Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
Is the Russian Federation a Democracy?
Following the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of Cold War hostilities between Russia and the West, the newly formed Russian Federation developed in the early 1990s, promising a new direction for Russia’s future. Over two decades have passed since its creation, and much has changed within the Russian Federation in comparison to its former Soviet past. However, the promise of democratic and liberal reform has left much to be desired within the former Soviet nation in that the leadership under Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, and Dmitri Medvedev has seemingly portrayed authoritarian and dictatorial inclinations in regards to Russian governance.
Completely neglecting to follow its democratic-based constitution, its disregard of human rights and support of various dictatorial regimes, as well as the censorship of free speech, are all major factors inhibiting Russia’s self-proclaimed notion of being a true democracy. Russia is, therefore, a democracy in disguise and exhibits policies that resemble its communist past rather than traditionally recognized Western democracies.
What Is a Democracy?
In order to comprehend the failings of the so-called “democratic” Russian Federation, one has to first understand the concept of what constitutes a democracy at large. John McCormick describes democracy as “a political system in which government is based on a mandate from the people and in which power is constitutionally limited, and is given to—or taken from—leaders by those they lead” (McCormick, 595).
In a similar fashion, James Wilson and John Dilulio define democracy with three varying characteristics. Accordingly, Wilson and Dilulio describe democracy as “the rule of many;” “a government in which all or most citizens participate directly;” and as “a government in which leaders make decisions by winning a competitive struggle for the popular vote” (Wilson and Dilulio, 6).
Russia Under Boris Yeltsin
With an understanding of the concepts that constitute a democracy, therefore, it is easy to understand the shortcomings of the Russian Federation in regard to democratic notions. Article One of the Russian Constitution describes the Russian Federation as “a democratic federal law-bound State with a republican form of government” (www.constitution.ru). But is this statement really true?
With the rise of Boris Yeltsin following the end of the Cold War, many people believed that “the developing democratic aspects of the state that had begun in the Gorbachev period” would continue to develop under Yeltsin (Marples, 304). Unfortunately, this did not occur. Yeltsin’s coming to power eventually resulted in the creation of a so-called “presidential republic,” but, as David Marples explains, this is not necessarily a valid description of the Russian Federation.
Russia, during Yeltsin’s takeover, underwent violent clashes that almost led to civil war (Marples, 306). Additionally, Marples declares that Yeltsin’s rise to the presidency as well as maintaining great authoritative power rested on Yeltsin resorting to Soviet-style measures to gain his political power (Marples, 306). Thus, democracy, in retrospect, appears to have been doomed from the start since “Yeltsin was a political leader of limited vision, nurtured by the Communist Party and used to getting his way by ruthless force” (Marples, 306). While it is true that Gorbachev instituted policies that reflected more democratic notions, it is obvious that Yeltsin showed little interest in continuing them during his presidency.
Russia Under Vladimir Putin
With the ascension of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000, many believed that the Russian Federation would finally begin adopting more democratic principles. In reality, however, this notion proved largely invalid. In an economic sense, Timothy Colton and Michael McFaul describe how Putin began his leadership with a relatively liberal agenda: “He buttressed private ownership, let capitalists be capitalists by whittling down the government’s role, reduced taxes, balanced the budget, and improved the investment climate” (Colton and McFaul, 4). This, as Colton and McFaul contend, however, soon ended as Putin quickly began “nudging” Russia’s polity toward what his detractors and some of his admirers dubbed a ‘managed economy'" (Colton and McFaul, 3).
Elimination of Political Adversaries and the Free Press
One of Putin’s first moves as President included the elimination of political opposition and the censorship of public information through the press. As Lilia Shevtsova proclaims: “he [Putin] made clear the direction he intended to take…he began by ridding the political arena of anything resembling opposition” (Shevtsova, 41). Manipulating the legal system to his advantage, Putin allowed prosecutors and courts to target individuals seen as opposing the new leadership and to find something, “alleged nonpayment of taxes or whatever,” to base their lawsuits against these individuals (Shevtsova, 41). As Shevtsova explains: “Putin purged the political arena of even the slightest manifestation of independent political initiative,” hardly a democratic means of operating within the Russian Presidency (Shevtsova, 42).
Moreover, Shevtsova adds that Putin also began the systematic subjugation of “the independent television and press owned by the oligarchs, first attacking the most popular channel, NTV, controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky, who was close to the Yeltsin faction” (Shevtsova, 41). As Laura Belin describes: Putin and “his appointees quickly implemented a media policy with unambiguous goals; to enhance state power over the flow of information and to deter media outlets from challenging the president” (Ross, 133). By controlling the media, Putin delivered an image of himself to the Russian people that only demonstrated his positive attributes rather than his negative tendencies.
