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From Chaos to the Foundations for Future Democracy
13 September 2006
From Chaos to the Foundations for Future Democracy

Russia is moving along the path to democratic development, albeit slowly and in a zigzag manner. However, if one compares Russia today with its Soviet past, this development toward freedom and democracy is not slow, but fast.

From Chaos to the Foundations for Future Democracy
By Sergei Markov
Russia Business Watch, vol. 14, no. 2, April-June 2006
(reprinted with permission)

With Russia's presidency of the G8 and its greater assertiveness in world affairs, greater scrutiny has been given to the level of democratic development in the country and the impact that the political reforms of the last two years have had on that development. The recent Council on Foreign Relations report on Russia and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's speech in Vilnius in May — both critical of Russia's path to democratic development — are examples of the heightened attention given to the topic. However, neither of these help the development of democracy in Russia, rather they impede it.

Most commentators in the West insist that Russia is rolling back the gains that had been made in establishing democracy in the 1990s. They consider that the political reforms, including the appointment of governors and more stringent rules for political parties to reach the Duma, are a sign that Russia is retreating from democracy. Critics use this argument as a means to label President Putin as an authoritarian who has only paid lip service to democracy, but does not actually believe in it.

When critics use these arguments, they are beginning from the position that democracy existed in Russia in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin. This is an incorrect assumption that has been repeated for at least a decade. Russia is not today and has never been a democracy, but is instead embarking on a path toward democratic development. The country is not back-sliding on democracy because democracy has never existed in Russia.

Gorbachev gave Russia freedom. Yeltsin led the country to chaos and anarchy and allowed oligarchs, bandits and kleptocrats to rob Russians of their freedom. Under Putin, Russia did not abandon democracy but moved forward a little, in a zigzag manner, in providing a foundation for future democracy: political stability, economic growth, a higher standard of living, the rule of law, and the development of civil society.

While elections were held under Boris Yeltsin, it is arguable whether this constituted democratic government. Yeltsin's attack against the parliament in 1993 was certainly not democratic, and only served to increase the instability that was rampant in the country. Elections in this period had a greater degree of uncertainty and competition than exists now, but this was the hallmark of anarchy, not of democracy. The state of anarchy that existed in the 1990s did not lead to the establishment of democracy, and in fact prevented democratic institutions from properly developing. This is the primary reason that Russians do not want to return to the days of the Yeltsin period – for them, this period holds nothing but chaos. In order for Russia to move forward and successfully establish democracy, it will first be necessary to eradicate the idea that democracy actually existed in the chaos of the 1990s.

As a result of the anarchy that prevailed under President Yeltsin, public support for the concept of democracy has fallen. Under Gorbachev, democracy was the most important problem facing Russia. Yeltsin’s presidency created a number of other problems such as anarchy, criminality, poverty, and the collapse of moral values, which came to the fore and crowded out democracy, pushing it to a lower place in the system of priorities.

Nevertheless, the level of support given to the institutions underlying democracy remained high, since most Russians protest not against democracy, but rather specifically against the concept of democracy that U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and the authors of the Council on Foreign Relations report propose with regard to Russia—i.e., the chaos of the 90s. Furthermore, suggesting a return to the situation of the 90s merely stokes anti-American sentiment, since Russians are beginning to suspect that under the flag of democracy the United States is propagandizing a policy that is hostile to Russia and seeking the continuation of the country's collapse.

After Gorbachev's reforms, Russia made a leap forward into the realm of freedom. However, Yeltsin, with the active support of the United States, led the country down a dangerous path. The Russian public has redirected its attention from the building of democracy to more pressing needs dictated by the situation that arose in the 1990s. Stability, the formation and strengthening of state institutions, as well as ensuring economic growth have become the main priorities for the majority of people. As a priority, democratic development comes after these tasks and largely depends on the successful implementation of the first group of priorities. Not by Putin's whims, but by necessity, Russia's focus at the turn of the new century was redirected towards creating stability and restructuring the economy.

