Consolidation of Democracy In Post-Soviet Russia


Introduction The fall of the Communist regime in the Soviet
Union was more than a political event. The powerful
interaction and fusion between politics and economics that
characterized the state socialist system created a
situation that was unique for the successor states of the
Soviet Union. The penetration of the Communist regime into
every facet of life left the Russian people with little
democratic traditions. Russia faces the seemingly
impracticable task of economic liberalization and
democratization. This is combined with a necessity to
answer nationalist and ethnic questions that have plagued
Russia for centuries. This paper addresses the problems of
creating a stable democracy in Russia. The prospects for a
stable democracy in Russia are limited at best. I will
outline some of the concerns that academics have in the
consolidation of Russian democracy. What is paramount to
note is that a stable democracy must adequately address
what Ken Jowitt calls the "developmental trinity":
nation-building; capitalism and democracy. The dilemma that
is especially relevant to Russia it that these conditions
are often contradictory. The often messy business of
politically reconstructing a nation defies traditional
democratic ideals. The establishment of democratic
institutions can hinder the development of a market economy
and, conversely, programs that are designed to enhance
capitalist expansion often are antagonistic towards
democratic goals (Jowitt 7). These seemingly endless
Catch-22's are at the heart of difficulties facing Russia
in its attempt to create a stable democracy. The Process of
Creating A Nation-State The question of who is the playing
the game and what makes the playing field is an important
one for the Russian Federation. Ethnic and nationalist
questions plagued the Soviet Union and continue to stress
the Russia Federation during its nascent period. The
dynamics of center-periphery relations provides Moscow with
some of the greatest challenges in establishing a stable
democracy. Phillipe Smitter writes, "There is no simply
democratic way of deciding what a nation and its
corresponding political unit should be" (Smitter 66). Later
in his article, he writes "those that have not yet resolved
the dilemma of defining their national and territorial
boundaries are unlikely to make much more progress in other
domains" (Smitter 73). The dilemma facing the Russian
Federation is that it finds itself with a charge of
establishing and following democratic institutions, while
at the same time facing secessionary pressures that seem to
require extra-democratic means to preserve the integrity of
the nation. Nationalism in multiethnic areas in the Russian
Federation has provided a substantial challenge for
democratization. There is a direct relationship between
democratization and ethnic peace (Smitter 72). In a
democratically weak society, ethnicity assumes a stronger
role, and when democracy and ethnicity are balanced,
political stability is possible. As a result of a lack of
democratic institutions and channels for dialogue, Russia's
inhabitants are now increasingly identifying themselves as
members of ethnic groups rather than as citizens of the
Russian Federation (Drobizheva). An important development
in center-periphery relations is the growing importance of
"economic nationalism," an effort to create an economic
basis for political independence. Economic nationalism is a
protective defense against the Russian federal government's
economic dominance. Alternatively, it is also a sign that
the republics wish to retain relations with Moscow since
politics remains primarily in the hands of the center
(Drobizheva). For example, Tatarstan and Sakha-Yakutia both
have a wealth of natural resources, giving them a potential
advantage in economic development and a desire to establish
control over these resources. Tatarstan, for example,
strives to sell its oil at world market prices in foreign
markets to generate income, and in 1993-94, the local
governments in Tatarstan and Yakutia sought economic
decentralization in Russia by refusing to pay federal
taxes. Consequently, an agreement reached between the
federal government and the republics gave the latter what
they wanted: increased economic autonomy (Drobizheva).
Further inquiry into the agreements with Tartarsan
demonstrates the flexibility the Yeltsin regime is willing
to employ in dealing with possible powder-keg situations. A
treaty signed on February 15, 1994 attempted to mollify the
tensions on both sides. The treaty affirmed Tartarsan right
to its own "international and economic relations" and, as
previously noted, provided substantial autonomy in economic
issues for Tartarsan. Smoothing over contradictions in each
state's constitution, the agreement affirms the union
between Russia and Tartarsan (Lapidus 107). The treaty with
Tartarsan provides a possible blueprint for future
center-periphery relations. It forebears a evolving and
fluid approach that should be beneficial in establishing a
stable democracy. But in typical Yeltsin contradictory
manner, the war in Chechnya has demonstrated the worst of
the Yeltsin regime. The conflict between Chechnya and the
Russian Federation should not be considered an ethnic
conflict. The authorities did not even give as a pretext
for the invasion the defense of Russian-speaking people.
Such a pretext would have been unbelievable, in light of
the fact that Russian- speaking people suffered from the
bombing of Grozny at least as much as the native