The “Information Security Doctrine,” as it came to be known, was implemented as a means of increasing governmental control over the flow of information which, seemingly goes against Article 29, Part 4 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees the “right to freely look for, receive, transmit, produce and distribute information by any legal way” (www.constitution.ru). Belin gives an excellent description of the “Information Security Doctrine” in the following passage:
“The Information Security Doctrine calls for balancing the individual’s right of access to information against the interests of society and the state, which include ‘maintaining accord in society’ and ensuring ‘political, economic and social stability.’ The doctrine emphasizes the destabilizing potential of ‘irresponsible’ news reporting, which might discredit the government, delegitimize the state or exacerbate divisions in society. In order to counteract ‘abuses’ of freedom of information, the doctrine advocates legal acts to prohibit media ‘distortion’ and the ‘deliberate circulation of false information’” (Ross, 136-137).
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Freedom of the press is a naturally assumed right within all democracies. For the Russian Federation to impose legal ramifications for those who choose to speak out against the Russian government is, therefore, further proof of Russia’s largely anti-democratic stance.
Mysterious Disappearances and Murders
With the suppression of the Russian media, it is also important to take notice of the various individuals that (since Putin’s rise to the presidency) have mysteriously disappeared after speaking out against the Russian government. In October of 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a known “critic of the Putin regime,” returned home to “her apartment building in central Moscow and was shot dead in the elevator (Gessen, 219). A colleague of Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, reported that:
“…we [Politkovskaya and Litvinenko] both believed that Putin is a war criminal, that he is guilty of the genocide of the Chechen people, and that he should be tried by an open and independent court. Anya [Anna] realized that Putin might kill her for her beliefs, and for this she despised him” (Gessen, 220).
So did Putin really have Politkovskaya killed for her public criticism of him? The answer to this question seems to point to yes. In November 2006, only three weeks after the murder of Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko fell ill. After nearly a week in the hospital, “trace amounts of thallium, a heavy metal historically found in rat poison but long since outlawed in Western countries, had been found in his urine” (Gessen, 222).
Within a few hours of Litvinenko’s death, “doctors finally identified the cause of Litvinenko’s poisoning” as polonium, “a highly radioactive substance that occurs in only minuscule amounts in nature but can be manufactured” (Gessen, 224). Upon noticing his initial symptoms, “Litvinenko immediately told doctors he might have been poisoned by agents of the Russian government” (Gessen, 222). Litvinenko’s assertions appear well-founded, especially since his friend and colleague, Politkovskaya, mysteriously died only a few weeks prior.
The world may never truly know whether or not the Russian government played a role in silencing Politkovskaya and Litvinenko. Given the fact that both individuals openly critiqued Putin, however, makes the situation appear very suspicious. In his final words, Litvinenko dictated a statement to be read upon his death. The statement reads:
“As I lie here, I sense the distinct presence of the angel of death. It is still possible I’ll be able to evade him, but I fear my feet are no longer as fast as they used to be. I think the time has come to say a few words to the man responsible for my current condition. You may be able to force me to stay quiet, but this silence will come at a price to you. You have now proved that you are exactly the ruthless barbarian your harshest critics made you out to be. You have demonstrated that you have no respect for human life, liberty, or other values of civilization. You have shown that you do not deserve to hold your post, and you do not deserve the trust of civilized people. You may be able to shut one man up, but the noise of protest all over the world will reverberate in your ears, Mr. Putin, to the end of your life. May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to my beloved Russia and her people” (Gessen, 223-224).
Regardless of what happened, the untimely deaths of Politkovskaya and Litvinenko demonstrated one particular aspect to the citizens and media of the Russian Federation: “this is what would happen to those who fought the Kremlin" (Gessen, 219).
"We shall fight against them, throw them in prisons, and destroy them."
— Vladimir Putin
Centralization of Power
Putin’s ascension to power also resulted in a great centralization of power for both himself and the Kremlin. “Decree 849,” as it is called, was issued on May 13th, 2000 and helped transform “Russia into seven federal districts, each of which would be placed under a presidential representative who would ensure that the region or province adhered to federal laws” (Marples, 314).
As described by Vladimir Putin in the decree, his main point in implementing this new doctrine was for “improving the effectiveness of the federal government and to improve the monitoring of their decisions” (www.rg.ru). These districts include Central, Southern, Northwestern, Far Eastern, Urals, Siberian, and the Volga regions. While on first glance this decree largely seemed like a good idea since it helped with governing and bringing stability to the extremely diverse Russian Federation it, nevertheless, also undermined local governance within Russia since it, essentially, gave Putin “the right to remove regional leaders” (Marples, 315). Regional governors, who once governed the various districts of Russia, soon found themselves replaced or removed by Putin (Marples, 314-315).
