On November 4th 2008, the world watched Barack Obama win the US presidential elections. The first black person to rule the planet’s most powerful country, he promised to change those policies of the previous administration that were seen by many as undemocratic. On the next day, another recently elected President was presenting his plans to the public. Dmitry Medvedev was addressing the Russian Parliament and he too was speaking on the broad topics of democracy and the rule of law. But he did make a very practical point in his speech when he suggested amending the Constitution and extending the terms of both the President and the State Duma (the lower House of the Parliament). This amendment was supported by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had until recently before claimed that the Constitution must not be changed. Parliament passed the resolution in a matter of weeks with hardly any discussion. This amendment to the Constitution, its first, was a clear example of what democracy in Russia had become.
Freedom House, an NGO that monitors the level of freedom in different
countries around the world, rated Russia as “not free” in 2008. Russia’s
average score of political rights and civil liberties was 5.5 out of 7, with is being the most free and 7 being completely not free. This dismal score was the result of a steady decline over the past decade. Elections, with their pre-filtered candidates and predictable results, have become a farce. The number of political parties has been artificially reduced from 186 to 7 in just the last several years. National television is now controlled and censored by the government. Political prisoners have re-appeared in Russia and their number now, according to human rights organizations, is the highest in 20 years.
At the same time, levels of corruption are higher than ever, a problem that pervades all levels of administration, from lowly traffic police officers to the country’s top leaders. Property rights are not guaranteed and can easily be violated via the corrupt police, courts and other government agencies. As a result, free markets cannot function and the best competitor is not the most efficient but the one with the best connections. Russia’s foreign policy contributes to this dire picture. On its collapse, the Soviet Union was succeeded by 15 independent states, with Russia naturally the most powerful. However, its subsequent aggressive and imperial behaviour has worsened relations with every other ex-Soviet country.
Since 2000 alone, Russia has organized PR campaigns against Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Latvia, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia. The last case even ended in armed conflict and the forced separation from Georgia of the two selfproclaimed republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has cooled down its relations with the EU and the USA to a level reminiscent of the Cold
War and formed the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – often
referred to as “the union of dictatorships”.
Could people have expected 20 years ago that their long-awaited reforms
would end in the erection of another authoritarian regime? At that time,
I was only 5 years old but I can recall the atmosphere of those days – full
of hope and optimism. These hopes arose from Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy
of “Perestroika”, which included a democratization of the political system,
more freedom of press (glasnost), and the toleration of limited commercial
activity. Every day, people could see rapid change, a bright contrast to the
decades of stagnation under General Secretaries Brezhnev, Andropov and
Chernenko. This very new President of the USSR even looked different from
his predecessors: he was not old, could speak quite well and appeared more
open-minded and frank.
Political activity grew quickly once people realized that they could influence
the government’s course. Within a few years, hundreds of political clubs, organizations and parties were founded. People pushed Gorbachev to
deepen his reforms. One important example was the nationwide campaign
to abolish Paragraph 6 of the Soviet Constitution, which guaranteed the
Communist Party’s “leading role” in the country. After numerous demonstrations, strikes and petitions, this demand was fulfilled and the foundation for a multi-party system was created. Many people expected that a full scale democracy would soon be built. Perestroika’s origins are still hotly disputed. Some trace them back to Gorbachev’s exposure to liberal ideas and groups at the beginning of his career.
Others point to the critical state of the Soviet economy, which had
worsened in 1985 due to the fall in oil prices and the continuing demands
of the arms race. Since Stalin, the economic system of the USSR had been
based on mobilization and repression. But after many years, people had lost
their faith in communist ideals and could no longer be mobilized by state
propaganda. Fear was no longer strong enough to mobilize workers and the
GULAG system was now too small to be a strategic source of unpaid labour.
The very nature of labour had changed so that intellect was now the most
important resource. Socialist economic policy had arrived at a dead end.
The need for changes was obvious even to most of the Party’s leadership.
