generate mass political movements, but no such pattern appeared in Russia. As political and economic disintegration accelerated, the informals were left behind. Many of their leaders were elected to legislatures, and there was no longer a Communist Party to protest against, nor ministries to lobby. In the Russia of 1994 it is still hard to find voluntary associations which could be cited as incubators of democratic values and experience. The hypothesis that a nascent civil society was maturing within Soviet society has not been vindicated by events.

Indeed, there seems to have been a conceptual error at the heart of the civil society approach. While Marx followed Hegel in portraying civil society as arising in opposition to the state, Adam Smith saw it as superior to and inclusive of the state. For Smith the essence of civil society was private property and the rule of law, both of which served to limit the state. If one accepts the Scottish Enlightenment approach, it is premature to talk of civil society in Russia, since private property and the rule of law are still essentially absent.

The Antinomies of Russian Nationalism

In Russia, the democratic transition involves the break-up of a multinational empire. This raises profound questions about the existential nature of the state which most other nascent democracies have not had to face (though the cases of South Africa, India, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia are in some ways comparable). Democracy presupposes agreement on the boundaries of the demos (the people) that is to rule. Liberal political theory has little to say on the subject of where nation-states come from and the principles upon which they should be constituted. The Western experience with nation-building is a long and painful one, extending over several centuries and invariably involving warfare. In Russia there is still no agreement on the shape of the political community which will enjoy self-determination. Russia must choose not merely what sort of political system it desires, but also what Russia is as a cultural entity, and where it is in terms of physical borders. Young American democracy faced similar challenges--and came up with some answers (such as Manifest Destiny) which the international community would obviously not accept in Russia today.

Russia had never been constituted as a nation-state in the conventional sense. Less than half the population of the Russian Empire were ethnic Russians, and 350 years of expansion across contiguous territory made it difficult for Russians to perceive where Russia ended and foreign land began. Although ethnic Russians dominated the Soviet state, many aspects of Russian culture were suppressed and Russians had to rule in the name of multinational socialism.

Nationalism emerged as the crucial factor in the demise of the USSR. Gorbachev's political reforms opened up a Pandora's box of ethnic claims, suppressed for decades, which Gorbachev himself was unable to resolve. One can however argue that it was Russian nationalism, rather than the nationalism of the non-Russian peoples, which was ultimately responsible for the destruction of the USSR. Gorbachev's commitment to the Soviet state created an opening for Yeltsin's political comeback (after his dismissal from the Politburo in 1987). Yeltsin was able to turn the institutions of the Russian Federation into a power-base to rival that of Gorbachev in the federal Communist Party and government. In August 1991, the core institutions of the Soviet state--the army and the KGB--switched their loyalty to Yeltsin's Russia.

Having freed itself from the Soviet Union, however, Russia's problems in defining itself as a nation-state are far from resolved, and its cohesion is threatened from within and without.

The internal challenge stems from the fact that 19 percent of Russia's population are non-Russians, most of them living in twenty-one autonomous republics within the border of the federation. Secession is not an option for these republics, since most are surrounded by Russian territory, and in many cases the titular nationality is outnumbered by Russian inhabitants. (The exception is Chechenya in the north Caucasus, which has achieved de facto independence.)

The external challenge to Russia's identity and cohesion involves Russia's relations with the newly independent states. Twenty-five million Russians live outside the Russian Federation, and Moscow feels obliged to look out for their interests. The economies of the ex-Soviet republics remain heavily dependent on Russia--and many Russian factories are still tied to their old customers in the "near abroad." They form a powerful lobby within Russia and argue for maintaining the subsidized trade with the is.

The security dimension also remains unresolved. What military policy should a democratic Russia adopt towards its neighbors? Should it stand by while Tajikistan is torn apart by civil war? Should it intervene to try to stop the six-year long conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Should Russia do nothing if Ukraine uses force to prevent the secession of Crimea (75 percent Russian, and a part of the Russian Federation until 1954)? Democratization does not provide an answer to any of these questions--yet these are the very questions at the forefront of Russian politics, around which battle lines are being drawn.

