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Russia's Stalled Democracy - Russia's political system lacks many features of a liberal democracy but also lacks those of a dictatorship.

Russia today is an electoral democracy. Political leaders come to power through the ballot box. They are not appointed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. They do not take office by seizing power through the use of force. Most elites in Russia and the vast majority of the Russian population now recognize elections as the only legitimate means to power. Leaders and parties that espouse authoritarian practices--be they fascists or neocommunists--have moved to the margins of Russia's political stage. Given Russia's thousand-year history of autocratic rule, the emergence of electoral democracy must be recognized as a revolutionary achievement of the last decade.

Russia is not a liberal democracy. Its political system lacks many of the supporting institutions that make democracy robust. Russia's party system, civil society, and rule of law are weak and underdeveloped. Executives, both at the national and regional levels have too much power. Crime and corruption, forces that corrode democracy, are still rampant. Over the last several years, Russia's media, while still independent and pluralistic, have become increasingly dependent on oligarchic business empires. The Russian state still lacks the capacity to provide basic public goods, and the economy continues to sputter along. All these attributes impede the deepening of democratic institutions.

In recognizing these shortcomings, many have predicted for several years now that Russian democracy will collapse and be replaced by a new authoritarian regime. In 1996, many analysts affirmed that President Boris Yeltsin could not win reelection and therefore would hold on to to power by nondemocratic means. It did not happen. Instead, Yeltsin faced the voters and won reelection.

After the August 1998 financial crash, this group of Russia watchers predicted that Yeltsin and his entourage would resort to authoritarian rule to stay in power. It did not happen. Instead, Yeltsin changed his government several times in accordance with the constitution. The latest prophecy of democratic collapse gained prominence when Yeltsin entered the final year of his second term in office as president.

According to the constitution, he was obligated to retire at the end of this second term, but many warned that Yeltsin would never step down from office willingly and peacefully. But he did. In a dramatic last hurrah, Yeltsin announced on the eve of the new millennium that he had resigned and had handed over the reins of power to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In accordance with the constitution, the acting president then called for new elections to be held in March 2000.

The dismal record of predicting Russia's democratic demise in the 1990s suggests that the basic rules of electoral democracy may be more robust than we in the West understand. At the same time, the very survival of electoral democracy in Russia for several years is not evidence that the system is becoming more liberal or democratic. Pessimists see a trajectory heading toward democratic collapse. Optimists see a trajectory pointing toward greater democratic consolidation. Both may be wrong.

Instead, Russia may simply be stalled in the middle between authoritarian rule and full-blown liberal democracy. Rather than moving toward one or the other outcome, Russia's political system might very well be in equilibrium right now as an electoral democracy--that is, a system that lacks many features of a liberal democracy but also lacks those of a dictatorship.

This essay explores this hypothesis about Russia's current political system by examining several attributes of the system, including elections, the executive-legislative balance of power, the party system, civil society, the rule of law, and the state. Each section briefly discusses the positive and negative features of these components. The final section discusses the prospects for both reform and the collapse of Russian democracy.


Russia's recent parliamentary election, held in December 1999, provides a new point from which to judge the health of its electoral practices. On balance, the evidence is positive but not perfect. The most extraordinary aspect of these elections was that they occurred at all. Given Russia's autocratic history and recent economic woes, it is remarkable that this election took place on time and under law. The basic electoral law and the boundaries of the electoral districts also did not change between this election and the last parliamentary vote in 1995, another sign of stability.

The results were also encouraging. The top six parties captured almost 85 percent of the vote, reversing an earlier trend of party fragmentation. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) still won the largest percentage, capturing almost a quarter of the popular vote. Yet, the CPRF will not dominate this parliament as it did the 1995--99 State Duma, since the party won fewer total seats and its allies (the Agrarian Party and Power to the People) will not form procommunist factions in the new Duma. Given the strong showings of the centrist Fatherland-All Russia (13 percent) and the pro- governmental Unity Party (23 percent), the new parliament will not be dominated by any single faction, meaning that the politics of compromise will return to the Duma.

At the same time, the recent election also exhibited some new, negative, antidemocratic trends. Most disturbingly, the two national television networks controlled by forces loyal to the Kremlin aggressively attacked the Kremlin's main foe, Fatherland- All Russia, and actively promoted the Kremlin's new party, Unity. Government-controlled media outlets should not play such a partisan role during a campaign period. Almost every major party competing also grossly violated campaign-spending limits.