To be assisted on the path toward democracy, Russia needs suitable examples to emulate, and in this respect the actions of the U.S. in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have greatly damaged the country's ability to build and sustain democratic institutions. This is why the question of U.S. foreign policy and U.S.-Russian relations is so pivotal to the development of democracy in Russia. From the Kosovo bombings to the Iraq war and the color revolutions, the idea of the U.S. as an example of democracy for the world has been discredited to many Russians. Vice President Cheney's speech in Vilnius is symptomatic of this trend, and his subsequent trip to Kazakhstan to visit Nursultan Nazarbayev—a person who conducts a rapid, but authoritarian modernization—served to increase the cynicism with which Russians view U.S. discussions of democracy.

In the late Gorbachev period and into Yeltsin's presidency, the U.S. was seen as an example of democracy and what a democratic country should look like. Many people in the Soviet Union and Russia strove to build the type of democracy that has been so successful in the United States. However, the chaos of the 1990s led many Russians to equate democracy with anarchy, and the subsequent U.S. foreign policy that has been perceived to be anti-Russian has combined with this notion to contribute to the lowly standing of the idea of democracy in Russia.

In the progression to democracy, it is vital that democracy have a positive image. However, Vice President Cheney's message was read in Russia as, "…we actually don't give a damn about democracy; we just need pipes, oil and gas. If you give us oil, we will regard you as democrats, and if not, we will regard you as adversaries of democracy." This may not have been Mr. Cheney's goal in making the speech, but this is precisely how it was perceived in Russia.

Many Russians lost faith in democracy in the 1990s due to the chaos and lawlessness that they saw all around, and the policy followed by the U.S. administration in the past two years strengthened their bewilderment in relation to this problem. The United States is increasingly considered not as an example of democracy, but rather as an example of selfishness and cynicism, and this is evident not only in Russia, but also in other countries around the world.

Today what is most important in the promotion of democracy in Russia is not more freedom, but greater effectiveness of democratic state institutions. If critics have advice as to how to strengthen the effectiveness of Russian democracy, the government would be glad to hear it. However, if someone simply suggests increasing freedom, the answer must be: pathos is good, but thoughts are few. After all, the experience in the 1990s demonstrated that freedom without basic law and order is not democracy.

External advice to Russia about democracy is also ineffective because, although there is sound theory on the transition to democracy from authoritarianism, no such plausible theories exist for the transition from anarchy to democracy. This is the common task for the political scientists of Russia and the United States — to create good theoretical concepts for the transition to democracy from a weak state. This represents, for Russians, a social order.

This does not mean that Russia is not paying attention to the criticism that is directed toward it. No, Russians have always carefully listened to criticism from abroad. This criticism helps Russia to avoid mistakes. Now there are several websites where all articles in the foreign press devoted to Russia are translated into Russian, without exception, including sharply critical ones. For example, Mr. Cheney's speech was completely reprinted in the weekly newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti.

The concept of "managed democracy" is very simple: if there is a possibility of solving problems using democratic methods, then this must be done. However, if democratic methods do not work because of the weakness and ineffectiveness of democratic institutions — for example, if it is necessary to stop the mafia’s onslaught of power by means of elections in one city or another — then what is required is not simply to throw up one's hands. No, one cannot allow a mafia boss to become mayor; rather, it is necessary to find a semi-legal method and remove him from the ballot.

