The Elusive Mr. Putin: Is Democracy Achievable in post-Putin Russia?
We are honored to bring to our readership, the following analysis of Russia under Vladimir Putin, by a Mlle. Daria Solovieva. Daria Solovieva, a Russian native, originally from Taganrog, is a graduate of Bard College's International Affairs and Globalization program. Currently she is an Executive Officer with CHF International, a non-profit organization, helping disaster victims worldwide. She previously worked at the online research journal, EurasiaNet. Her article on the political ramifications of the murder of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, appeared in the online journal World Politics Watch in October of this year.
“In our relations with the people of Russia it is important, as it has never been important before, for us to recognize that our institutions may not have relevance for people living in other climes and conditions and that there can be social structures and forms of government in no way resembling our own and yet not deserving of censure.”
George F. Kennan.
Over the last two months, Russia has experienced a surge in high-profile violence reminiscent of the stormy nineties and the anarchy of the Yeltsin years. Among the recent high-profile cases were the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the radiation poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, and the poisoning of former Yeltsin’s Prime minister Yegor Gaydar – each of them an outspoken critic of the policies pursued by the Putin administration. Together these uncovered crimes have cast a new cloud over Vladimir Putin’s presidency and his legacy.
This criticism appears to have one common underlying assumption or rather, a ready-made prescription to Russia’s many ills: a Western-style, liberal democracy as the only stable and desirable form of government. An overwhelming number of Western and Russian foreign policy thinkers continue to advocate democracy as inherently superior to any other form of government and leave its desirability for any new or translational government outside the realm of questioning. Any new or transitional government that has emerged since the defeat of communism experienced an “unprecedented pressure to adopt or at least mimic the democratic form.” Democracies, we are told, offer an array of advantages. They are more stable, less likely to fall into armed civil conflict, experience humanitarian catastrophes, or breed international terrorists.
The same unity of judgement in embracing the advantages of democratic governance cannot be attributed to the top-level Russian officials and foreign policy makers. Putin’s chief of staff Alexander Voloshin has been quoted as saying the Russian people are not ready for democracy. Putin himself, while he may appear to embrace democratic principles, his actions, along with prominent voices within his own administration, suggest otherwise.
This absence of a unifying vision for Russia’s future on the part of the Russian government is a feature of the Russian post-Soviet transition, a mark of an enduring national identity crisis that manifests itself in a myriad different ways from a rise of xenophobic nationalist groups to foreign policy gaffes. No other country in the world has gone from being a superpower to a third-world oil-driven economy with oversized ambitions in a span of decade. The same question that has plagued Russian leaders since the fall of the Soviet Union is still relevant today. What type of government and internal structure, what type of foreign policy orientation should replace the unprecedented seventy-year-old experiment with the Communist faith?
Should Russia mend its relations with Europe, pick up where Peter the Great left off in an effort to construct a new counterweight to U.S. foreign policy dominance? Or should Russia pursue a Chinese, the Chilean or an entirely its own, “Third Way” model of modernization and development? Is it in Russia’s best interest to pursue a strictly pro-Western course, which includes periodic efforts to resemble a Western-style democracy? And, ultimately, is democracy really Russia’s first choice?
Perhaps the biggest modern threat to the stability Russian state faces today comes from within in so far that these important questions remain precariously unresolved. Many of the options above have been explored in the last decade (sometimes simultaneously), but no single idea seems to unify the Russian public as much as the return of Russia’s lost position and status in the world. This unifying idea is manifested to the outside world in two major ways: one is the return to the norms and practices of the past (on which Putin’s national policy has been built). The second one is antagonism to the West (cautious self-assertion has defined the latter part of Putin’s presidency).
As a result, President Putin and anyone who succeeds him, faces a dual task of moving Russia forward, cooperating with the West and safeguarding the image of a “normal nation” in transition to an accepted norm of a democratic state while at the same time protecting the national unity and stability at home through maintaining all and any mementos of the past, i.e. remaining as backward as possible. It is international scandals like the Litvinenko case and the subsequent investigations that highlight the impossible dual task in which the Putin’s administration is now trapped.
While the vision of the future remains unresolved, it is now certain the type of government that can never last in Russia. Whatever the shape the post-Putin government will take, it will not and cannot be a democratic one, making Western calls for overnight democracy in Russia all the more problematic and out of touch with reality.
First of all, Russia has no institutional or cultural memory of democracy. The Yeltsin years were the closest Russia ever got to democratic governance, and those years proved to be traumatic for both the economy and the state. By the end of the 1990s, Yeltsin was loosing control of himself and the country:
“Russia sank deeper and deeper into social and economic crisis: falling life expectancy (for men, from 64.2 years in 1989 to as low as 57.6 years in 1994); a resurgence of contagious diseases that had been eliminated in the Soviet Union; decaying schools; hundreds of thousands of homeless children; millions of migrants; a shrinking economy that during Yeltsin’s tenure contracted in real terms by 40 percent; and finally, rampant lawlessness and corruption that had become a lifestyle passing for ‘normal’.”
