Russia’s failed democratic experiment: a people problem or institutional ineptitude?
Toby Mayhew is an undergraduate student of Modern and Medieval Languages at University of Cambridge, focussing on Spanish and Russian. He is currently on his year abroad in Kyrgyzstan and Colombia.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many hoped that a country ruled by tsars and tyrannical Soviet leaders would finally embrace democracy. However, Putin’s election as president in 2000 was the nail in the coffin of a democracy that was slowly dying throughout the 1990s. Attempts to definitively pinpoint the failure of Russia’s democratic experiment to a single cause seem to always fall short, failing to consider the myriad of complex contradictions that embody Russian politics. Some have suggested that Russians are simply more disposed to autocratic leadership[i], but any amount of willpower among citizens or lack thereof was far less important than Yeltsin and his supporters’ desire to maintain their power and weaken democratic institutions in the process.
Those who argue that insufficient public support for Russian democracy was the cause of its demise fail to examine the reasons why Russians may not be willing to put themselves at risk to defend it. First, it’s important to point out that support for democratic principles was high throughout the first half of the 1990s[ii] and, whilst Yeltsin was shelling the White House in 1993[iii], ordinary Russians abided by democratic rules: elections generally had high turnouts, results were respected, and public demonstrations were orderly even in times of hardship. Moreover, voters consistently chose relative political stability and opted for more moderate candidates. The 1996 presidential elections saw millions choosing to prioritise democracy over their current material distress by voting for the unpopular but nominally democratic Yeltsin over Zyuganov, who had questionable democratic credentials. The Russian public, therefore, did support democracy on a basic level but lacked the conviction to put themselves at risk by resisting Yeltsin’s increasingly autocratic measures – seen in the negligible amount of popular resistance to his dissolution and shelling of the Supreme Soviet. However, when questioning other countries’ enthusiasm for democracy it is important not to hold them to an unreasonably high standard. The conviction to put oneself in harm’s way to protest policies is arguably missing in most democracies: protests against controversial laws rarely take place on a mass scale, and even voter turnout is relatively low in countries such as the US and the UK. Therefore, it was not a lack of popular support that caused the failure of democratisation in Russia but rather the weakness of democratic institutions, which were shown to be too weak to be worth defending. Any desire for popular action was severely limited by the fact that Russian institutions didn’t provide effective avenues to engage with them directly, resulting in many seeing popular action as fruitless. Support for democratic institutions was therefore largely dependent on the effectiveness and success of those institutions and thus points to a much larger issue.
Those who argue that insufficient public support for Russian democracy was the cause of its demise fail to examine the reasons why Russians may not be willing to put themselves at risk to defend it.
Others argue that competition amongst elites was a key cause of the failure of Russia’s democratic experiment.[iv] Such a view also doesn’t engage with the realities of the Russian political system in the 1990s. This is not to ignore the lack of a political consensus on key democratic issues amongst those in government in the first years of Russian democracy. Indeed, this led to a lack of ideological unity, which allowed Yeltsin to shift the blame for his poor economic reforms to his opponents when this coalition inevitably fell apart. Even this new opposition lacked any uniting ideology and thus failed to provide a legitimate alternative to Yeltsin’s regime, leading the public to favour the order and stability provided by the establishment in times of crisis such as after the Moscow apartment bombings of 1999. This left a powerless opposition that failed to hold Yeltsin to account despite his consistent breaking of the law. However, despite this, competition amongst elites alone is not enough to take down a democracy. A persecuted and actively weakened parliament should not hold all the blame for its inability to control an executive that actively seized power and resources whilst employing undemocratic means to restrict the opposition and manipulate elections. One cannot present a legitimate alternative to those in power if one has been deprived of any power in the first place. The fact that Yeltsin was not stopped even when faced with a united opposition from a majority of parliamentary elites (such as during his impeachment in the constitutional crisis of 1993) illustrates that competition amongst elites was dwarfed by a much larger issue: the massive power imbalance between Yeltsin and the democratic institutions meant to hold him to account.
Having dealt with other common theories on why Russia failed as a democracy, it is important to highlight how weak democratic institutions led to the rise of authoritarianism within Russia. Valerie Bunce states that ‘while most definitions of democracy do not mention the state… a capable state is nonetheless implied’[v]. Democratic institutions are designed to establish measures to prevent abuses of power, but Yeltsin and his supporters had a vested interest in leaving the state without robust institutional checks to maintain power. They did this by exploiting the pre-existing weaknesses within the state, such as the centralisation of power and the inability of the public or legislature to challenge the executive. The institutional structure remained similar to Soviet times but lacked the subnational units that had made Russia’s vast and varied population somewhat manageable, and therefore democratic institutions, particularly the Duma, were purposefully left weak and unequipped. This led to failure to carry out a simultaneous ‘triple transition’, a theory posed by Claus Offe where political, economic, and nation-building transitions must occur simultaneously in order to avoid exacerbating crises by focussing on one element and side-lining the others[vi]. This meant that, even if institutions were not purposefully weakened, they were never given a chance to succeed. A vicious cycle was set in motion where weak institutions created poor economic policy, which damaged the economy and resulted in even less money available to fund those institutions. This resulted in a complete side-lining of democratic principles in the face of economic collapse. Consequently, the legislature and police became almost universally unpopular, which were seen as self-interested, ineffective, and failing to fulfil their duty as democratic institutions. The constitutional changes in 1993 only confirmed the subsumption of democratic institutions into a network of tools for Yeltsin to further his hold on power.
