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Journal ArticleDOI

Russian Democracy: Still Not a Lost Cause

01 Jan 2000-Washington Quarterly (The MIT Press)-Vol. 23, Iss: 1, pp 161-172

AbstractAlthough Russians may be slow to acquire the values of liberal democracy, they have acquired the habits of electoral democracy with surprising speed. The set of political ground rules that Yeltsin imposed in 1993 has survived numerous challenges and, in fact, gained strength even as his weakened presidency draws to a close.

Topics: Liberal democracy (65%), Democracy (62%), Presidency (56%), Politics (52%)

Summary (2 min read)

Introduction

  • In the recent explosion of articles about “Who Lost Russia,” analysts have focused almost exclusively on the trials and tribulations of Russia’s economic reform and Western attempts to assist these reforms.
  • Likewise, all political individuals and organizations of consequence participated in the 1995 parliamentary election, the 1996 presidential election, and dozens of elections for regional executives and legislative representatives since 1996.
  • Moreover, countries can get stuck in the “twilight zone”3 between electoral and liberal democracy, sometimes called unconsolidated democracies or illiberal democracies.

The Revolution Is Over

  • In contrast to earlier periods in the Soviet-Russian transition, the current system is more stable owing to two major changes.
  • A decade ago, three major questions were on the agenda:.
  • Nor do serious actors believe that they can roll back capitalism if they take back the Kremlin extraconstitutionally.
  • As these issues have been resolved, the imperative for immediate action is no longer obvious, because actors are compelled to adopt longer-term policy agendas within the general parameters of the economic and political system in place.

Challenges to Stability from Within the Kremlin

  • A second stabilizing development has been the new balance of power between political forces that has evolved since the 1993 showdown.
  • At the beginning of 1996, when Yeltsin’s popular support hovered in the single digits only months before the presidential election, many predicted that he would use his disproportionate power (or, more accurately, his perceived preponderance of power) to stay in command.
  • So many rights exist that all U.S. citizens now are victims of discrimination.
  • If he believed he could win, the electoral path was a less costly way to hold onto power.
  • Paradoxically, the recent meteoric rise in popularity of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin could eventually threaten the stable balance of power that has evolved over the last several years.

Challenges to Stability from Outside the Kremlin

  • Yeltsin’s weakened position has not translated into a strengthened position for other antidemocratic forces outside the Kremlin.
  • Russia’s political landscape is still littered with antisystemic parties, such as Viktor Anpilov’s neocommunist movement, Working Russia, or Aleksandr Barkashov’s neofascist group, Russia National Union.
  • Most important, they have not articulated an alternative vision for Russia’s future.
  • The CPRF has adhered to electoral and constitutional processes, participating as an active and important member of Russia’s new political system.
  • Privately, LDPR leaders say they want to be part of the establishment—the party of power.

Prospects for Reform of Russia’s Political System

  • Factors that enhance the stability of Russian democracy do not necessarily improve the quality of its democracy.
  • Superpresidentialism, a weakly institutionalized party system, a poorly organized civil society, an ineffective state, and a slowly developing commitment to the rule of law are serious institutional flaws in Russia’s new democratic polity.
  • The history of even the most robust federal states created from below— from governments agreeing to recognize a new higher authority—suggests that the balance of power between the center and the subnational governments is always shifting and sometimes results in institutional breakdown.
  • Decentralization and the rising power of regional leaders are important checks on authoritarian rule from Moscow.
  • The persistence of this electoral system in turn has shaped and will continue to shape the strategies of political aspirants in ways that enhance party development.

The Uncertain Future of Liberal Democracy in Russia

  • Without looking too deeply into the crystal ball, one could invoke the same uncertainty about the permanence of illiberal institutions for virtually every illiberal feature of Russia’s democracy.
  • As capitalism develops and people learn better how the institutions of interest intermediation work, civic organization has the potential to expand.
  • Finally, improvement in the institutional quality of democracy also can change public attitudes about the value of democracy.
  • The illiberal features of Russian democracy also do not appear to be permanent features of Russia’s political system.
  • Other major groups also have an interest in their persistence.

Notes

  • On the emergence of this system, see Michael McFaul, “Lessons from Russia’s Protracted Transition from Communist Rule,” Political Science Quarterly 114, no.
  • In the 1995 parliamentary elections, Anpilov’s coalition won almost three million votes.
  • One national poll, conducted in January 1999 by the Russian Social-Economic Agency, recorded support for the Russian National Union to be as high as 8.4 percent; see “Russian Opinion Poll Puts Communists Ahead,” Bloomberg, February 3, 1999.
  • See Andrei Illarionov, “The Roots of the Economic Crisis: What Went Wrong in Russia,” Journal of Democracy 10, no.