population. The war was connected more with the struggle
for power in Moscow than with either economic or ethnic
factors. The Chechnyan campaign was characterized by
Yeltsin employing Soviet-era coercive measures.
Paternalism, clientelism, and military intervention
prevailed over legal methods and legal institutions. Lilia
Shevtsova considers the Chechnyan war a byproduct of the
Yeltsin regime's reliance on personal politics. She writes
"Yeltsin saw the war as a chance to flex his
muscles...neutralize the conflicts within his own regime;
expand his political base...and appear before the a strong leader" (Shevtsova 67). The tragedy in
Chechnya not withstanding, and with all due concern towards
the dangerous tensions that exist between Moscow and it
various ethnic republics, I agree with Gail Lapidus and
Edward Walker that it is unlikely that we will see a
significant secession movement in the Russian Federation in
the near future. Of paramount importance is the economic
and political realities facing both Moscow and the various
republics. Secession provides the republics with a myriad
of additional stumbling blocks towards establishment of
stable democracy. These include questions of international
recognition, Russian implemented economic pressures, and
devastating civil war (Lapidus 108). The costs of leaving
the Federation would appear to outweigh any perceivable
benefits gained by secession. Yet there are serious
nationalist and regionalist concerns that the Russian
Federation must address if there is a chance for democracy
to take hold. Economic chaos must be avoided by
establishing a sound currency and creating a common
economic bond between the center and the periphery (Lapidus
108). There will be a deeper examination into the economic
issues facing the Federation as a whole in the next
section, but note that these concerns are magnified in the
peripheral areas that lack developed agricultural and
industrial economies. Issues of more effective regional and
ethnic political representation must be addressed through a
movement away from the Soviet system that unfairly
distributes economic control and political power among
ethnicities and nationalities (Lapidus 96). Many ethnic
minorities lack administrative recognition for seemingly
arbitrary reasons. It would appear that the best antidote
for ethnic and national ills is a healthy economy that
would bind the periphery to the center, therefore making
secession an unattractive option. Along with sensible
economic reforms, political restructuring is essential for
stable democracy to take hold. The Road to a Market Economy
At the heart of the difficulties plaguing the Russian
Federation are the economic reforms that the Yeltsin regime
has imposed upon the Russian people. Capitalism is viewed
as a necessary ingredient (though not sufficient)
contingency of a stable democracy. All established
democracies are located in countries that place economic
manufacture and aggregation in the hands of privately owned
firms, with distribution of scarce resource achieved
through market forces (Smitter 66). The movement away from
the penetrative, all-encompassing Soviet economic octopus
has caused enormous hardships for the Russian people. It
has placed economic uncertainties in the path of political
realities, resulting in policies that attempt to address
the often contradictory objectives of economic
liberalization in the wake of political democratization.
Sweeping in after the failed coup of August 1991, economic
reformers, led by Prime Minister Egor Gaidar, placed the
Russian economy on a steady diet of economic shock therapy.
The government's misguided attempt to rest its reform
program on fulfillment of a limited number of macroeconomic
variables left the Russian economy in disarray. Despite a
precipitous decline in economic productivity, radical
reformers defended their macroeconomic policy, arguing that
the supply side of the Russian economy would receive proper
attention after stabilization. But what were the Russians
to do in the meantime? The revolutionary fervor that
characterized the early economic reforms did not take into
account the punitive realities of their policies. As Steven
Fish writes: "All had advocated 'transition to a market
economy.' But this goal had been more of a dream than a
demand, and few had actually considered how to achieve it
(Fish 215). With all due deference to cliché, the early
Russian economic policies can be succinctly summarized in
"Be careful what you wish for; you might just get it."
Khrushchev stated that a country may follow its own road to
socialism, and in a perverse sense that logic is still be
applicable for Russian affairs. But, rather the mandate
should be that each country should follow its own road
towards capitalism. An examination of what the Communist
apparatus left in its wake should cause pause for any
free-market optimist. Seventy plus years of state socialism
has left Russia with a two-ton gorilla on its collective
economic back. On page 66 and 67 of his "Dangers And
Dilemmas of Democracy", Smitter outlines possible starting
scenarios for incipient democracies. A best case scenario
finds the nation with a preceding autocracy that had
already concentrated profits, encouraged the private
accumulation of wealth, increased the state's fiscal
capacity, invested in the country's physical infrastructure
and provided a positive starting point for international
trade. Countries, such as Chile and Spain, that had
inherited these elements, found the transition to a market
economy easier. Russia and the other successor states to