On election day, there appeared to be pockets of falsification or coercion of voters. How else can one explain how Fatherland-All Russia garnered nearly 90 percent of the vote in Ingushestiya? To what extent these elections were free and fair depends entirely on the comparative set. Compared to elections in east-central Europe, these elections have room for improvement. Compared to elections in Central Asia, however, Russia's system of selecting leaders looks very democratic.


In December 1993, Russian voters ratified a new constitution, which has governed politics in Russia ever since. After dissolving parliament in October 1993 through the use of force, President Yeltsin was free to draft this constitution as he and his aides saw fit. There was no compromise between different parties or regional leaders in making this constitution. Rather, Yeltsin imposed his will and then offered voters the choice to reject or accept his constitution. Perhaps believing that some rules are better than no rules at all, the electorate approved the document. Opposition parties, including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, also acquiesced.

This new constitution gave the president extraordinary powers. The president appoints the prime minister. The lower house of parliament, the State Duma, must approve his choice for prime minister, but if the Duma rejects the president's candidate three times, then the Duma is dissolved and new elections are held. Not surprisingly, votes against the prime minister have been few and far between.

The president also has the power to issue decrees, which have the power of law until overridden by a law passed by both the upper and lower houses of parliament and signed by the president. Presidential decrees have been used to privatize entire oil companies, television networks, and nickel mines. The president also controls the nomination process of judges on the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court. At the regional level, presidents of republics and governors of oblasts enjoy the same extraordinary powers.

After the August 1998 financial crash, a new coalition favoring a weaker president began to coalesce within Russian political circles. With the exception of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, all other parliamentary factions have supported constitutional amendments aimed at giving the Duma more control. Many of Russia's leading business leaders also have begun to advocate a stronger parliament, as these economic elites fear that the next president might undo major privatizations undertaken during the Yeltsin era.

The window of opportunity for constitutional amendment opened in August 1998 but was probably shut on December 31, 1999, when Putin became acting president. Putin has stated categorically that he supports a strong presidency. If he is elected president in March 2000, constitutional amendments to undermine his power are unlikely.

Nonetheless, the Duma has gradually and quietly acquired more political power in the last several years. Since being constituted in 1993, it has passed an extraordinary number of laws. They constrain the president's ability to rule by decree, as laws trump decrees. Cognizant of this fact, economic elites now prefer to have their property rights protected by laws, as they realize decrees could be easily overturned either by parliament or a new president.

The Duma also has assumed a more active role in formulating the budget, but the administration still oversees its implementation. As expenditures in these budgets regularly exceed revenues, the administration unilaterally decides which expenditures to meet and which to ignore, giving the president extraordinary power. Likewise, the administration has allocated new resources to special projects, like the war in Chechnya, without parliamentary approval.

On the whole, though, the Duma has acquired more power over the budgetary process. Perhaps the strongest indicators of its increasing importance were the resources and time that economic elites, regional governors, and the Kremlin itself devoted to the recent 1999 parliamentary election. If this legislative institution does not matter, then why were all these actors so concerned with the vote's outcome?


A well-developed party system is a key component of a liberal democracy. In pluralist democracies, parties traditionally serve as the principal institution mediating societal interests within the state. In transitions to democracy, parties generally assume center stage during first or founding elections and then remain on the scene as important organizations of interest articulation. In the Soviet/Russian transition, however, parties organized only after the first two national elections, to the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies in 1989 and the Russian Congress of People's Deputies in 1990.

In the next major election, the June 1991 presidential elections, parties also played a minor role, as most candidates ran as individuals and not as party representatives. The next election did not occur until December 1993. By this time, most of the parties created during the heyday of democratic mobilization in 1990--91 had disappeared. Liberal parties were especially hurt by the postponement of new elections, as many voters associated the painful economic decline from 1991 to 1993 with their policies.

Not surprisingly, new protest groups (such as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia) and old communist opposition groups to Yeltsin (such as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and the Agrarian Party of Russia) performed well in these first elections, while liberal parties performed poorly.

Since 1993, some consolidation of the party system has occurred. As planned, the proportional representation side of the mixed electoral system helped stimulate new party formation during parliamentary elections in 1993, '95, and '99. The most recent parliamentary vote suggests that four core parties are likely to survive to the next parliamentary election: the CPRF, the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. These four share several attributes and might form the seeds of more robust parties in the future. All competed in the three parliamentary votes in the 1990s; three of the four (CPRF, Yabloko, and the LDPR) crossed the 5 percent threshold in all three contests. All four parties also have rather well-defined party platforms and loyal electorates. These four parties in turn will play a constructive role in organizing politics within the next Duma.

