'Imitation Russia’? A Response to Lilia Shevtsova
“The State swelled up, the people grew lean”
V. O. Kliuchevskii, Kurs russkoi istorii
"It remains an open question as to whether genuine liberalism in post-Soviet Russia was possible but multiply mismanaged, or whether Russia’s historical baggage was just too heavy for a liberal destination, no matter the effort. What is clear, however, is that Russia’s political trajectory since December 1991 has undermined several scholarly beliefs about regime classifications. It has prompted Samuel Huntington to discuss ‘executive arrogation’ as a threat to democratization and caused others to acknowledge the exhaustion of the ‘third wave’ of ‘democratic transitions.  Many who once saw Russia as a ‘democracy with adjectives’ (‘electoral democracy’ was the most popular cliché), who believed that ‘immature’ democracies evolve ineluctably into the full-fledged variety, have now been compelled to define Russia as an autocracy. Others perceive Russia to have fallen into a ‘political gray zone’ between democracy and dictatorship, a view which recognizes that the political teleology presumed by the very term ‘transition’ does not accord with an empirical reality that has turned out to be even messier than imagined.
Russia’s experience has clearly undermined a basic assumption of the transition paradigm: the determinative importance of elections. But Russia’s post-communist evolution has also proved that Francis Fukuyama was right to conclude in 1995 that ‘few alternative institutional arrangements elicit any enthusiasm’ aside from liberal democracy.  The political regime that has emerged in Russia confirms that democracy is the only ‘broadly legitimate regime form’ and that, as Larry Diamond has put it, post-totalitarian regimes have felt ‘unprecedented pressure to adopt or at least mimic the democratic form’.  This has led to what we may call ‘imitation democracy’, which is defined by the existence of formal democratic institutions-including multiparty electoral competitions-that conceal autocratic, bureaucratic or oligarchic practice. In imitation democracies, in other words, it is inconceivable that elections could be truly competitive because democratic forms are not actual political processes, only stage props fabricated so expertly that they often engross not just the viewers but the actors themselves.”
Lilia Shevtsova, “Imitation Russia”
In the realm of political typology, Professor Shevtsova, has come up with something new and of interest; ‘Imitation Democracy’. A faux version of the real type, which Shevtsova claims, is the malady which afflicts Matushka Rossiya, as well as such countries as Venezuela, Egypt and Iran, and pre-Orange Revolution Ukraine. As per Shevstova, relying upon other political scientists, the characteristics of ‘Imitation Democracy’ include:
“In the Russian case, we are dealing not with the ‘collapse’ of Democracy, as many think, but with the deliberate use of Democratic institutions as Potemkin villages in order to conceal traditional power arrangements….As in many other oil-rich states, resource rents have stoked corruption, vitiated the vital link between taxation and services that binds citizens to the state, and distorted both domestic and foreign economic investments.
If one controls, so to speak, for the effects of oil, the political regime that has consolidated itself owing to the efforts of Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin closely resembles the ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ of Latin American regimes in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It has all the characteristics: personified power, a bureaucratization of society, political exclusion of the popular sector, the leading role of technocrats (Russia’s Chicago boys) in setting the economic agenda, and an active role for the secret services (in Latin America it was the military)”.
Now, what dear reader is one to make of this schema? One should of course, acknowledge the intelligence and the evident wisdom of much of Professor Shevtsova’s ideas, as she has formulated them here. As she correctly notes, the typology of Russia’s political formation under Putin is to a degree unique, inasmuch as it does not readily, come to mind, as being akin to prior political regimes in Russia’s, nay European history (with the exception of Ukraine under Kuchma, all of her comparisons, are non-European, indeed, of the Tier Monde). So, one must duly thank Shevtsova, for providing us, with a starting point, in analyzing the nature of the current regime in Russia, and, for providing us with some clues as to how said regime, might and might not, evolve. As per the latter, Shevtsova claims that while in the long term, ‘any new pattern of modernization is likely to come from the business community”, in the short term, the prospects for Russia, après Putin are, either a continuation of the current ‘stagnant stability’, a regime crisis and societal breakdown, and, some variant of successful Liberal Modernization.
Now, as per the problems with Shevtsova’s diagnosis, of the patient, Ivan Ivanovich Rossiya, they are I would argue, such, that her conclusions fails to do justice to her penetrating analysis. In particular, her thesis, that species ‘Imitation Democracy’ is part and parcel of ‘post-totalitarian’ regimes, seems on the face of it, to be both illogical and historically nonsensical. Id est, non-functioning ‘multi-party’ political systems, were, as ex-Tovarisch Shevtsova, seems to have forgotten, part and parcel of the former, ‘People’s Democracies’, of Central and Eastern Europe. Each one of which, could not do without its own Peasant, Catholic, even Liberal-bourgeois parties, of the perfectly hollowed out harmless variety. Each one of the ‘PD’s, had their own, futile and powerless, Parliaments, and, even, elections. Even Sovietskaya Vlast, had of course, a shell like forms which required endless rounds of political organizing, demonstrations and such like (‘Brezhnev Constitution’ anyone?).