the Soviet Union found themselves in a much more precarious
predicament. The state socialist regime left a legacy of
corruption, protectionism, price distortions, foreign
indebtedness, inefficient public enterprises, trade
imbalances, and fiscal instability (Smitter 67). Combined
with the simultaneous need for political reform, Russia
faces a tall task indeed. The dubious tradition of the
Soviet era has led to an overdependence on foreign advise
and models of capitalism. Yet, it is clear that this may
not be a wise path to follow. Much of the literature
concerning post- communist literature warns of Russia
relying to closely to the Western model of capitalism.
Jowitt warns that Americans should temper their "missionary
zeal" in exporting an idealistic view of "what we once
were" (Jowitt 7). The simultaneous difficulties of
nation-building, marketization, and democratization place
the Soviet successor states in a unique and precarious
situation. Privatization in Russia did occur
extraordinarily rapidly, with the idea being that getting
productive assets into private hands as fast as possible
would make economic reform irreversible. This was arguably
right - there is indeed a large and powerful group that has
a great deal to lose from any effort to re-nationalize the
economy. But this class is at the same time decidedly not
interested in fair rules of market competition and an open
economy. Rather it wants the state to preserve its
privileges, protect its markets, and allow it to continue
to reap the windfall gains of privatization. And neither
does it seem to care much about democracy. At the same
time, privatization has contributed greatly to the popular
conviction that marketization has been deeply unjust: state
assets were distributed disproportionately to insiders, to
people willing to skirt the letter of the law, and in many
cases to outright criminals. Official corruption and the
lack of fair and enforced laws and clearly-defined property
rights, have only contributed to this perception. As a
result, while there is a growing middle class in Russia, it
is smaller, less democratic in orientation, and less
politically influential than it might have been without the
state socialist tradition. The greatest misstep the Yeltsin
regime took was moving forward with economic reform without
addressing the need for wholesale, political renovation.
There is a serious quandary that results in concurrent
democratization and marketization. It derives from the
basic difference between a government that strives to
distribute power and status relatively equally
(democratization) and an economy that distributes property
and income relatively unequally (capitalism) (Smitter 67).
This obstacle is magnified in Russian democratization with
the fusion between politics and economics. Shevtsova writes
"reformers cannot rest content with a rearrangement of
relations among different institutions, but must strive to
form new political and economic system" (Shevstova 57).
Democratization and the Reinvention of Russian Government
An orderly exit from the Soviet past and progress towards
stable democracy necessitates the development of a state
capable of effective governance. Tsarism and state
socialism have provided Russians with little experience
with working governmental institutions, nor knowledge of
how to coordinate the actions of state agencies in pursuit
of a common goal. As especially was the case with the early
Gaidar economic reforms, political compromise and coalition
building were ignored in favor of policies designed for the
"public good." The continued employment of Soviet-style
politics by the Yeltsin regime bodes ill for the
establishment of consolidated democracy in Russia. To begin
the movement to a consolidated democracy, Russian
government most promote new institutional capacities and
move towards more rational and pragmatic linkages between
formal administrative agencies and their functions. This is
a sharp break away from bureaucratic malaise that
characterized the Soviet system. Important in this
development is the fostering of economic movements outside
the old system (Shevtsova 56). Shevtsova raises an
interesting question of whether the "collapse" of communism
actually strengthened the hand of the nomenklatura ,
especially on the regional and local level, by allowing
them to gain a novel claim of legitimacy as the leaders of
new nations (Shevtsova 60). Along with this new found
legitimacy came access to the new found economic resources.
It is of foremost importance that wealth not be distributed
solely among a small group of state officials and
enterprise directors. Such actions could lead to a
continuation of patron-client and personalist relations
that characterized the state socialist system. But the
separation between the public and private sphere is not
clearly defined in Russian society. The penetration and
coerciveness of the Communist Party dulled the line between
state and civil society. In order to consolidate and
strengthen the budding private sector, Russia needs to
create an administrative system that actively encourages
its growth. Note my use of the word "actively.". Laissez
faire policies are not what the private sector needs to
grow and develop into a true bourgeoisie. A true
bourgeoisie in the sense that economic opportunity and
success is not achieved by simply being a former member of
the nomenklatura. But recent improvements show that the
distribution of wealth is becoming more equitable. Recent
improvements in the privatization process, especially in