The Duma, however, is the only place where parties play a dominant role in Russian politics. The upper house, the Federation Council, comprises regional executives and chairmen of regional legislatures, who usually have no party affiliation. Parties have played only marginal roles in selecting or promoting presidential candidates. Even in the recent Duma election, two of the top "party" performers on the party list--Unity and Fatherland-All Russia--were newly minted coalitions that are unlikely to survive to compete in the next parliamentary vote in 2003. In single-mandate elections for the 1999 parliament, which account for half the Duma seats, parties did not play a significant role in influencing outcomes. CPRF candidates won nearly 50 seats (out of 225), but the other three core parties mentioned above won a combined total of 9 seats.

With the partial exception of the CPRF, parties also play a very limited role in regional politics. In some major metropolitan areas, such as St. Petersburg and Ykaterinburg, multiparty systems are beginning to take root, but in most regions, one- party systems--that is, the party of power systems--still prevail. Few executive leaders at the oblast, krai, and republic level have open party affiliations. During the cascade of elections of regional executives in the fall of 1996 and spring of '97, political parties played only a marginal role in selecting and endorsing candidates. Local "parties of power" with no ideological affiliation and strong ties to local executive heads dominate most regional legislatures. In sum, a nascent party system has emerged, but it is still fragmented, Moscow- centric, and thereby peripheral to the organization and articulation of interests in Russia's political system.


Other mass-based groups have not filled the void of representation left by Russia's weak parties. Participation in overt political activity by civic groups peaked as early as 1990 as part of the nationwide anticommunist movement. Since then, independent civic groups have played a diminishing role in the organization and conduct of state policy. In all transitions to democracy, especially those combined with transitions to a market economy, civic groups undergo an inevitable degree of demobilization after the collapse of the ancien regime. During the authoritarian phase, civic groups often form to oppose the existing regime. When the old system falls, the raison d'tre of these civic groups also disappears. The difficulties of adapting to a new economic system further dampen enthusiasm and limit financial support for civic organization.

This general pattern most certainly pertained to Russia's transition, as many Soviet-era organizations such as Democratic Russia or Memorial fulfilled their mandate when Soviet communism collapsed. Several additional factors unique to Russia's path of transition have impeded the development of civil society, however.

Perhaps the greatest impediment has been the sustained depression. The economic revolution hit hardest against the Soviet-era emergent civil society. Russia's new market-embedded society has not sufficiently consolidated to develop market- embedded social organizations. New civic groups and trade unions have only begun to define their interests and identify their supporters as they make the transition from the Soviet command economy to the Russian market economy. And they make this transition with virtually no economic resources.

The "middle class"--the financier of most civic groups in the West--is only slowly emerging and suffered a major blow after the August 1998 financial meltdown. New labor organizations also have few economic resources, as most potential backers are struggling to maintain a job. Foreign funding has served as a Band-Aid solution in the interim but with all the usual negative consequences for fostering close ties between Russia's civic groups and societal interests.

The same economic reform process that has threatened the existence of mass-based societal organizations has strengthened a small band of economic interest groups that enjoy a privileged position within the Russian state. Business groups always constitute the most organized sector of society in capitalist democracies. Nonetheless, the degree of wealth concentration and the subsequent scale of penetration of Russia's corporatist groups within the state are extraordinary.

A concentrated, centralized capitalist class intimately if not parasitically tied to the state has left its mark on state- society relations. Interest articulation and intermediation are dominated by big business, which crowds out other interest groups in lobbying the state. This group's dominance over government leaders was demonstrated most dramatically during the 1996 presidential election. Although divided in the past over both political issues and markets, Russia's corporate bosses united to provide Yeltsin's campaign with virtually unlimited resources. In return for this support, this small, well-organized interest group enjoyed tremendous "representation" within the state, as major ministerial posts--including the office of the prime minister--were either occupied by leaders of these oligarchs or their surrogates. The wealth and political prowess of these financial/industrial groups dwarfed other economic actors such as small business groups, consumer organizations, or even the once- powerful military-industrial lobby. Civic groups were pushed even farther in the margins.

A blessing in disguise of the 1998 financial meltdown may be the weakening of these financial/industrial groups. In the short term, the oligarchs lost their monopoly over the federal government. Since becoming acting president, Putin has tried to demonstrate his independence from them by demoting their patrons within the government. If Putin wins in the first round of the March 2000 election, he would have a popular mandate to move against these corrosive elements for Russia's democracy. Only time will tell if he will use his electoral mandate for this cause.

