Russian History - Consolidation of Democracy in Post-Soviet Russia
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 world...as 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
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
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,
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 Communism, 1 (Jan-Feb, 1996) : 3-8.
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."