As per her comparison of Russia to the ‘authoritarian-bureaucratic’, military regimes of Latin America of the 1945 to 1985 period, or indeed, present day Egypt, well, here is where Shevtsova’s analysis becomes thoroughly unstuck (her throwing present day Persia, into the mix, seems too bizarre for comment, so I will just ignore). First off, all such regimes were not ‘bureaucratic’ regimes, if by the bureaucracy, one is using the word, in the Weberian sense. Nor can it be said, `a la, 19th century Prussia, or Austria, that the bureaucracy, was an important player in the overall power structure. Nothing could be further from the truth. All such regimes were, or are, as is present day Egypt, and other such in the Arab world, both de facto, and often as not, de jure, military regimes, pur et simple. Insofar as such regimes can be said to have a raison d’etre, it is the clear and indeed pronounced intertwining, of the military [usually the army] with the state apparatus. Hence, the fact that all the heads of such regimes were military officers, and usually Generals. Hence, the fact, that often such regimes came into being, as part of an overt military coup d’etat. And, just as often, as part of an ongoing military campaign against guerrillas or the perceived threat of a ‘Leftist’ takeover. Of course, Russia, neither under Putin, nor in the latter part of the Yeltsin period has seen anything like this. Nor is there much likelihood, that Putin’s successor need be per se, a member or an ex-member of the FSB. Nor is there much fear, even with the ongoing conflict in Chechnya, of an insurgency which necessitates a state of siege, and or emergency. The sine qua non, of the regimes mentioned above. Nor, is there the degree of state violence, which all of such regimes, inflict on the society, which they stand above. While, that is not to deny, that the Russian state, has committed atrocities in Chechnya, as well as winking, at the occasional political assassination and thugery, there is nothing that would approximate the degree of ongoing state violence, consisting of torture, death squads, long term imprisonment for political prisoners, et cetera, et cetera. Again, all part and parcel, of many of the political regimes that she compares Putin’s Russia to. Indeed, the whole of Putin’s reign as President, has even failed to produce a case similar to Kuchma’s alleged involvement in the murder of his political opponents. To put Putin’s Russia in such company, only obscures and obfuscates proper context of where such a regime should be placed.
Oddly enough, without pursuing the matter much further, nor expanding upon it, Shevstova, provides us with a clue as to where we should locate Putin’s Russia, as a political typology: in Russia’s past. As Shevstova says, the key question for Russia today, as it has been for the last three hundred and twenty years, has been the proper pattern of modernization. As she correctly points out, the old Petrine model of modernization from above, `a la Prussia (which Stalin in essence reused) for purposes of war and state building, no longer makes sense in the current International environment. Nor, does a Knyazhestva, patrimonal regime, makes sense as being the best way for Russia’s people to best develop their many talents and to build and strengthen civil society. Again, as Shevstova points out, it is the manifest failure of Putin, et al., to clearly and fundamentally understand this point, which throws into relief the reason why his regime, has failed to pursue a systemic policy of economic reform, and political liberalization (in the sense of a making Russia a Rechtstat). Instead, dreams of making Russia into an ‘energy superpower’, and using the energy weapon in an attempt to regain, Russia’s lost influence in its ‘near abroad’, appears to be upper most in the minds of Russia’s ruling circles. Which is not to gainsay, that many of Putin’s foreign policy maneuverings, do make a certain degree of sense. In that respect, Shevstova, with her anti-regime biases, appears to be on less than firm ground in criticizing on a blanket basis, Putin’s foreign policy. Where one can thoroughly agree with Shevstova is in her conclusion, where she states that the very last thing that Russia needs, is indiscriminate criticism, in a loud and hectoring voice. What Russia needs is more, much more, Western, especially, West European involvement, investments, co-operation. As Shevstova concludes on (for a Russian analysis!) hopeful note:
“In the next decade the post-Soviet elite in Russia will be a thing of the past. A new generation will be in charge that may opt for an open Russia basically at peace with the West. For this to happen Russia must discard the hopes it associates with its ‘elective monarchy’ and the false promise of authoritarian modernization that goes with it. That may be the only route from an imitation Russia to a real one, and eventually a democratic one”.