In addition to the kind of economic transition that Russia is enduring, the development of a vibrant postcommunist civil society has been hampered further by the sequence and kind of consolidation of Russia's political institutions. The suspension of party development in 1991--93 served to keep civic groups out of state politics. If the party system is underdeveloped, then the ability of civic organizations to influence the state is also impaired.

By the time parties began to play a more substantial role in politics after the 1993 parliamentary elections, the disconnect between political and civil society was nearly total. Civic organizations saw no benefit from participating in the electoral process, while political parties discerned no electoral benefit from catering to allegedly small and ineffective civic groups. Instead of a civil society concerned with influencing the state, Russia has developed an "a-civil" society concerned with insulating itself from the state.

Growing executive power at all levels of the state constitutes a final negative influence on civil society development. Mass-based civic groups are much more successful at working with parliaments than executives.

This alarming disengagement of society from the state does not mean that a Russian, postcommunist civil society has withered away entirely. Civic groups of all stripes still exist, and nongovernmental organizations now total over 40,000--a revolutionary improvement over the Soviet era. Rather, the danger is that civic groups and organizations, however active in their own atomized spheres, will involve a smaller and smaller percentage of the population, while civic groups themselves will become increasingly disconnected from the state, seeking instead to pursue narrow agendas in the private sphere alone.


The absence of an independent court system and weak adherence to the rule of law constitute another institutional barrier to consolidation of liberal democracy in Russia. Of course the Soviet legacy helped impede the development of rule of law, as the Soviet system accorded the courts no autonomy whatsoever. The transition period, however, has done further damage to both the idea and practice of an independent judiciary and a rule-of-law system.

At the highest levels, the idea of an independent court system and a supreme court as the ultimate arbitrator of legal disputes won widespread support during the initial phase of political liberalization. Mikhail Gorbachev spoke often about the need to create a rule-of-law state, in which all citizens submitted to legal authority. Russia's democrats moved beyond rhetoric to create a Russian Constitutional Court in 1991. The Constitutional Court's relationship to the rest of the court system and the Supreme Court in particular remained ill defined, but the court's creation was recognized as a progressive step toward developing the rule of law in Russia.

Russia's Constitutional Court quickly assumed an active profile, perhaps too active. Whereas the U.S. Supreme Court waited decades before making its first ruling, the Russian Constitutional Court became a major political actor right away when it agreed to hear the case for holding the Communist Party accountable for crimes committed during the Soviet era. The verdict in this trial was mixed, allowing both sides to claim victory but establishing the precedent for an activist court. Soon thereafter, the court ruled on all sorts of issues without the executive power to enforce these decisions.

Most detrimentally, the court relinquished its authority as arbitrator between the president and parliament in 1993 when the head of the court, Valery Zorkin, unequivocally sided with White House defenders during the fall crisis. For a year thereafter, the court ceased to function and convened again only after Yeltsin had expanded the number of justices to dilute the voice of his opponents. Since reconvening, the court has made few important decisions.

When decisions of consequence have been made, they have meant very little. Federal executive power cannot enforce its own decrees, let alone the court's decisions. In addition, the jurisdictional authority between the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court is still contentious. This stalemate at the top has allowed lower courts, especially in republics, to ignore federal decisions. More generally, these lower-level courts are revamping only slowly to deal with the new challenges of a market economy and a democratic polity.

Institutionalization of a legal system to protect property rights, govern bankruptcy procedures, enforce contracts, and ensure competition has just begun. The adoption of the Civil Code (hailed as Russia's "economic constitution") by parliament in 1995 constituted a first step toward creating these institutions but only a first step. In the corporate legal context, laws on disclosure are weak and not enforced, general accounting procedures have not been codified, procedures for shareholder and proxy voting are ambiguous, and institutions governing the payment of dividends do not exist. Consequently, stockholders have little access to information about enterprises in which they have invested. "Rule of law" also has become weaker regarding criminal and civil matters.

The combination of a weak state and an incompetent and poorly financed judicial system has produced a sense of anarchy in Russia, a situation alien and frightening to a population accustomed to a powerful authoritarian state. Popular cries for law and order, in turn, threaten to undermine individual liberties and human rights.


Democratic scholars have increasingly recognized the importance of an effective state for democratic consolidation. Russia lacks such a state. During the years of polarized confrontation between actors within the highest branches of the Russian (and Soviet) state, actors in lower branches of the state pursued their own policies. The state, however, did not wither or collapse. On the contrary, its agencies and bureaus continued to operate and even grow, serving the individual self-interests of those who ran them rather than executing a general policy for some general good. The agency problems that haunted the operations of the old Soviet state have grown worse in the postcommunist era, as bureaucrats ultimately serve neither the interests of economic lobbies nor mass-based groups but act first and foremost on behalf of themselves. Consequently, corruption within the state remains rampant. Surveys of Russians involved in small business identified corrupt local government officials--not the mafia or high interest rates--as the greatest impediment to doing business.