One cannot present a legitimate alternative to those in power if one has been deprived of any power in the first place.
Yeltsin not only ensured his continuing grasp on the presidency by attenuating the only bodies that could hold his autocracy in check, but also by empowering state organs to combat the opposition. In 1993 he banned certain opposition parties from running in the legislative elections, rigged the constitutional elections, never published the full results, and destroyed ballot papers. Yeltsin also consolidated economic and therefore political power under the guise of economic liberalisation, and the loans-for-shares scheme allowed him to use state funds to manufacture political support and control the media narrative in the face of growing resentment.[vii] Indeed, in the 1996 elections, all state resources were mobilised for Yeltsin: teachers' debts were paid to generate a last-minute boost in popularity and news stations spouted support for Yeltsin and decried his opponents. Moreover, interest groups were paid off, leaving Zyuganov politically isolated. In short, no political power was ever distributed to other political groups exactly so they never prevented a challenge to Yeltsin’s rule. Having started as a pioneering voice for democracy, Yeltsin ended up corrupted by power, limiting its spread only to his cabal of close family and friends.
The 1996 elections were therefore by definition undemocratic, not because of elite competition or a lack of popular support, but due to Yeltsin’s campaign to render any mutual checks and balances irrelevant. This power imbalance is evident not only through Yeltsin’s consistent overriding of the Duma’s restrictions but also through his interference in the transfer of power, a key element of democracy. His control over this process was demonstrated by the appointment and removal of five Prime Ministers in seventeen months before he named Putin as his successor and effectively signalled the end of Russia’s hopes of democracy. All of this goes to demonstrate that Yeltsin and his supporters actively weakened necessary democratic institutions to ensure the systematic erosion of a democratic process based on the transferral of power through a legitimate electoral process. Yeltsin’s appointment of Putin was a breach of democracy’s most important principle: to let the people choose their leader. His obvious disregard for this proved all the Kremlin’s grandstanding over democratic values to be a complete farce. Power was once again passed around by loyal bureaucrats without any concern for the local population or their wishes.
Yeltsin’s appointment of Putin was a breach of democracy’s most important principle: to let the people choose their leader.
Therefore, whilst popular support may have been limited to basic participation in democracy and the competition amongst elites led to a disorganised opposition, attributing the failure of Russia’s experiment with democracy to either of these two factors would ignore the multitude of complex dynamics that engendered the rise of authoritarianism. Instead, the main cause was the systematic undermining of democratic institutions to maintain and expand Yeltsin’s powers, which decreased popular support and exacerbated this intra-elite competition in the first place. This is a particularly important lesson for future ‘democratising’ nations and the countries that supposedly wish to aid them in this transition. Post-autocratic regimes always struggle with those who try to establish a position in the inevitable power vacuum that forms when those who hoarded power have it stripped from them. The only thing that makes democracy more than just a flimsy idea is a system of strong institutions that can prevent the centralisation of this power around any figure, no matter how many times they mention democracy in Red Square.
[i] Mellish, Fielding. A subservient nation? Russia seems prone to authoritarian rulers. Meduza unpacks one theory about why. (2023) https://meduza.io/en/feature/2023/05/19/a-subservient-nation Date accessed 01/06/2023 [ii] Carnaghan, Ellen, ‘Thinking about Democracy: Interviews with Russian Citizens’, Slavic Review, 60.2 (2001), 336–66 Bahry, Donna, ‘Comrades into Citizens? Russian Political Culture and Public Support for the Transition’, Slavic Review, 58.4 (1999), 841–53 [iii] Goncharenko, Roman. Russia’s 1993 Crisis is Still Shaping Kremlin. (2018) https://www.dw.com/en/russias-1993-crisis-still-shaping-kremlin-politics-25-years-on/a-45733546 Date accessed 01/06/2023 [iv] Bunce, Valerie. ‘Rethinking Recent Democratization: Lessons from the Postcommunist Experience.’ World Politics 55, no. 2 (2003). Pg.186 [v] Ibid. Pg.182 [vi] Offe, Claus, and Pierre Adler, ‘Capitalism by Democratic Design?: Democratic Theory Facing the Triple Transition in East Central Europe’, Social Research: An International Quarterly, 71.3 (2004), 501–28 [vii] Gel’man, Vladimir. Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes (Ch. 3) (2015) Pg.60