When Putin emerged as Yeltsin’s successor many hailed him as the true democrat that will lead Russia towards a prosperous democratic future. But it’s important to recognize that Putin’s agenda was never really about establishing democracy, which meant unleashing another revolution. Putin’s “counter-revolution” was about tackling and undoing the legacy of the Yeltsin clan through establishing order and stability above everything else. His tough policy of “managed democracy” may lead to democratic governance in the long term, but no one could be sure of it in the long term.
As Putin was quite successful in achieving the main goals of his mission, the post-Putin Russia now emerges as a state is even less positioned for democratic governance than before Putin came to power. Putin’s legacy in turn includes a significantly stronger presidency, a growing demographic catasrophe, a widening gap between the rich and poor, and economic time bomb of Russia’s resource curse.
This does not automatically indicate, however, that the current form of government is illegitimate, wrong or there is no longer any hope for development of liberal democratic state in Russia in the long term. The key question hovering over both Putin’s legacy and his successor’s will be to determine if Putin’s return to authoritarian methodology was only a means or an end in and of itself. Will Putin be remembered as a Pinochet who is still revered by his people for leading his country to democracy and prosperity through undemocratic practices? Or will his presidency mark instead the return towards the familiar path of authoritarianism?
For many, this seems to be an irreconcilable paradox that Putin’s agenda is shared by 57% of the public which did not hesitate to support of the most undemocratic of his policies, including a media clampdown, the war in Chechnya, and the crusade against the oligarchs. How can a nation, in which millions of people died in the hands of the one of the most secretive and deadliest secret services, the KGB, find a hope and future in its former officer whose rise to power also symbolized the renaissance of the secret services power and influence? According to a recent study, 3 out of 4 Russian high officials are former or current members of the FSB, the former KGB agency. Six years later after Putin’s presidency, the Russian public has demonstrated incredible loyalty to his regime. Assertiveness in foreign policy, standing up to the West, the war in Chechnya, and even the old slogan of stability and order still fair extremely well with the Russian public.
Not everyone is completely skeptical in dubious love affair, a social contract between the Russian public and their increasingly authoritarian leader. Some see genuine hope in Putin’s “managed democracy.”
Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and the author of The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, uses the term “illiberal demoracy” to explain the apparent contradiction of increasing authoritarianism and Putin’s enduring popularity. For Zakaria, “illiberal democracy is good because it has – by chance—produced a liberal autocrat who may eventually lead his country to genuine liberal democracy.”
Francis Fukuyama, the leading neoconservative who once hailed democracy promotion as the core of the U.S. relations with the rest of the world, has since changed his mind in the light of the disastrous war in Iraq. Democracy may not be the only way forward after all.
Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, while speaking out on the war on Iraq, in his recent appearance on “Meet the Press” expressed the same idea that democratic governance on Western terms is simply not the “first choice” and that Shia theocracy may be a more desirable choice. This is indicative of a broader threat of imposed democracy, a sign of increasing evidence in the flaws of neoconservative ideology.
George Kennan’s thoughts on Western policy towards the Soviet Russian state, though written in 1950s about Cold War about a state that no longer exists, is strangely well-suited for today’s Western policy towards Putin’s Russia:
“No members of the future Russian government will be aided by doctrinaire and impatient well-wishers in the West who look to them to produce in short order a replica of the Western democratic dream.”
As any NGO operating in Russia will attest, Kennan was exactly right that post-Soviet heritage creates an additional challenge for Russia in embracing Western advice, however well-intended. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of government in Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice. To be genuine, to be enduring and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russian themselves.”
If there was only one message Kennan could pitch as a new mantra for the U.S. policy towards Russia to replace the default and sometimes blind “democracy promotion”, I wish it would be this:
“Let us not hover nervously over the people who come after, applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of “democratic.” let them work out their internal problems in their own manner. Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner.”
The West should not give up on Russia altogether, only on its persistent belief in and insistence on democracy as the ultimate panacea. While there are many issues of concern, particularly where Putin’s policies are verging on totalitarianism and lack of accountability, it is not too late to recognize that meaningful change can only come about on Russian terms.
1George Kennan, “Democracy and the Russian Future,” (Foreign Affairs, XXIX, No. 3 April, 1951), 351-70.
2Larry Diamond, “Thinking about Hybrid Regimes”, (Journal of Democracy, April 2002).
3Morton Halperin, Joseph Siegle, and Michael Weinstein, The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, (Routledge 2004).
4Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, “The Rollback of Democracy in Vladimir Putin’s Russia,” www.washingtonpost.com, 7 June 2005.
5Lilia Shevtsova, Putin’s Russia, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2003).
6Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York London, 2003), 95-96.