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Russian Democracy: Still Not a Lost Cause
Michael McFaul
The Washington Quarterly, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2000, pp. 161-172
(Article)
Published by The MIT Press
For additional information about this article
[ Access provided at 30 May 2022 11:33 GMT with no institutional affiliation ]
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/36514

Michael McFaul
Russian Democracy:
Still Not a Lost Cause
Copyright © 1999 by The Center for Strategic and International Studies and the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Washington Quarterly 23:1 pp. 161172.
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY WINTER 2000
161
Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace in Washington and an assistant professor of political science and Hoover Fellow
at Stanford University in California.
In the recent explosion of articles about Who Lost Russia, ana-
lysts have focused almost exclusively on the trials and tribulations of
Russias economic reform and Western attempts to assist these reforms.
Russias financial collapse in August 1998 and recent accusations of money
laundering through the Bank of New York are cited as evidence that Russia
is lost. The logic of this analysis is flawed. It assumes that these setbacks to
economic reform or the rule of law represent end points in Russian history.
In fact, they may really just reflect the transitional consequences of Russias
ongoing revolution. Russia is midstream in one of the most far-reaching at-
tempts in history to simultaneously transform an empire, a polity, and an
economy. It is naive to expect this revolution to go smoothly all the way.
Russias transition has been not only long but also confrontational and at
times violent. Negotiation between the ancient regime leaders and demo-
cratic challengers never produced agreements or constitutions. Instead, im-
position was the mode of transition. Most dramatically, Yeltsins imposition
of the political rules of the game in the fall of 1993 produced the current
political order. This system, often called the Second Russian Republic, has
many qualities of an electoral democracy, even if it lacks the deeper at-
tributes of liberal democracy.
1
After destroying his political enemies by force in October 1993, Yeltsin
used his temporary political advantage to dictate a new political order, ini-
tiating Russias third attempt at democratic transition. In November 1993,
he published a new constitution and announced a referendum on the new
basic law for December 1993. At the same time, voters were asked to elect

l
Michael McFaul
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY WINTER 2000
162
representatives to a new bicameral parliament replacing the Congress of
Peoples Deputies. The October eventsa euphemism for the armed con-
flict between the president and the parliament on October 3-4, 1993
were a blow to popular support for Russian democracy. Opinion polls
immediately after the October 1993 standoff revealed that support for de-
mocracya word unfortunately identified with the Yeltsin regimehad
decreased considerably. Yet a majority (or close to a majority because the
turnout numbers were probably falsified) participated and voted to ratify a
new constitution. Equally important, ma-
jor parties from the opposition, including
the Communist Party of the Russian Fed-
eration and the Agrarian Party of Russia,
chose after long and hard debate to par-
ticipate. Even the losers from the October
1993 standoff believed they were better
off if they acquiesced to Yeltsins rules,
however flawed, than if they challenged
the regime by other means.
Since 1993, all major political actors
have abided by the political rules of the game outlined in the new consti-
tution. Likewise, all political individuals and organizations of consequence
participated in the 1995 parliamentary election, the 1996 presidential
election, and dozens of elections for regional executives and legislative
representatives since 1996. On the whole, elections have been competi-
tive and consequential, as two-thirds of the Duma deputies elected in
1993 did not win reelection or compete for reelection in 1995, and nearly
half of the regional heads of administration lost reelection bids. The 1999-
2000 electoral cycle already has produced some negative signs for the
future of competitive and fair elections. Most disturbingly, the Kremlin-
controlled media has blatantly violated Russias electoral law by viciously
attacking opposition parties participating the December 1999 parliamen-
tary elections, a hint of what might ensue in 2000 presidential elections.
Nonetheless, however imperfect, elections are the only game in town for
assuming political power, and the constitution survives as the ultimate
guide for resolving conflicts between the executive and the legislative
branches.
Measuring the stability and quality of this system involves two related but
distinct undertakings. Full-blown liberal democracies have well-developed
party systems, vibrant civil societies, rule of law, an independent media, and
mature liberal norms embedded in society. They are more immune to anti-
democratic challenges than partial or electoral democracies that use elec-
The Kremlin-
controlled media has
blatantly violated
Russias electoral law.

THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY WINTER 2000
Russian Democracy
l
163
tions to select political leaders but lack many of these deeper qualities of de-
mocracy.
2
However, a political system can be stable without being liberal.
Likewise an electoral democracy can be stable without being a liberal de-
mocracy. In a democratic polity, stability may be enhanced and even stimu-
lated by development of liberal institutions, but the causal arrow may also
point in the opposite direction. Moreover, countries can get stuck in the
twilight zone
3
between electoral and liberal democracy, sometimes called
unconsolidated democracies or illiberal democracies.
The current Russian political system has many attributes of an unconsoli-
dated democracy or electoral democracy, while still lacking the features of a
liberal democracy. The distribution of formal powers between the president
and parliament is too skewed in favor of the president. Russias party system,
civil society, and rule of law are underdeveloped. The crude military meth-
ods being deployed to fight terrorism in Chechnya suggests that respect for
basic human rights of all Russian citizens still does not exist within the Rus-
sian state or society. Yet this system exhibits qualities of stability. In Russia
today, all major actors demonstrate an interest in the institutions of democ-
racy. No major group believes that it will be better off by deviating from
electoral and constitutional rules. Different actors want to change the spe-
cific form of the constitution and the specific rules governing elections, but
no major political force has an incentive to violate these basic democratic
rules of the game of Russias polity.
The Revolution Is Over
In contrast to earlier periods in the Soviet-Russian transition, the current
system is more stable owing to two major changes. One is the narrowed
agenda of change. A decade ago, three major questions were on the agenda:
Where were the borders of the nation and state? What kind of economy
should the Soviet Union-Russia have? What kind of political system should
be created? Today two of these major issues are resolved. With the excep-
tion of Chechnya, the borders of the Russian state are no longer in dispute.
Likewise the market has replaced the command economy, and few believe
that there will be a reversal. Although Russia and Belarus have moved
closer to reuniting over the past several years, no serious political force in
Russia today believes that it can recreate the Soviet Union by controlling
the Kremlin. Nor do serious actors believe that they can roll back capitalism
if they take back the Kremlin extraconstitutionally.
As the stakes for obtaining political power decrease, the time horizons of
those seeking political power stretch further into the future. When the So-
viet Unions fate was on the line, political actors heavily discounted the fu-

l
Michael McFaul
THE WASHINGTON QUARTERLY WINTER 2000
164
ture and focused solely on the short-term consequences of collapse or pres-
ervation of the state. The same was true of economic reform. Political actors
rightly believed that initial decisions about these outcomes would have
long-term consequences; therefore the time to effect initial trajectories was
the present, not the future. Because actors did not know the consequences
of losing these debates, they played for broke, believing there might be no
tomorrow if they lost. As these issues have been resolved, the imperative for
immediate action is no longer obvious, because actors are compelled to
adopt longer-term policy agendas within the general parameters of the eco-
nomic and political system in place. Equally important, the losers have not
been killed or imprisoned but have reemerged as important actors within
the new political system. For example, Anatoly Lukyanov, a loser from the
August 1991 coup attempt, is a Duma Deputy and chairman of the Legisla-
tive Affairs Committee, whereas Aleksandr Rutskoi, a loser from the 1993
military confrontation, is governor of Kursk Oblast. The safer it is to lose,
the longer politicians can stay in the democratic game.
Challenges to Stability from Within the Kremlin
A second stabilizing development has been the new balance of power be-
tween political forces that has evolved since the 1993 showdown. A skewed
distribution of power in favor of one side created a focal point for institu-
tional emergence in 1993; Yeltsin dictated the rules and everyone had two
choicesacquiesce or reject. Most acquiesced. Ironically, the weakening of
this same side over time has helped preserve the 1993 constitutional design.
After October 1993, Yeltsin and his entourage represented the one political
force in Russia with the power to undermine the new political rules of the
game. At the beginning of 1996, when Yeltsins popular support hovered in
the single digits only months before the presidential election, many pre-
dicted that he would use his disproportionate power (or, more accurately, his
perceived preponderance of power) to stay in command. One of his closest
advisers at the time, Aleksandr Korzhakov, urged him to do so. When
tempted by the extraconstitutional option during the 1996 presidential elec-
tion, Yeltsin abided by the electoral process.
We do not know, and probably never will, why he decided to play by
these electoral rules. On the one hand, the president must have reasoned
that he was too weak, domestically and internationally, to pull off a coup.
Even if he and his allies wanted to use extraconstitutional means to im-
pose their preferences regarding a political issue, the probability that the
military would intervene again on his behalf or that the population would
support him was much lower after the October 1993 confrontation.
4
On

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Cites background from "Russian Democracy: Still Not a Lost..."

  • ...On his watch, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was destroyed, the largest empire on earth was peacefully dismantled, and electoral democracy was introduced into a country with a thousand-year history of autocratic rule" (McFaul, 2000c, p. 42)....

    [...]

  • ...See also: Shleifer and Treisman, p. 173; McFaul, 2000a, p. 163; Schroder, p. 971; Aslund, 2006, p. 42; Mellow, p. 122)....

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Frequently Asked Questions (1)
Q1. What are the future works in "Russian democracy: still not a lost cause" ?

This balance of power suggests that a struggle for the future of liberal democracy is more likely than the persistence of the status quo.