Top-down revolution: the problem with Russian democracy

President Putin’s critics maintain that Russia has become much less democratic. Apologists for Putin retort that Russia has not become less democratic, but the nature of its democracy has changed, becoming more sovereign. Others say that Russia has never been democratic at all.

President Vladimir Putin’s critics maintain that Russia has become much less democratic since he came to power. Apologists for Putin retort that Russia has not become less democratic, but the nature of its democracy has changed, becoming more sovereign. Others say that Russia has never been democratic at all, and Putin’s got nothing to do with it – it’s just the nature of this country.

Since Putin came to power, the Kremlin has indeed taken a number of steps which may well be described as “cracking down on democracy in Russia.” All the same, it’s unlikely that a “democracy crackdown” as such is the goal of Putin’s presidency. Whatever may be said about Putin, when he first moved into the Kremlin the big problem was a shortage of governability, not an excess of democracy. Obviously, in areas where “excessive democracy” interfered with improving governability, something had to be sacrificed.

Putin, being a convinced statist, made it his priority to establish an effective (in his view) system of governance. In doing so, he relied on the bureaucracy and the state apparatus – since other institutions that he might have relied on (powerful parties and civil organizations, strong local government, an honest judicial system, and so on) simply didn’t exist (and still don’t exist). Historians call this kind of method “top-down revolution”: it’s usually driven by an “enlightened bureaucracy” (that is, a subgroup that’s more enlightened than most of the bureaucracy).

To be fair, “Russian-style democracy” was far from perfect even before Putin came along. Listing all its flaws would be tedious, but the main one was this: most citizens lacking interest in politics, or any collective action at all. From the standpoint of government reasoning, it would be foolish to entrust the choice of direction for a nuclear-armed state to citizens who can’t even manage to organize themselves at a basic level, such as apartment building residents agreeing on who should take responsibility for keeping the elevators clean. Indeed, the democratic choices made in the elections of the 1990s were discouraging for the more progressive groups in our society. Voters supported the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia in 1993, the Communist Party in 1995, and the moribund Boris Yeltsin in 1996 (although he had been Russia’s least popular politician only six months before the election). The people’s choice kept requiring corrections.

As a result, by the end of the 1990s the “enlightened” part of the state apparatus had formed the impression that the institutions and procedures traditionally known as democratic are not valuable in themselves; their real “worth” is entirely dependent on the extent to which they help (or hinder) the state in performing its basic functions.

As far as we can tell, Putin’s reasoning looked like this: first sort out the hierarchy of governance (an ungovernable system is impossible to work with, and simply dangerous), then use it (if necessary) to complete the construction of any missing democratic elements in Russian statehood (parties, the judicial system, and so on). Naturally, specific political circumstances played a major role in choosing the continuity and tone of the Kremlin’s actions.

The key innovations of the Putin era should probably be considered in this context.

The move to reformat federative relations was largely Moscow’s reaction to regional bureaucracies chipping away at federal authority in the late 1990s. After declaring a policy of “retaining national unity,” Putin set about establishing a hierarchy of governance “from Moscow to the outermost borders.”

In mid-2000, the Kremlin started reforming the Federation Council: regional leaders in the upper house were replaced by “representatives” of regional administrations. As a result, the Federation Council ceased to be body that the regions could use to exert political influence on Moscow; its new role was confined to approving legislation already passed by the Duma. At the same time, the Kremlin established a system of seven federal districts headed by presidential envoys, essentially overseeing the situation in the regions. The Kremlin also established a mechanism for holding regional leaders accountable for failing to comply with Moscow’s instructions.

The next stage in reformatting relations between the federal government and the regions entailed abolishind direct popular elections for regional leaders. This decision was announced in autumn 2004, straight after the Beslan school hostage siege, although it was not directly related – plans to stop electing regional leaders were being made long before Beslan.

Another element of reformatting entailed changing the process of electing regional parliaments, while also expanding their powers. A substantial party component was introduced into regional legislature elections, with 50% to 100% of members elected via party lists. Regional legislatures were entrusted with “endorsing” regional leader candidates nominated by the president.

At the end of the Yeltsin era, the power of the regional elites (and the financial-industrial groups behind them) had become a critical problem for the federal authorities. After Putin’s reforms, the power of the regional elites was brought under strict control. The financial-industrial groups didn’t lose interest in the regions, of course, but Moscow was now able to decide which of them should be permitted to act. Meanwhile, citizens seemed undisturbed by their overnight loss of the right to elect regional leaders. They were tired of the dirty tactics and mud-slinging used in regional election campaigns; and they were willing to believe that Putin would never appoint a bad governor.

Increasing the significance of parties in regional elections was more than part of a plan to adjust relations between Moscow and the regions. It was also part of establishing a new kind of party system.

Russia’s multi-party system took shape after the CPSU’s monopoly on power was abolished. By the late 1990s, this system was clearly in crisis. Parties were no longer the “reins” of democracy (if they had ever been that). Citizens had become far more apolitical than in the early 1990s; parties had become more insular (most of them were regarded as having no influence beyond central Moscow). Most importantly, because parties lacked any real connection with the masses, they were turning into tools used by the oligarchs to influence the Kremlin – by overt lobbying in the Duma, among other methods.

As he set about “equidistancing” the oligarchs, Putin also launched reforms to the party system.