The liberalisation of the economic system began with the introduction of
cooperatives and peaked in 1992, when prices were liberalized and free trade allowed. A free market economy was expected to develop soon but the subsequent sharp fall in the average citizen’s standard of living, hyperinflation, the flourishing of organized crime and corruption and other unexpected problems made the very term “liberal reforms” extremely unpopular, both among the people and within the government. People were disappointed by the new economic order and demanded more state intervention. The third great expectation was integration into European and, more broadly, Western international structures. Russia made significant leaps in this direction soon after the dissolution of the USSR. She was admitted into the Council of Europe and later became the eighth member of the G8. Some politicians even predicted that Russia would join the European Union or NATO. But this integration almost stopped in the mid-1990s when the focus of foreign policy switched to the “near abroad”, more specifically, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.
Why it failed
A detailed analysis of recent Russian history is out of scope for this short
article, so instead I will try to summarize the reasons why liberalisation
failed in Russia.
The first and, arguably, the most important reason for this failure is the fact that democracy and civil rights were mostly “granted” by the government and not “earned” by the citizens. The reforms were initiated and conducted first by Communist Party under Gorbachev’s leadership and then by Boris Yeltsin’s administration. Although there was a popular movement in support of democracy, its ranks shrank dramatically after the dissolution of the USSR. Citizens became deeply apathetic about politics, withdrawing themselves from political activity. There had objective reasons for that since the devastating economic crisis forced people to seek ways to simply survive, leaving them little time to participate in politics. However, even after the economic situation began to improve in the late 1990’s, interest in demanding liberal reforms did not emerge. Most people did not and still don’t value their political freedoms and civil rights. Therefore, few people protested against the gradual elimination of democratic institutions. Less than a decade after the failed KGB-orchestrated coup of August 1991, people voluntarily voted into power a former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin. This loss of “eternal vigilance” ultimately cost them their liberty.
As the government was in control of the entire reform process, it rarely
allowed new political leaders to gain top positions in Russian politics. The
elites never changed in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, continuity was always maintained. Boris Yeltsin had been a professional Communist Party functionary; many of the Prime Ministers in his governments were also veteran public servants of the USSR: Viktor Chernomydrin was a minister under Gorbachev, Yevgeny Primakov a member of Communist Party Central Committee, while Putin was, of course, KGB. The Soviet nomenklatura stayed in power because “lustration” laws that would cleanse the civil service were not enacted in Russia, unlike Poland, Czechoslovakia and many other post-communist countries. Their titles changed, as did their words, but their style of thinking remained the same.
The dissolution of the USSR was one of the most important events of the
generation of Russians now living. For decades, most people had believed
what they were told – that the Soviet Union was an indestructible country,
a superpower that could only cease to exist if the whole world did. The fall
of this empire was so quick and unexpected that many people were deeply
shocked. There’s an ironic saying from those days which described the Belavezha Accords (the agreement between the Presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus to dissolve the USSR) as “three men went to the woods and dismissed the Soviet Union.”
Immediately after its dissolution, few tried to defend the Soviet Union but many citizens and politicians felt that they had suffered a huge loss. Overnight, many families were divided by international borders, many economic links were cut, and the very magnitude of the superpower’s political, industrial and military might evaporated. In response, numerous populist politicians declared the restoration of the Soviet Union, in one way or another, to be their goal – and won millions of votes. By 1996, even Boris Yeltsin, a signatory of the Belavezha Accords, had made the first attempt to re-integrate one of the former Soviet republics, Belarus, by establishing the “Commonwealth”, later renamed the “Union of Russia and Belarus”.