This centralization of power, therefore, demonstrates Putin’s quest to grab more power within the Russian Federation. A democratic nation should maintain a good balance of shared powers between both the local and federal governments. Instead, Putin’s centralization of power appears more dictatorial and authoritarian in nature rather than democratic.
Continuing Support for Dictatorships
In addition to censoring the media, silencing political opponents, and centralizing political power, the Russian government, particularly under Vladimir Putin, has demonstrated a remarkably strong amount of support in regard to authoritarian regimes within the world in previous years. Alexander Lukashenko, the current leader of Belarus, is a widely recognized authoritarian figure. The Bush-administration, in years past, often referred to Lukashenko as “the last dictator in Europe” (news.bbc.co.uk). Even Lukashenko himself acknowledges this dictatorial characteristic of himself: “an authoritarian style of rule is characteristic of me, and I have always admitted it” (news.bbc.co.uk).
Since 1996, BBC News reports that Lukashenko has disbanded parliament and forced many political/government officials out of power (news.bbc.co.uk). Other government leaders, “such as former Deputy Prime Minister Viktar Hanchar and former Minister of Internal Affairs Yuryy Zakharanka, have simply disappeared” from public view within Belarus (news.bbc.co.uk). If Russia is truly a democracy as it proclaims, then why does the Kremlin continue to support an authoritarian regime such as Lukashenko’s?
According to BBC News: “the Kremlin regards Belarus as a close ally and has been attempting to revive an official union between the two ex-Soviet states” for years (news.bbc.co.uk). In March of 1996, former Russian president Boris Yeltsin “signed an agreement for closer relations with Belarus,” and within a few days [Yeltsin and Lukashenko] “put their signatures to the formation of a new alliance between Russia and Belarus, expected by both parties to be the prelude to a formal union between the two neighboring states” (Marples, 308).
Regardless of their reasons behind supporting Belarus, however, Yevgeny Volk of The Heritage Foundation sums up the Russian-Belarusian relations exceptionally well with the following statement: “Moscow’s continuing ties with Belarus cast doubt on its own democratic intentions…and that leaves it open to serious criticism for its support of Lukashenko’s administration (news.bbc.co.uk).
As if supporting the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko is not enough, reports from the Pentagon detail the strong Russian-Iraqi ties prevalent during the months prior to the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. According to USA Today, U.S forces in 2003 stumbled across Iraqi documents detailing U.S. troop movements supplied by Russian Intelligence that were, in turn, believed to have been passed along to Saddam Hussein (www.usatoday.com). Using sources in the American Central Command allowed Russian intelligence, according to official U.S. reports, to infiltrate the American military, which, in turn, “enabled it to feed information about U.S. troop movements and battle plans to Saddam Hussein” (www.usatoday.com).
Moreover, The Washington Post in April of 2006 reported that many Russian companies, “with ties to the state,” aided Hussein’s forces by selling “antitank missiles, night-vision goggles, and equipment that jams global-positioning systems to the Iraqi armed forces” (washingtonpost.com). The information and aid provided to Hussein and the Iraqi army, however, proved to be largely ineffective as U.S. and Coalition forces quickly overwhelmed the Iraqi military.
Russia: A Democracy in Disguise
One of Putin’s strongest political positions during his time in power is that “Russia should seek to regain its position as a major world power” (Marples, 313). Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Russia has faced numerous economic, financial, military, and diplomatic problems in its desire to re-establish itself in the world.
During the years of the Cold War, Russia maintained a bipolar political arena within the world alongside the United States. Both powers upheld “superpower” status until the late 1980s when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. There is no denying Putin’s ties to the Soviet past, especially with his KGB status during the Soviet era. Thus, it appears as though Putin’s consolidation of power, censorship of the media and individuals, and Soviet-style diplomatic relations with authoritarian states is a means of maintaining the Soviet past under the disguise of a “democratic” persona. Putin is, ultimately, vying for a chance to reassert Russia’s dominance within the world.
In conclusion, while Russia maintains that it is a democratic nation, it is apparent, given its violation of basic democratic principles, that the country is simply a democracy in disguise. The Russian Federation, in turn, appears much more like its Soviet-era counterpart with the censorship of the press, support of dictatorial regimes, disregard for human lives, and military aggression. With Putin’s “election” to the presidency once again, it does not appear as though Russia will be changing anytime soon.