dwellings, hold great promise for the expansion of
small-scale property ownership; an important step in
consolidating private ownership. This is along with a
growing entrepreneurial spirit among less advantaged
segments of the population, especially the young (Fish
234). To allow a government to actively encourage private,
economic enterprise, political appointments must move above
the personal level. There must be a balance between the
administrative and political roles of the members of the
bureaucracy. Shevstova writes on page 69 that Yeltsin "has
a habit of ranking personal loyalty to himself far above
professionalism when choosing appointees and subordinates."
The clientelism of the Soviet era is alive and kicking in
the Yeltsin government. To challenge this system, a
professional bureaucracy, one that is limited in its
ability to intervene directly in the policy-making process,
must develop. Another important component of
democratization that Shevstova feels is missing from the
current Yeltsin administration is a lack of imperatives to
build broad consensus and foster genuine communication
between leaders and citizens at large (Shevstova 57). Much
of this can be attributed to the Communist tradition that
placed enormous authority in the local ministers. The
autarkic, socialist system allowed executive agencies to
acquire many legislative functions. Communication with
constituents and consensus building was a unnecessary
hassle. The real conflict existed within the
decision-making elite. As we will see later, elite conflict
is still a major ingredient in the Yeltsin formula of power
consolidation. Shevstova call this lack of consensus
building and communication a hangover from Leninism
(Shevstova 57). Political power was restricted to a
self-selected elite which iniated new personnel less for
their technical skills than their willingness to embrace
Communist ideology or their relationship to powerful party
elites. This system of clientelism retarded and made
irrelevant any development of modern, responsive
bureaucratic institutional arrangements. Consequently,
today's bureaucrats (and yesterday's communists) find it
difficult to appreciate the need for compromise, power
sharing, and local initiative. This is precisely the
problem Russia faces with Yeltsin. It is painfully apparent
from his tenure as the architect of Russia early transition
period, that old habits die hard. Yeltsin: Presidential
Power and His Communist Tradition A brief look at the Boris
Yeltsin biographical sketch shows that he is truly a
maverick who, on the eve of Ol' Blue Eyes birthday (Sinatra
that is; I think Yeltsin also has blue eyes), "did it his
way." Rising through the nomenklatura , gaining a
reputation as a fearless reformer, Yeltsin found himself as
a member of the Politburo. Once again, Yeltsin proved an
able and determined reformer, but an estrangement between
himself and Gorbachev set in when Yeltsin began criticizing
the slow pace of reform at party meetings, challenging
party conservatives and even criticizing Gorbachev himself.
Yeltsin was forced to resign in disgrace from the Moscow
party leadership in 1987 and from the Politburo in 1988.
His Lazarus act is well documented. Just as well documented
his tendency to become a political chameleon, changing his
colors to suit any political condition. He has been a
communist boss, a reformer within the communist system, a
liberal slayer of communism and a nationalist warrior
against secessionism (Shevstova 69). While the American
president may wear many hats, Yeltsin has traded in his
entire wardrobe numerous times over. He is truly a skilled
political in-fighter, maneuvers he learned from his
Communist political education. Lilia Shevstova is ardently
critical of the decisions Yeltsin has made in the
post-Soviet era. She lays much of the responsibility for
the politics of confrontation squarely at the feet of
Yeltsin and his advisors (Shevstova 58). First, she debunks
the idea that Yeltsin is a "destroyer of the old system.
Correctly, she considers him a reformer who has not
attempted to address the institutional hegemony held by the
former nomenklatura . His policies have resulted in the
concentration of political and economic power in the hands
of the former communist elites. And she lists a number of
Soviet era tactics, such as playing the members of
nomenklatura against one another, that still personify
Yeltsin decision making (Shevstova 60). Yeltsin still digs
deep into his Communist bag of tricks when trying to
consolidate his power. The Presidential Revolution of 1993
signified a turn towards a more personalistic brand of rule
for Russia. Shevstova argues, and I would agree, that the
Constitutional Crisis of 1993 was largely predicated on
Yeltsin attempting to outmaneuver his old Communist rivals,
who had taken refuge in the legislature (Shevstova 62). The
supporters that Yeltsin lined up behind him for this
insurgency upon the Supreme Soviet were wildly divergent in
their political orientations and goals. They included
liberal reformers, bureaucrats and pragmatists, statists
and security officials, and extreme nationalists (Shevstova
63). This motley crew testifies to the bizarre landscape
that makes up Russian politics. Yet it is that bizarre
political landscape that Yeltsin appears to be most
comfortable operating upon. Yeltsin can consolidate and
maintain authority because of the lingering sense of crisis
that hangs over Russian politics (Shevstova 65). The widely
held belief that a successor would be a worse option and an
absence of any real alternatives has allowed Yeltsin to
