- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
When the new Russia emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was widely expected to embark on a democratic transition. In the then dominant Western narrative, it had no alternative if it hoped to thrive as a major power in the twenty-first century. Liberal democracy had prevailed in the titanic ideological struggle of the twentieth century, vanquishing communism as a viable form of political organization in the Cold War less than fifty years after it had crushed fascism in the Second World War. Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his lieutenants seemingly shared that perspective, vowing to build a strong, democratic Russia.
Today, the dream of a democratic future has evaporated. The country’s autocratic past has reasserted itself under current president Vladimir Putin. Legislatures and courts from the national to the local level have been stripped of whatever political autonomy they once might have had. The media have largely been turned into mouthpieces for Kremlin propaganda. Civil society has been eviscerated. Opposition leaders have been forced into exile or imprisoned, their organizations ruthlessly gutted. Elections are neither free nor fair. What went wrong?
Correcting the Historical Narrative
Before proceeding, it is necessary to dispel one widespread myth about Russia’s democratic journey. Putin did not reverse the democratic experiment; he only quickened the pace of the authoritarian revival. The reversal began under his predecessor, even though Yeltsin was initially hailed in the West as a great democratic reformer. In retrospect, the high point of Russia’s democratization effort was reached in the last years of the Soviet Union.
It was Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who introduced “real politics” into Russia by stripping the Communist Party of its monopoly on legitimate political activity. He ended censorship for all practical purposes. He introduced competitive elections. To this day, the elections of the late Soviet period—to the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, the Russian Congress of People’s Deputies in 1990, and the Russian presidency in 1991—remain the freest and fairest in Russian history. They are also the ones that garnered the greatest enthusiasm, as Russians hoped to create a government that was truly accountable to the people. Gorbachev’s reforms, however, led to the collapse of the country, largely because he could not master the political forces of reaction and radicalism he had unleashed.
Yeltsin did not pick up where Gorbachev left off and do him one better, as the contemporary Western narrative claimed. Rather, he presided over the crumbling of the central state apparatus, as a bitter struggle erupted over the division of power and property in a country suddenly freed from the political and economic shackles of the Soviet totalitarian system. During the process, vast segments of the government were privatized for personal gain. Yeltsin defeated the legislature in a power struggle and then instituted a constitutional reform that created a powerful presidency that Putin would subsequently exploit to hasten Russia down the autocratic path. In short, the chaos of the Yeltsin period created a simulacrum of freedom but precluded laying the foundation of a well-ordered democratic polity. Putin restored order but in an antidemocratic fashion.
Why, then, did democracy fail to take root in post-Soviet Russia? The answer lies in Russia’s structure and the character of its would-be democratic leaders.
Structurally, in the first post-Soviet decade Russian society lacked the building blocks of a true democracy. The atomized population of the Soviet period was slow to consolidate into classes and socioeconomic groups with well-defined interests that could be articulated in the political realm. The political elite was largely drawn from the second and third echelon of the old Soviet elite, with no principled commitment to democracy. The Soviet professional classes—teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers—that yearned for a more open society were ravaged by Yeltsin’s radical economic reforms. As a result, politics was dominated by so-called Kremlin clans, political-economic coalitions centered on leading political figures that controlled major financial and industrial resources, media assets, and security forces. They struggled over the division of power and property with little concern for democratic niceties.
As the Russian economy began to recover in the 2000s, professional classes grew in size. But their democratic potential was impaired by the lack of well-protected property rights that would have provided the independent base of wealth and power needed to challenge the state. To the contrary, the majority of the population remains directly or indirectly dependent on the state for their well-being—they work for the government or state-owned enterprises or nominally private enterprises that serve the state, they live in one-company towns that rely on government orders for survival, or they are dependent on state transfers to maintain their standard of living.
The structural impediments to democratic development were reinforced by the inadequacies of would-be democratic leaders. From the moment the new Russia emerged, internecine, often petty, struggles have prevented them from uniting for electoral purposes. By the early 2000s, this behavior had prevented their parties from gaining enough votes to cross the threshold for representation in the Duma or to win regional or municipal elections. Their electoral appeal was further diminished by their inability to connect with broad segments of the population, for which, as intellectuals, they often had little more than disdain. They spoke of lofty ideals, but rarely of how they could help people deal with their practical needs. Arguments that socioeconomic difficulties were a consequence of limited democracy and inadequate reforms fell on deaf ears, as an increasing majority of the people came to associate the profound systemic crisis of the 1990s with the democratic reforms urged by the West.
The Navalny Threat
Alexey Navalny is that rare opposition figure who could break out of this mold and connect democratic longings with popular discontent. He did this by exposing the deep corruption of high-ranking state officials—he denounced the ruling party as a “party of crooks and thieves.” That resonated with a broad segment of society by providing it with a credible explanation of its plight. Blessed with extraordinary organizational and media skills, he created a country-wide political network and proved particularly adept at attracting young people. He used those skills to organize country-wide protests at a scale not seen since the first years of post-Soviet Russia. He also introduced the idea of “smart voting”—providing support for the opposition candidate, regardless of party affiliation, mostly likely to defeat a Kremlin favorite —that enabled opposition figures to win seats in regional legislatures, including in Moscow itself.
Navalny may have posed no immediate threat, but he created a scalable model that could eventually challenge the Kremlin’s domination of the political system. That is why Putin moved against him; following a failed assassination attempt, Navalny was given a long sentence in a penal colony, and the war in Ukraine provided the pretext for dispersing Navalny’s grassroots political organization.
Navalny’s fate underscores the vast coercive powers of the Russian state, which is one final reason why Russia’s democratic transition failed. There are a few signs that those powers are about to atrophy, but for the moment, Russian democracy appears to be a distant dream.