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Sovereign Democracy and Shrinking Political Space
13 September 2006
Sovereign Democracy and Shrinking Political Space

Putin has consolidated a regime ill-fitted for Russia's 21st century... Failure to develop institutions to support both economic and political competition will push Russia towards the periphery of the world.

Sovereign Democracy and Shrinking Political Space
By Michael McFaul
Russia Business Watch, vol. 14, no. 2, April-June 2006
(reprinted with permission)

Several years ago, Kremlin public relations specialists coined the term "managed democracy" to describe the unique features of Russia's evolving political system. As the label faded in appeal and explanatory power, this same team of communication specialists floated a new term, "sovereign democracy," as a new way to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. The new moniker cleverly fused a nationalist notion with an ideal regime type. To date, the adjective does more to capture the essence of the Russian regime than does the noun. This new focus on "sovereignty" rather than democracy as the most important element of the Russian political system captures the real essence of Putin's political reforms.

Almost all regimes around the world have some elements of democracy and dictatorship, while drawing a fine line between semi-democracy and semi-autocracy is fraught with complexity. A more interesting way to describe regimes, therefore, is to identify the trajectory of the political system. Russia's regime is most clearly moving in an autocratic direction. Someone would date the beginning of this anti-democratic trajectory to October 1993; others like to begin the story in 1996. And no one would argue that Putin inherited a liberal democracy when he became president in 2000. Moreover, Putin has not radically violated the 1993 constitution, cancelled elections, or arrested hundreds of political opponents. Russia today remains much freer and more democratic than the Soviet Union. However, if the formal institutions of Russian democracy remain in place, the actual democratic content of these institutions has eroded considerably on Putin's watch. The political system under Putin has moved (or continued to move) towards greater concentration of decision-making in the Kremlin while at the same time weakening political competition within the country.

First, Putin muted the independent media. When Putin came to power, only three networks had the national reach to really count in politics — ORT, RTR, and NTV. By running billionaire Boris Berezovsky out of the country, Putin effectively acquired control of ORT, the channel with the biggest national audience. RTR was always fully state-owned. Controlling the third channel, NTV, proved more difficult since its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, decided to fight. But in the end, he too lost not only NTV, but also the daily newspaper Segodnya and the weekly Itogi when prosecutors pressed charges.  

Today, only a few national newspapers, one major radio station, Ekho Moskvy, and a handful of websites enjoy genuine independence from the state. More generally, Putin has changed the atmosphere for doing journalistic work. His most vocal media critics have lost their jobs, have been harassed by the tax authorities or by sham lawsuits, or have been arrested. In its third annual worldwide press-freedom index in 2004, Reporters without Borders placed Russia 140 out of 167 countries assessed.

A second major initiative aimed at decreasing autonomous political power on Putin's watch was "regional reforms." Almost immediately after becoming president in 2000, Putin made reining in Russia's regional executives a top priority. He began his campaign to reassert Moscow's authority by establishing seven supra-regional districts headed primarily by former generals and KGB officers. These new super-governors were assigned the task of taking control of all federal agencies in their jurisdictions, many of which had developed affinities if not loyalties to regional governments during the Yeltsin era. These seven representatives of federal executive authority also investigated governors and presidents of republics as a way of undermining their autonomy and threatening them into subjugation. Putin also emasculated the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament, by removing governors and heads of regional legislatures from this chamber and replacing them with appointed representatives from the regional executive and legislative branches of government.

Regional leaders who have resisted Putin's authority have found elections rigged against them. In the last gubernatorial elections in the Kursk, Saratov, and Rostov oblasts, as well as in the presidential races in Chechnya (twice) and Ingushetiya, the removal of the strongest contenders ensured an outcome favorable to the Kremlin. In September 2004, in a final blow to Russian federalism, Putin announced his plan to appoint governors. Putin justified the move as a means to make regional authorities more accountable and more effective, yet the overwhelming majority of the newly appointed governors have been the old governors in place before. Plans are now underway to appoint mayors as well.

Third, in December 2003, Putin made real progress in weakening the autonomy of one more institution of Russia's democratic system — the parliament. After the 1999 parliamentary election, Putin enjoyed a majority of support within the Duma. To make the Duma more compliant, Putin and his administration took advantage of earlier successes in acquiring control of other political resources (such as NTV and the backing of governors) to achieve a smashing electoral victory for the Kremlin's party, United Russia, in the December 2003 parliamentary election. United Russia and its allies in the parliament now control two-thirds of the seats in parliament. In achieving this outcome, the Kremlin's greatest asset was Putin's own popularity, which hovered around seventy percent during the fall 2003 campaign.  Constant, positive coverage of United Russia leaders (and negative coverage of Communist Party officials) on all of Russia's national television stations, overwhelming financial support from Russia's oligarchs, and near unanimous endorsement from Russia's regional leaders also contributed to United Russia’s success.  For the first time ever, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a critical preliminary report on Russia’s 2003 parliamentary election, which stressed "the State Duma elections failed to meet many OSCE and Council of Europe commitments for democratic elections."[1] 