However, most of the newly independent states didn’t favour the idea of
returning to Moscow’s rule. Their elites and, in most cases, their people,
valued their newly acquired sovereignty and wanted to develop better relations with the West. Unfortunately, the Russian government did not want to realize that the situation had irreversibly changed after the fall of the USSR. They continued the old imperial foreign policy, not hesitating to intervene in ex-Soviet countries’ domestic affairs, perceiving European integration of those countries as a threat to Russia’s influence, and in other ways demonstrating their disregard for the sovereignty of neighbouring states. Examples of such behaviour are numerous: from the Russian leaders’ direct participation in the Ukraine’s 2004 presidential campaign, to the trade wars against Georgia, Moldova and other former Soviet republics, to the provoking of a public disturbance in Estonia in 2008. This policy alienated Russia’s neighbours, who in turn drove the imperialists further into despair and they responded with an even more aggressive foreign policy response to an imagined “betrayal” of Moscow by its former colonies.
At the same time, this imperial syndrome prompted Russia to return to Cold
War era rhetoric and actions after years of rapid development of better
relations with the West. In the world view of many Russians, their country
is surrounded by hostile neighbours while the West, in particular the
USA, constantly plots to weaken and suppress Russia. This kind of thinking
has been widespread for centuries, from it arose the idea that Russia can
only survive in such an environment if ruled by a strong leader, who can
ruthlessly sacrifice the private interests of some individuals to the common
needs of the country, which, in turn, are associated with the state. This idea
is used by the ruling elite to its own advantage and is maintained by its
education and propaganda.
Another reason often cited when analyzing the reasons for the failure of
democracy in Russia is the “resource curse”. In Russia’s case, this phenomenon of resource-rich but poorly developed countries is called “neftyanaya igla,” or the “petroleum needle”, a reference to the similarity between the Russian economy’s dependence on oil and gas exports and heroin addiction. This dependence has not only deformed the Russian economy, making it especially prone to state intervention, monopolies and corruption, but also indirectly damaged the political system. Small and medium businesses are underrepresented in the government due to the domination of enormous energy enterprises. “Natural” monopolies like Gazprom have financed corrupt, undemocratic governance, from oligarchic rule to authoritarianism. It also has undermined the importance of education and local governance, two more key factors in the successful development of democracy.
Sources of optimism
Despite the failure to liberalise Russia over the last 20 years, as briefly outlined in this article, we shouldn’t consider human rights, democracy and
free markets doomed in this country. The widespread opinion that these
ideas cannot take root due to Russia’s traditions, history and way of thinking
contradicts the realities of world history. Three centuries ago, nearly
every nation was under authoritarian rule. Almost every country has a long
record of tyrannies, dictatorships and periods – sometimes very long periods – when human rights and liberalism were ignored. Just a few decades ago, many important countries still had little experience with democratic selfgovernance, but now they enjoy political and economic freedom. Post-war Germany and Japan are two classic examples of such nations, now joined by many post-communist EU countries. There are no reasonable arguments for considering Russians unable to adopt liberal values. The resource curse, although an important factor, may also be overcome, as it was in the USA, Australia and Canada. However, in order to improve the next reform attempt’s chance for success, the shortcomings of the last effort have to be addressed.
Recent events in many other post-communist countries demonstrate that
another wave of liberalisation is on the way. The main difference this time is
that the initiator is the civil society rather than the ruling elite. Georgia and
Ukraine have gone through non-violent internal conflicts, often referred to
as “colour revolutions”, in which the people, led by a democratic opposition, ousted a semi-authoritarian or authoritarian regimes. This scenario doesn’t always work. The regime may be too ruthless or the opposition too weak for a successful anti-authoritarian campaign. Even if the old leaders are brought down, the new ones may fail to reform their country in a liberal way. But still, the very fact that such revolutions are attempted nowadays shows us that the situation may easily and unexpectedly change.
Despite the general failure of democratisation in Russia, some of its institutions survived and can become the roots for a new liberal movement. There are democratic, human rights and other non-governmental organizations that actively promote liberal values among Russian citizens and defend the liberal institutions that remain. Although such activity has become extremely difficult and even dangerous, it never stops and has even increased during the last five years. The new generation of political and human rights activists is aware of the threats that the country will face on its way to liberty.