Skip Navigation
Is Russia's Experiment with Democracy Over?

Is Russia's Experiment with Democracy Over?

How serious are Putin's changes in electoral laws? How far is he likely to go in restricting political and press freedoms?

"I would say that rather than undermining democracy in Russia, Putin has reshaped it into a more centralized and less liberal form."

[Political scientist Daniel Treisman offered an informal look at the trajectory of the Vladimir Putin government in Russia in an October 21 talk at UCLA sponsored by the Center for European and Eurasian Studies. Treisman is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UCLA and author of After the Deluge: Regional Crises and Political Consolidation in Russia (Michigan, 1999) and Without a Map: Political Tactics and Economic Reform in Russia (MIT, with Andrei Shleifer, 2000).]

*  *  *

I'll start by talking about what has been happening in Russia and speculate a little about the future.

Putin's New Reforms

I find this a moment of particular uncertainty. There have been many uncertain moments in Russia's past, but this moment is particularly unclear. In the wake of the terrorist siege of the school in southern Russia, in Beslan, President Putin announced two major political reforms. First is a reform of the way that deputies to the national lower house of parliament, the Duma, will be elected. In the past, half the deputies have been elected on proportional representation party lists and half were elected in individual constituencies by majority vote. Putin proposed that henceforth all parliament deputies should be elected by proportional representation.

The second key change that he proposed was that the regional governors, the governors of Russia's 89 regions, rather than being elected by the regional population as had occurred in the past, henceforth these were to be nominated by the president, subject to confirmation by the regional legislatures.

And there was actually a third, I think very important, proposal that came from the upper house of parliament with Putin's backing, which was about judicial reform. This proposed change would increase the role of the president and currently his allies in the upper house of parliament over the appointment of judges, that they would between them pretty much control the appointment of judges. In the past there was a strong role for a collegium of judges themselves to appoint new judges.

Western Commentators Accuse Putin of Dictatorship

So what should one make of these moves? What do they imply about the changing nature of the Russian political system? Well, these changes were met by a very strong public reaction in the West. Senator John McCain accused Putin of staging a "coup" to consolidate autocratic rule. Robert Kagan, who is a commentator at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, accused President Putin of "imposing dictatorship the old-fashioned way, in the manner of a Ferdinand Marcos, an Anastasio Somoza or a Park Chung Hee." And NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr, a journalist who I respect a lot, on the air characterized Putin as a bigger dictator than even Kim Jong-Il of North Korea.

So there was a very strong reaction. Is it justified? Well, I'm very concerned about the trends in Russian politics recently. But even if we make allowances for rhetorical exaggeration, I would say that those criticisms get it a little bit wrong. In fact, if we think about democracy, Putin has made rather few changes to Russia's formal institutions in a way that would restrict electoral democracy. That might be because he is extremely popular. He doesn't need to do such things. And it might change. Nevertheless, so far he hasn't sought to amend the constitution or to rewrite the electoral laws in a way that would limit electoral democracy in a serious way.

Let me mention one thing he has done in the last few years. He did support an amendment that would raise the threshold for representation in the parliament on the proportional party list, from 5% to 7%. So if you don't get 7% of the vote you don't get any seats. That will come into effect in 2007. You can say that that will make it harder for small parties to get into the parliament. But many perfectly democratic systems do discriminate in favor of larger parties.

There have been accusations that in previous elections under Putin falsification of the votes affected the results. I think it is possible. It is impossible to prove and impossible to know for sure. It is possible that two right-wing parties might have just crossed the threshold to get into the Duma in the last election but were kept out by tricky counting of the votes. I don't know. But by and large the election results in 2003 and 2004 match both previous opinion polls and exit polls pretty closely. And not even the political opposition in Russia really claims that Putin and his allies aren't extremely popular or that their representation in the parliament isn't justified by the actual views of the voters.

Other Countries that Are Democratic Do It

Now to think about Putin's latest proposals for change that I have just mentioned, it is hard to really characterize those as major violations of electoral democracy. Proportional representation is actually considered by many political philosophers to be more democratic than majoritarian voting. John Stuart Mill had some positive things to say about proportional representation.  Party list proportional representation of the type that Putin is proposing to expand in Russia is to be found in many of the world's leading democracies -- Denmark, Spain, Austria, Switzerland. In fact I looked it up, and about half of the 62 countries that Freedom House, the democracy monitoring organization, gives its highest rating for democracy have proportional representation. So I think presenting this as a very undemocratic move is a little odd.

What about election of regional governors? Well, having regional governors who are appointed by the central government is not unusual in very well-established and respected democracies. Of the 25 members of the European Union these days, 11 of them have centrally appointed regional chief executives. That would include Belgium, Finland, and Portugal. And many of the post-communist democracies such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, and Poland. So long as the central leaders are themselves elected, not many observers see anything fundamentally undemocratic about having centrally appointed regional administrators.