Looking ahead to the 2007-08 election cycle, the Putin Administration has continued to constrain political competition by eliminating the single mandate ("district") elections that formerly contributed one-half of the State Duma's composition, including many independent deputies.  Similarly, the minimum requirement for parties to be seated (via "proportional representation") in the Duma has been increased from five to seven percent.  Finally, parties are feeling the squeeze with more onerous registration requirements, and several proposals are under discussion that would prohibit parties from forming coalitions to attain the seven percent threshold.  Political leaders considered too competitive are marginalized through a variety of mechanisms.  Putin's aides helped to create the nationalist Rodina party, which performed surprisingly well in the 2003 parliamentary elections, but then removed from power the party's charismatic leader, Dmitry Rogozin, when it appeared that Rogozin was becoming too independent from the Kremlin.  Republican Party Vladimir Ryzhkov is without question the most popular leader of Russia's democratic forces, but the Kremlin to date has denied his party's registration.  Allegedly, Vladimir Zhirinovsky has already agreed not to run for president in 2008 so that Putin's hand-picked successor for that election would not have to face the real electoral competition that the seasoned campaigner Zhirinovsky would represent.

Finally, Putin has even decided that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are a threat to his power.  A new NGO law threatens to force any organization out of business if it is deemed to be doing work considerable too political.  To force independent NGOs to the margins of society, the Kremlin also has devoted massive resources to the creation of stated-sponsored and state-controlled NGOs.  In his 2004 annual address to the Federation Assembly, Putin struck a xenophobic note when he argued that, "…not all of the organizations are oriented towards standing up for people's real interests.  For some of them, the priority is to receive financing from influential foreign foundations." Western NGO's are not immune from Russian state harassment.  Putin's government has tossed out the Peace Corps, closed down the office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Chechnya, declared persona non grata the AFL-CIO's field representative in Moscow, and raided the offices of the Soros Foundation.

When observed in isolation, each one of these steps in Putin's plan can be interpreted as something else besides democratic backsliding.  The government in Chechnya did not work; terrorists did and do reside there.  Some of the regional barons that Putin has reined in actually behaved as tyrants in their own fiefdoms.  Khodorkovsky is no Sakharov.  What president in the world does not want to enjoy a parliamentary majority?  And more generally, everyone believes that Russia needs a more effective state to develop both markets and democracy.  But when analyzed together, the thread uniting these events is clear — the elimination or weakening of independent sources of power.

Strikingly, Putin has not initiated one reform in the name of deepening democracy.  But we should not be surprised by the absence of democratic reforms, because Putin never identified strengthening democracy as central objective of his presidency.  Instead, after becoming president in the spring of 2000, Putin made the rebuilding of the Russian state his primary goal.  After a decade of revolutionary turmoil, this mission was inevitable.  However unintended, Gorbachev's reforms eventually unleashed major political, economic, and social upheaval in the Soviet Union then Russia.  Like all societies who have endured revolutionary changes, Russian yearned for order and stability after a decade of change.  This objective — the restoration of order through the strengthening of the Russian state — became the defining theme of Putin's presidency.  As a sober-minded, tough-sounding former KGB officer, Putin seemed too many Russians like the man for the job.

Putin, however, has a flawed and outdated theory of state building, one that also had major side effects, first for Russian democracy and later for Russian capitalism.  At its core, Putin's strategy for strengthening the state has focused primarily on eliminating checks and balances on presidential power, and not on strengthening the effectiveness of state institutions or in using the state to support market development.  Putin wrongly equated democracy with weakness and centralized authority with powerful rule. 

The effects of this outdated idea of the state are beginning to show.  Even with oil prices hovering above $60 a barrel, economic growth began to sag in 2005.  A new correlation can now be identified: growing authoritarianism and declining economic growth rates — whether these two trends are causally related can only be determined with time.  Putin's move to centralize Russian institutions has done little to reduce graft, and instead has impaired traditional instruments for battling corruption, such as an independent media and genuine opposition political parties.  Putin's restructuring has not produced a more effective state, but a weak, corrupt and unaccountable regime: authoritarianism without authority.  It is also now a regime with only one real decision maker — Putin — in a country too big and too complex for one man to handle. 

Putin has consolidated a regime ill-fitted for Russia's 21st century challenges.  Russia is not an agrarian society making a rapid transition to an industrial economy, but a post-industrial economy with the critical asset — a highly educated, urban workforce — to compete and prosper as a core member of the most advanced economies in the world.  At times, autocracies can direct industrial growth, but have little capability of guiding post-industrial growth.  Just as economic competition is the engine of growth, political competition is the essence of good governance. Failure to develop institutions to support both economic and political competition will push Russia towards the periphery of the world, an unnecessary tragedy that can only be avoided by the advent of "new political thinking" again in Moscow.

Michael McFaul is the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.  He is also an associate professor of political science at Stanford University and a non-resident associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Russia Business Watch is a quarterly publication of the US-Russia Business Council. It features economic/political analysis, WTO Watch, regional investment profiles, highlights of recent Council activities, and new member profiles. Subscriptions are free with Council membership.

[1] "Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Russian Federation State Duma Elections, 7 December 2003" (Vienna: Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe/Parliamentary Assembly [OSCE/PA], International Election Observation Mission, December 2003), http://www.osce.org/documents/odihr/2003/12/1629_en.pdf.

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