The concept of "sovereign democracy" is also very simple. It means that Russia will develop democracy but will not surrender its sovereignty. Russian often interprets its critics as suggesting, "Give us Gazprom and we will regard you as democrats." In the field of democracy, the Russian government does not consider itself a student and somebody else a professor who gives out grades. The concept of "sovereign democracy" was born as a reaction to the "colored" revolutions. Russians think these revolutions occurred under the influence of external factors and have brought these countries more harm than good. In Georgia under Mikhail Saakashvili there is now noticeably less democracy than there was under Shevardnadze. Victor Yushchenko in Ukraine, takes an anti-democratic position on issues that are fundamental to Ukraine: he is against federalism, against the independence of the church from the state, against giving political equality to the Russian and Ukrainian communities, and he is trying to suppress the Russian language and culture in carrying out a "de-Russification." Finally, the colored revolution in Kyrgyzstan led to an abrupt weakening of authority and strengthened the drug mafia and radical Islamists who already openly strive for power, with some areas of Kyrgyzstan no longer under the control of the central government.

President Putin has succeeded in restoring stability and overseeing several years of dynamic economic growth, which will allow for the development of democratic institutions and the establishment of democracy. The foundation has been laid, and in a country where there is stability, the opportunity for democratic development will appear as opposed to a country in which is overcome by chaos.

Certainly a great deal more needs to be done to support these institutions and ensure the successful growth of democracy. Political parties must be strengthened, and the new laws on parliamentary elections should be a first step in this direction. Russia must create better conditions for NGOs, as the Russian legislation is insufficient to provide the optimal environment for the successful operation of these organizations.

A rational social policy is required, and voters in the regions must be given a greater role in determining the issue of who will govern their region. It is necessary to transition to the direct election of deputies to the upper chamber of parliament, the Federation Council; to increase guarantees of freedom of speech in Russia; and to expand the spectrum of positions represented in the media.

The most important thing for democracy in Russia today is not more freedom, but a cleansing of the image of democracy from two unfortunate associations: the chaos of the 90s, which is presented as democracy, and the egotistic and mistaken foreign policy of the U.S.—the main inspiration for democracy in the 20th century.

Despite these problems, the majority of Russia's citizens, according to all public-opinion surveys, continue to support democracy. Vladimir Putin supports the position of his voters. Therefore, Russia is moving along the path to democratic development, albeit slowly and in a zigzag manner. However, if one compares Russia today with its Soviet past, this development toward freedom and democracy is not slow, but fast. Moreover, Russia is following its own course. This does not mean that an entirely new form of democracy will be created in Russia, but it is likely to be something between the U.S. and European models.

It is difficult to predict what democracy will look like in Russia at this time. The development of democratic institutions has led to differing models across the globe, from the presidential system seen in the United States to the parliamentary systems of Europe and the variations that exist in South Korea and Japan. While Russia’s democracy will almost certainly differ from these in style, it will not be lacking in the substance that characterizes these free societies.

Putin is not moving rapidly nor in a straight line toward democracy, but he is creating the basis for a subsequent breakthrough in democratic development—a breakthrough that will create the conditions for the flowering of democracy in the future. As the more immediate concerns of stability, predictability and economic resurgence are allayed, the government and the country can turn its attention more fully to the task of developing the right atmosphere for democratic growth. Russia is in the early stages of this process and must proceed cautiously, as the example of the 1990s has demonstrated. Russians cannot afford to listen to bad advice again and re-create chaos and oligarchy.

It will fall to the Russian people to help determine what form democracy takes and to the government to guide the country along the path to the successful establishment of democratic institutions. The country has just begun down this path, and will need assistance from its friends in the international community while the budding institutions that will underpin democracy are developing. The creation of democracy will not be easy and will contain successes as well as failures and setbacks, but Russia is committed to this path and will succeed. Russians will do everything they can to ensure that the country moves along the path toward the creation of a stable and effective democracy. Democracy, not kleptocracy. Democracy, not anarchy. Democracy in the interests of the Russian people, and not a narrow stratum of thieving officials. Mr. Cheney, Gazprom will remain in Russia's possession. And this does not contradict democracy.

Sergei Markov is the Director of the Institute of Political Research, Chairman of the National Civil Council for International Affairs, Assistant Professor in the Philosophy Department of Moscow State University (MGU) and a political science professor at MGIMO.

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.

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