Authoritarian-style governance is the only form of government that most Russians have ever known. Ever since the time of the Tsars, Russia has been subjugated to strong, centralized leadership. As Ellen Carnaghan proclaims: “Many [Russians] seem to long for a strong leader who will impose order on a chaotic society” (Carnaghan, 336). Therefore, Carnaghan explains that it is these “cultural predispositions” that inhibit the development of democracy in the Russian Federation (Carnaghan, 337).
Many people from Western nations automatically assume that everyone in the world can be democratic just as they are. But, as seen in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, implementing “democracy” into nations that have known no other form of government besides authoritarianism is not a simple matter. Thus, in regard to Russia, democracy may have been doomed from the start. With Putin’s continual position of power, it may be a long time before Russia is able to shake its authoritative roots in favor of a more democratic government since, as Peter Solomon proclaims, Putin seems to only curb rather than encourage democracy in Russia (Solomon, 3).
Suggestions for Further Reading:
Gessen, Masha. The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. New York, New York: Riverhead Books, 2017.
Gessen, Masha. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. New York, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012.
Arnold, Chloe. “Belarus: Russia’s awkward ally,” BBC News, 20 March 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4825708.stm (Accessed: April 23, 2012).
BBC News. Profile: Alexander Lukashenko, 9 January 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3882843.stm (Accessed: April 30, 2012).
Carnaghan, Ellen. “Thinking about Democracy: Interviews with Russian Citizens,” Slavic Review Vol. 60 No. 2 (2001).
Colton, Timothy, and Michael McFaul. Popular Choice and Managed Democracy (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003).
Flaherty, Anne. “Russian aircraft buzz Navy ship twice in Arctic,” The Washington Times, 17 September 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/sep/17/russian- aircraft-buzz-navy-ship-twice-arctic/ (Accessed: April 24, 2012).
Gessen, Masha. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012).
Goldgeier, James, and Michael McFaul. “Russia’s No Democracy. So What?,” Washington Post, 9 April 2006, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp- dyn/content/article/2006/04/07/AR2006040701972.html (Accessed: April 24, 2012).
Maloof, F. Michael. “Russia is Massing Troops on Iran’s Northern Border and Waiting for a Western Attack,” Business Insider, 9 April 2012, http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-04-09/news/31311454_1_russian-defense- ministry-military-action-dmitry-rogozin (Accessed: April 24, 2012).
Marples, David. Russia in the Twentieth Century (Harlow: Longman/Pearson, 2011).
McCormick, John. Comparative Politics in Transition Sixth Edition (Boston: Wadsworth, 2007).
“Pentagon: Russia fed Saddam U.S. intel,” USA Today, 24 March 2006, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2006-03-24-russ-intel_x.htm (Accessed: April 15, 2012).
Presidential Decree 849. “On the Plenipotentiary of the President of the Russian Federation in the Federal District,” The Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, May 13, 2000. Moscow. http://www.rg.ru/2000/05/14/okruga-dok-site-dok.html (Accessed on: April 29, 2012).
Ross, Cameron. Russian Politics Under Putin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).
Russian Federation, 1993. “The Constitution of the Russian Federation,” December 12, 1993: Moscow, Russia. http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-03.htm (Accessed: April 24, 2012).
Shevtsova, Lilia. Russia Lost in Transition: The Yeltsin and Putin Legacies (Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2007).
Solomon, Peter. “Vladimir Putin’s Quest for a Strong State,” International Journal on World Peace, Vol. 22 No. 2 (2005): http://www.jstor.org.librarylink.uncc.edu/ (Accessed: April 30, 2012).
Starr, Barbara. ”Russian bomber buzzes U.S. Aircraft Carrier,” CNN News, 11 February 2008, http://articles.cnn.com/2008-02-11/us/russian.bomber_1_russian-bombers-aircraft-carrier- fighter-jets?_s=PM:US (Accessed: April 24, 2012).
Tarock, Adam. “Iran and Russia in Strategic Alliance,” Third World Quarterly Vol. 18 No. 2 (1997): http://www.jstor.org.librarylink.uncc.edu/ (Accessed: April, 15 2012).
Wilson, James, and John J. Dilulio. American Government: The Essentials, Tenth Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006).
Wikipedia contributors, "Alexander Lukashenko," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Alexander_Lukashenko&oldid=888211884 (accessed March 18, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Anna Politkovskaya," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Anna_Politkovskaya&oldid=880710065 (accessed March 18, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Boris Yeltsin," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Boris_Yeltsin&oldid=886893109 (accessed March 18, 2019).
Wikipedia contributors, "Vladimir Putin," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Vladimir_Putin&oldid=887717976 (accessed March 18, 2019).
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2019 Larry Slawson