maneuver with impunity. The June presidential elections
present a clear example of this phenomenon. Even with
horrendous economic and political performance, Yeltsin
still was able to defeat Zhyguanov, for the reason that the
challenger was the pits, a tired political retread.
Shevstova refers to "the fear, inertia, and disorientation
that pervade Russia" (Shevstova 65). Yeltsin has adeptly
used these pathologies to create a system that Shevstova
refers to as "divide and conquer" (Shevstova 69). So what
are the dangers in Yeltsin's brand of governing? There has
been very little change in how things are done under the
Yeltsin regime versus the Gorbachev regime. The specific
issues were addressed in the previous section. Another
important point to note is that there has been too much
reliance on Yeltsin's personal prestige and charisma
(Shevstova 64). Yeltsin operates outside of the nascent
party system because parties constrain leaders. He is not
an institution builder but, as his policies have
demonstrated, he is a populist. His communist background
has not made him adverse to resorting to extra-legal means
to achieving his goals. It is this procedural uncertainty,
and reliance upon the "man" and not the "measures", that
create the greatest concern for the establishment of stable
democracy. The Crystal Ball The problems that I have
outlined in this paper do not bode well for the
establishment of a stable democracy in Russia for the near
future. The literature on the subject contends that
consolidated democracy is not a likely option for Russia.
Instead we are much more likely to see a "unconsolidated"
democracy take hold in Russia. Fish describes an
unconsolidated democracy as a system that would include
many of the basic elements of democracy, such as elections
and considerable civil and cultural freedoms (Fish 226).
Yet we are unlikely to see the establishment of durable and
stable rules and institutions that are appropriate to their
respective social structures or accepted by their
respective citizenries (Smitter 60). Because of the lack of
any credible alternatives to democracy, we are unlikely to
see a regression back to authoritarianism. Yet if
appropriate reforms are not enacted, we are likely to see
what is referred to as democracy by default (Smitter 60).
The basic rights of democracy will exist but "regular,
acceptable, and predictable democratic patterns never quite
crystallize" (Smitter 61). The 1993 Constitution
excaberates this problem by placing enormous power in the
hands of the president, laying the groundwork for
discretionary, personal expressions of authority that
contradict the needed objectives of broad based political
aggregation. There has been growing disenchantment in
Russia with the not only Yeltsin, the politician, but with
the institution of democracy itself. Public opinion show
that most Russians evaluate democracy in negative terms
(Whitefield). This is the danger of having a politician
also represent a movement. For a stable democracy to take
hold in Russia, Yeltsin and future presidents must not
become institutions themselves. The personalization of
transition politics presents enormous difficulties by
hampering the institutionalization of necessary reforms.
Still, with all these problems that have been outlined, I
feel that it is unlikely that we will see a return to
authoritarianism. Lilia Shevtsova concludes: "Despite the
shallowness of democracy's roots and the continuous
attempts by some in power to curtail freedom, the obstacles
to the establishment of a full blow authoritarian regime
appear insurmountable. There are just too many active and
self-conscious interest groups, too many people who have
become accustomed to life in a relatively free atmosphere,
too many competing elites, no united and effective
bureaucracy, and a military establishment that seems highly
unlikely to rally behind any would be man on horseback"
(Shevtsova 70). The character of the next regime will
provide many clues to what the future of Russia might be.
Economic transformations are not sufficient conditions for
the consolidation of democracy. I am not optimistic that
Yeltsin has either the proclivity or the longevity to
engage in any sort of meaningful political reform. If the
next regime does not adequately address what, Smitter
referred to as, the extrinsic dilemmas facing Russia, then
consolidation is very unlikely. These dilemmas include
political graft, privileged treatment of the elite, unequal
distribution of wealth, and crime (Smitter 73). If they are
not dealt with the future of democracy will be bleak,

Works Cited
Drobizheva , Leokadia. "Democratization and Nationalism in
the Russian Federation." Sponsored by the 

Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies: Presented
on February 8 1996.
Fish, Stephen. Democracy From Scratch: Opposition and
Regime in the New Russian Revolution . 

(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
Jowitt, Kenneth. "Dizzy With Democracy." Problems of Post

Lapidus, Gail and Edward Walker. "Nationalism, Regionalism,
and Federalism: Center 

 Periphery Relations in Post Communist Russia." In Lapidus,
ed., The New Russia. (Boulder: 

Westview Press, 1995): 79-113. 
Shevtsova, Lilia. "The Two Sides of The New Russia."
Journal of Democracy. 6 (July 1995): 41-55.
Smitter, Phillipe C. "Dangers And Dilemmas Of Democracy."
Journal of Democracy, 

 5 (April 1994): 57-74.
Whitefield, Stephen and Geoffrey Evans. "The Popular Basis
of Anti-Reform Politics on Russia."


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