The Beginning of the End of the Facade of Russian Democracy

News Abroad

Andreas Umland, formerly visiting fellow at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford, is editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, Germany.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to head the federal list of United Russia in the upcoming State Duma election may one day be seen as the major bungle in his biography as a statesman. The foreseeable result of the outgoing Russian president’s unexpected foray into parliamentary affairs will be a crushing victory for United Russia in the December 2007 election. Probably, the party of bureaucrats – an organization that has been in existence for less than ten years – will receive more than 50% of the vote. As many of the remaining votes will be spent on parties not crossing the new 7%-barrier, the next State Duma will, presumably, become entirely dominated by United Russia. So much that even ordinary Russians brainwashed by years of TV idolatry of Putin and his policies may begin wondering why Russia requires the institution of a parliament at all.

A major rationale of Putin’s centralization policies over the last years was that Russia needs guidance from above in its transition to a full democracy. Not only most Russians, but also some Western observers have been arguing that Putin is playing a positive role in Russian history. After the painful years of chaos under Yeltsin, the argument goes, Putin has finally put the creation of a new Russian state under governmental control. Allegedly, Putin had to insert an authoritarian interregnum into Russia’s post-communist transition providing stability, direction and confidence which Russian society was craving for by the end of the stormy 1990s. Provisional electoral authoritarianism, such has been argued, is a necessary stepping stone to a thorough modernization of Russian society. The Kremlin’s repeated attempts to create a second pro-Kremlin party (Motherland, Just Russia) seemed to illustrate the point: As Russia was unable to create a functioning multi-party system from below, it could not help but install a enlightened transitional dictator to lay the foundations of an operational democracy from above.

With Putin’s direct participation in the Kremlin-manipulated party political process, and Russia’s resulting return to an almost-single-party system by the end this year, however, this story will loose its credibility. The following formation of a new government as well as the presidential elections next year will be reduced to manifestly formal procedures. That is because Putin is not entering party-politics proper, but a politico-theatrical scenery set up by his own assistants. This “sovereign democracy” is aping, rather than embodying Russian varieties of, such principles as political pluralism, division of power, checks and balances, an independent mass media, or a strong civil society. A modern-day Don Quichote, Putin will be competing against artificial rivals and virtual opponents. He might also face some real enemies in political and civil society. These, however, have been suffering from years of more or less sophisticated intermingling by the Kremlin’s “political technologists” as well as some crude harassment by such organs as the police, general procuracy and secret services. Putin will not only be entering a playing field where he is the only serious player. He will become part of a skewed game where his own assistants make the rules. Thus, he will not win, but triumph. His few real and virtual competitors will not loose, but be humiliated.

In view of this new turn of events, many Russian intellectuals will start asking themselves where Russia is going to end up after the Putin era. In view of the fact that his new political system increasingly resembles the Soviet polity, more and more educated Russians may start doubting whether Putin is leading the country in the right direction. As not only Russia’s re-sovietization, but her integration into transnational communication spaces and epistemic communities too grows by the year, the Kremlin’s overt domination of the entire political playground will look increasingly archaic. Whereas until now, the Russian political processes resembled, at least on the surface, those of – what in Russia is called – “the civilized world,” the future Russian polity will start to look obviously different not only from the Western ones, but also from the polities of such countries as Poland, Bulgaria or Ukraine. It will more and more resemble the situation in a number of countries that have an ambivalent reputation among the enlightened parts of the Russian elite, such as Belarus, Kazakhstan or China.

Many Russian diplomats, journalists, businesspersons or academics – i.e. those who travel to, or/and read about, other countries – will, with the re-emergence of a de facto one-party-state, understand that Russia is not only not any longer following the path of the rest of Europe. Rather, she is now moving in the opposite direction, and manifestly rejecting some elementary building stones of the societies of the so-called “civilized world.” To be sure, a considerable part of the Russian elite – the increasingly vociferous proponents of a Russian “special path” – shall be delighted by their motherland’s return to a monistic model of society. However, especially the well-educated among the younger components of the Russian elite will start realizing that they are living in a country that becomes increasingly isolated from the rest of Christiandom and has an uncertain future with dubious mechanisms of transferring political power from one leader to the next.

The medium-term consequences of Putin’s surprising rush into, and death-blow against, party politics will be new divisions in the elite resembling the ones in the late 1980s. Nationalist hard-liners will defend “the Putin system” as, perhaps, not entirely democratic, but peculiarly Russian, and, therefore, appropriate for their fatherland. A new generation of cosmopolitan bureaucrats and publicists will not accept the remaining elements of Russia’s façade democracy as being sufficient, and voice their concern about the ability of the re-centralized state and closed political society to react adequately to domestic and foreign challenges. As Moscow’s leaders will start quarreling again about whether their country should be a part of Europe or not, a new “Time of Troubles” is lying ahead in northern Eurasia.

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Arnold Shcherban - 11/3/2007

Stop mentioning Reagan as soon as one mentions the end of the Cold War.
He WAS NOT a prime or even a secondary reason behind the collapse
of the Soviet Union, as it has been
decisively shown by many historians and confirmed by virtually all Soviet and post- Soviet Russian political leaders.

And specifically for such knowledgable historian as Mr. Hughes
is: when you confidently say that Russian people now have those modern "luxuries" you mentioned, have, at the least, an approximate percentage of those people to the entire population.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/28/2007

Why don't we let the Russians worry about where Russia is going? It is no longer any threat to us. We should be thankful, of course, that Ronald Reagan came along, but now we have dealt with Gorby, Yeltsin and Putin--they have already managed two successions. We should be indifferent about who comes next. Their people now have washing machines, autos, cell phones, and quite a bit of indoor plumbing. They will not go back to serfdom.

John W Bland - 10/24/2007

End of Russian democracy? Are you sure you've got the right subject place. It ain't Putin I am afraid of. Putin, insofar as I am aware, isn't a dry-drunk, mentally disturbed pathological liar tho he may, arguably, be a second degree war criminal. Be aware that I am of the opinion that democracy is a far cry from optimal human social organization. It ends itself . . . more news at eleven.

John W Bland - 10/24/2007

I'm betting on Putin. All contraindications aside he strikes me as an impressive leader and man. If he doesn't actually strike me I'll tend to hope for the best, which will require his best. Look what he's up against.

Why would Russia be benefited from following the example as America as it is now . . . or are they? America is dying. Russia seems to me to be in the midst of a painful Cesarian rebirth. If Putin can disuade us from bringing any more "democracy" to them I would think the omens are hopeful. Mother nature gives the tests first and then the lessons. Survivors may retest if they wish.