The state's formal presence in the economy remains formidable. Despite years of privatization, it is still the largest owner in Russia, though it rarely exercises its property rights regarding decisionmaking at individual companies. Russia continues to have one of the highest tax rates in Europe. As a percentage of GDP, general government expenditures has averaged more than 40 percent over the last five years, a rate much higher than in the United States and well above other successful transition economies. If the economy were growing or the state provided services akin to those offered in Sweden or France, this tax rate might be acceptable. The absence of both suggests that this level of taxation is much too high.

Russian state transfers are still greater and more extensive than in most developed capitalist democracies. "Big," however, is not synonymous with "effective." Government leaders have done little to restructure welfare transfers, meaning that overall expenditures are too high by west European standards and that the neediest are still not being targeted. Heat, transport, and vacations to the Crimea are still subsidized for everyone, while pensioners scrape out a living below the poverty line. In cross- national comparison of social assistance targeting, World Bank economist Branko Milanovic reports that only 6 percent of Russia's social assistance reaches the bottom quintile of the population, compared to 29 percent in Poland, 36 percent in Estonia, and 78 percent in the United States.*

Those parts of the state incapable of making money through extortion and bribes have atrophied. The miserable condition of the army is the starkest example. The armed forces have continued to deteriorate to such an extent that anarchy within the military poses a greater security threat to Russia than external armed forces.

Similar processes of deterioration can be observed in virtually every part of the state, especially the federal state, that provides or should provide a public good. These services are being de facto privatized. Doctors working in public hospitals receive private cash payments from patients to perform basic services. Private agents--be they local mafias or bribed police officials--provide security for both property and individuals. Workers in state-owned television stations receive two salaries: one meaningless salary from the state and one substantial check from individual businesspeople seeking their services. As Yeltsin put it, "The state interferes in the economy where it shouldn't, while where it should it does nothing."


Russia's electoral democracy is unlikely to collapse in the near future. At the same time, the review of political institutions above suggests that progress toward consolidation of liberal democracy in Russia has been limited. In assessing Russia's past progress toward democratic consolidation, the optimists and the pessimists are both wrong.

Time, however, is likely to work in favor of more democracy, not less. With the possible exception of the rule of law (or the lack thereof), the defects in democracy mentioned above resulted from the intentional design of individuals and are not the inevitable and permanent products of Russian history or culture. If individuals made choices to create these illiberal institutions, people can also choose to undermine them.

Over time, structural forces could also play a positive role in undermining antidemocratic practices. As capitalism develops and citizens learn how the institutions of interest intermediation work, civic organizations will proliferate and become more influential. Elections will provide civic groups with opportunities to learn the importance of mobilization and political participation. Economic growth that benefits the middle class, when it eventually occurs, will provide new resources to civic groups. Likewise, the growth of capitalism will create incentives for developing the rule of law.

Owners who are profit seekers and investors rather than rent seekers will want to protect their fortunes and enhance their ability to transact through the rule of law. The windfall winners of privatization in particular have an interest in protecting newly acquired property rights by laws ratified by opposition parties as a check against future presidential decrees that might redistribute these properties. Increased interest in parliamentary elections by business groups suggests that laws are becoming more important in the Russian economy, a development that will assign political parties a greater role in politics.

Even the incapacious state cannot be considered a permanent feature of Russia's political system. New leadership at the top, the further weakening of oligarchs, and economic growth are three factors that could help redress the state's current weakness. Finally, improvement in the institutional quality of democracy can change public attitudes about the value of democracy. The better Russian democracy performs, the more likely normative support for democracy will grow.

This potential for progress does not mean that progress is inevitable. Russia's illiberal system could survive for years, if not decades. At the same time, the illiberal features of Russian democracy do not appear to be permanent attributes of Russia's political system. Major groups in society have incentives to change these illiberal institutions, while other forces have an interest in their persistence. This balance of power suggests that a struggle for the future of liberal democracy is likely to be protracted, complete with shocking setbacks and creeping advances.n

Michael McFaul is assistant professor of political science and Hoover Research Fellow at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

*Banko Milanovic, Income, Inequality, and Poverty During the Transition from Planned to Market Economy (Washington, D.C.: World Bank, 1998), 113).
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Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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