The European empires, which had the benefit of an ocean between their homeland and their colonies, all suffered political identity crises of various severity after the end of empire. The Russian post-imperial dilemma is far more wrenching and will overshadow the democratization process for years to come.

Moscow and the Regions

Even taking the national boundaries of Russia as given, the crucial issue in Russian domestic politics is state-building rather than democratization. Russia remains an unwieldy giant of a country, spread over seven thousand miles with atrocious means of communication between its component parts. The collapse of the Soviet state apparatus severely weakened Moscow's ability to manage the country, and it is a misnomer to describe the resulting decentralized, unstable political system as "democratized." Rather, it reminds one of the periods of confusion--such as the "Time of Troubles" (1598-1613)--which have interrupted Russian history.
As a student of Russian history, Yeltsin is no doubt well aware of the dangers of anarchy. But in 1990-91 he had to make concessions to provincial elites in order to overcome his political opponents in Moscow. In October 1991 he persuaded Congress to suspend regional elections for one year, during which he would directly appoint regional governors. He also set up a network of presidential envoys in the provinces (for which he had no legal authority).

Within each of Russia's twenty-one ethnic republics and sixty-seven regions, new and old political elites battled for power as the old order collapsed. At the same time, these regional elites maneuvered for allies in Moscow. Some came under Yeltsin's patronage, others lined up with Congress. Thus in Nizhni Novgorod, for example, the old and new elites were initially able to forge a compromise, and established good relations with Yeltsin's apparatus. In the tradition of the Potemkin village, "Nizhni" became the model city for the transition to capitalism, and the favorite destination for the army of Western consultants who descended on Russia. The compromise in Nizhni Novgorod subsequently broke down.

The ethnic republics were exempted from Yeltsin's direct rule and were allowed to select their own leaders. Following the lead of Tatarstan and Chechenya, they forced Yeltsin to sign a new Federation Treaty in March 1992, which seemed to recognize their sovereign authority over everything except military affairs. Yeltsin poured subsidies into the republics in 1992 to wean them away from supporting Khasbulatov and Congress. The balance shifted in 1993, as Yeltsin tried to rein in the regions. Provincial leaders blocked his efforts to establish presidential rule, and some regions began electing their own administrators. In several cases these elected leaders were thrown out of office by the police, with Yeltsin's connivance. The original draft constitution of July 1993 recognized the sovereignty of the ethnic republics, and granted each republic and region two seats in the upper chamber of parliament. After the October events, however, Yeltsin dismissed all the regional councils, and the final version of the constitution revoked many of the republics' special rights.

The Russian Federation is not about to go the way of the Soviet Union, and break up into independent states. Russians share a strong sense of cultural homogeneity, and have four centuries' experience of life in a common state. Central and northern Russia are totally dependent upon European Russia for access to the outside world, while the Russian Far East needs Moscow's support to safeguard against its potential vulnerability to China and Japan. But in the short term the political struggles between the center and the regions have derailed the process of democratization. Yeltsin's success in establishing his grip in Moscow rests in no small measure on his manipulation of these disintegrative tendencies.

Democracy and Economic Development

The economics of transition is typically discussed in terms of a trade-off between social justice and economic growth, or even between democracy and economic development. Russia has not yet faced the luxury of such a trade-off. Social inequality has been increasing and economic output has plummeted, while the struggle to build a viable democracy is still far from over.

Talk about building a market economy is premature, since Russia is still experiencing the death throes of central planning. The command economy was not built in a day and it cannot be got rid of overnight. The 40 percent decline in industrial output is a consequence of the collapse of the old system, not of the decisions taken by politicians since 1991. The "shock" did not come from the government's decision to liberalize prices--in 1991 inflation was already out of control. Rather, it came from lifting the stone on seventy years of gross misallocation of resources and violation of the laws of market economics.

The January 1992 price liberalization simply delivered the coup de grace to an economic system that was already in its final agony.

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