This process began in summer 2001, when the new law on political parties was passed. In effect, it defined parties as the only entities permitted to participate in the electoral process – and only parties that met the law’s strict criteria, including minimal membership requirements (10,000 members initially, now raised to 50,000).

Simultaneously with abolishing direct elections for regional leaders, the Kremlin also abolished the use of single-mandate districts in Duma elections. This was an important stage in forming the “large-party system” favored by Putin. From now on (as of December 2007), the Duma will consist entirely of party-affiliated lawmakers.

Subsequent amendments to electoral legislation only polished the system: raising the Duma representation barrier from 5% to 7% of the vote, banning electoral blocs in elections, a de facto “imperative mandate” that makes it impossible for party-affiliated lawmakers to vote against their own party, and so on.

The party game’s altered rules meant that dwarf parties effectively disappeared, party-building as a business was eliminated (the practice of setting up artificial shell parties for elections and reselling them), direct oligarchic control of the party masses was also eliminated, and the parties that still remained afloat grew larger. And although not all parties took the opportunity to “merge and survive,” the process was started. The most vivid example is Just Russia, formed by the merger of several minor parties, now seriously aspiring to Duma seats (not without the Kremlin’s blessing) and snapping at the heels of the Kremlin’s favorite offspring, United Russia.

A system with two, three, or four parties is regarded by the creators as quite effective, in terms of managing the party process as such (this remains a priority for the Kremlin), and also in terms of establishing a functional, stable party system so that control of the parliament could pass from one influential party to another. Thus, according to the Kremlin, Duma elections would cease to be a “fateful choice of Russia’s path” and become a routine definition of socio-economic development priorities. “So it’ll work like it does in America,” said one of the party-building officials. He was joking, of course.

Subsequent changes to electoral procedures are essentially meant to ensure that things will not work “like in America.” After a series of color revolutions in CIS countries, supported by the West, the Kremlin grew seriously concerned about the possibility of Orange technques being exported to Russia. These regime change techniques include setting up pro-Western opposition movements, leading large numbers of young people out into the streets for angry protest rallies, challenging election results, and so on. According to the Kremlin, it must be ensured that these techniques are a priori inapplicable to Russia. It’s hardly surprising that the term “sovereign democracy” has been coined in this period.

First of all, anti-extremism legislation has been passed, and it’s being polished with every passing year (even without the Orange threat, extremism is a serious problem in Russia): the boundaries of permissible behavior for actual and potential participants in the electoral process have been defined. Secondly, electoral legislation has been amended (abolishing the “against all candidates” option and minimal voter turnout requirements) to make it much more difficult for any “defeated minority” to manipulate procedures and election outcomes. From now on, even if the opposition calls on citizens to boycott “unfair elections” or vote against all candidates, none of this will make any practical difference.

The fourth estate

In simple terms, the Kremlin’s actions fit into a template which officials have described as follows: the media, especially television channels, are extremely effective from the political standpoint – and Putin has torn them from the hands of the oligarchs and made them serve the state. As the oligarchs were “equidistanced” from political power, the authorities inevitably moved to gain control of the oligarchs’ chief resource (other than money): television broadcasting.

And since the process of taking over the television networks happened at the same time as the counter-terrorist operation in the North Caucasus, characteristic wartime elements of “filtering information” were inevitably reflected in the content of television news broadcasts – especially since television has become an important means of promoting the state’s official views on events in Russia and abroad.

Let’s draw some conclusions. The model of democracy established in Russia during the Putin era is by no means perfect, obviously. This is not because its basic features do not resemble any particular Western models (these are not models for us to follow, and they aren’t perfect either). Neither is it because somebody (Putin himself or “the bad nobles”) is clamping down on democracy; while the subjective factor is important in the history of democracy, it is not decisive.

The most important reason lies elsewhere: democracy in Russia still resembles a building in which construction started with the roof. This may be due to the fact that democratization itself, as started in the mid-1980s to early 1990s, was not the result of grass-roots public activism, but yet another top-down revolution – when the “enlightened bureaucracy” of the Gorbachev era adopted a policy of “democratizing Soviet society,” along with glasnost and perestroika. Amidst the perestroika-era euphoria, when this construct (a complicated one for Russia) began to be built, no one seemed to recall that a roof requires walls and foundations – and then time ran out.

At the present stage, demolishing the existing “roof” in order to get rid of a looming problem would be more than a regrettable “two steps back”; it would be very, very dangerous. Russia is too large and too ramshackle for anyone to take the chance that dismantling democracy could be done safely.

But the roof of democracy still lacks “foundations” (citizens with a genuine desire for self-government) and “walls” (such as powerful municipalities, local media accountable to the citizenry, or community groups that can defend their neighborhoods against undesirable construction projects); all are either absent or only just starting to develop. As long as this situation persists, the absent “load-bearing structures” will be replaced by temporary bulwarks constructed by the “enlightened” (or not-very-enlightened) bureaucracy: either in the hope that they will be replaced by something real in the course of time, or in order to prevent the roof from collapsing too soon.

Child psychologists tell us that if children aren’t allowed to do things for themselves, they’ll never learn. Then again, according to the psychologists, this process should be done gradually: God forbid that the children should break their necks by doing too much, too soon. And so we proceed with democracy – safeguarding our necks.