Inroads on Checks and Balances

I think asking whether Putin in his actions to date has shown himself to be a dictator or if his actions undermine electoral democracy is to focus on the wrong question, to put it slightly incorrectly. Democracy is not the only value that's worth defending, and Putin's actions since his rise to power have actually had more negative impact on two other values that are arguably equally important. These are, first of all, checks and balances -- Putin has centralized and concentrated power in a way that has sharply reduced checks and balances within the system. And secondly, his actions have restricted individual liberty in a variety of ways. Democracies can be either liberal or illiberal, as Fareed Zakaria has reminded us.  I would say that rather than undermining democracy in Russia, Putin has reshaped it into a more centralized and less liberal form.

The trend toward greater concentration of power has two elements. First of all, there is the concentration of power in the hands of the executive branch at the central level vis-à-vis other branches of government. And in part this has occurred without Putin's direct involvement, just as a result of his incredible popularity. In the 1999 Duma election and then in the 2003 Duma election pro-Putin parties won, first of all, a majority of seats in parliament and then in the latest election a two-thirds majority. That in itself means that Putin doesn't have to negotiate very hard with the parliament to get measures passed. He has a very large majority there.

There is nothing undemocratic or improper about voters choosing to give the Kremlin a supportive majority in parliament. But, at least temporarily, it does eliminate one important constraint on the executive. And it's hard to see any great constraint on the executive coming from the judicial branch these days. The judiciary in Russia has been extremely deferential towards the executive. In part that reflects a traditional subordination of judges to the executive branch from the Soviet period and the strong role of the procuracy in the inherited judicial system. But Putin has added to this and his third proposal that I mentioned, to strengthen the role of the president and the upper house of parliament in appointing judges. This would push things even further in that direction, towards less judicial independence, making the judiciary even less of a constraint on the executive. So there has been a lot of rebalancing of the system in favor of the central executive.

Curbing the Media

An independent vigorous media acts as a sort of constraint on politicians in liberal democracies. And the independence of the media and the vigor of debate there has been restricted in various ways. The major television networks have been brought under state control, and there is a considerable amount of self-censorship in all parts of the media.

We shouldn't exaggerate that. A lot of newspapers, magazines, and websites are still completely open in criticizing Putin and reporting on his policies. Citizens can even learn a great deal of information about public policies from the official television channels. Less than before, but still they are very different from the old Soviet era television channels. Nevertheless, journalists have to withstand a great deal of intimidation from the state. The extent to which the press mobilizes public opinion against the government has been diminished.

Now the second aspect to the concentration of power and the reduction of constraints has to do with centralization of power vis-a-vis the regional and local governments. Since Putin came to power, through a number of different laws, he has tried to shift that balance. The share of budget resources held by the central government has increased relative to that of the regional governments. Many regional laws that violated federal laws have been repealed. There have been various initiatives to increase the ability of Putin and the central government to fire governors for various misdeeds, and the latest proposal for a central appointment of regional governors would take this still further.

Both of these, strengthening the executive branch and strengthening the central government vis-a-vis the regions, reduce the constraints on presidential decision making. I would say the main effect of that is to increase the frequency and the speed with which new policies can be enacted. My colleague George Tsebelis has argued that when you have a lot of veto players it tends to slow down change in policies and when you reduce the number of veto players it means that policies can change very fast. That was the main goal, I think, behind Putin's reforms; to increase the ability of the central executive to deal with what they perceive to be underlying chronic problems: corruption and ineffectiveness of the state. But I think in effect what this does is just make for less stability in policies. It should make people expect to see policy changing more radically and more rapidly than in the past. The real problem, though, I would say, was about the implementation of policy rather than the enactment of policy. And reducing the constraints on the executive doesn't, it seems to me, necessarily help make implementation more effective.

Restrictions of Individual Liberties

That is the first aspect of Putin's reforms, concentration, centralization of power. The second is restriction of individual liberties. Some people might argue that that is an inevitable consequence of concentration of power. I would say not necessarily. You can have extremely illiberal decentralized systems. In the American case I always think of slavery and segregation, which were much harder to change because of the federal structure of the system. So I would say that these are separate things. But there has been a very strong illiberal trend in Russian politics under Putin.

There are many aspects to this that have been widely reported. In Chechnya the right to life, liberty, property, all of these rights are violated routinely and with relative impunity by Russian troops. Selective prosecutions against businesses call into question the security of property rights. Researchers have been prosecuted for revealing alleged state secrets although it wasn't clear that anything they revealed was actually secret. Environmental campaigners have been harassed. The press, journalists critical of the government, have been harassed and threatened.

Protections of individual liberties were very imperfect under President Yeltsin, and such liberties are insecure in most middle-income countries comparable to Russia. But the trend in Russia in the last four years has, I would say, left citizens more vulnerable before the state than before.

The illiberal policies aren't necessarily unpopular with the voters. I'd say the same about reforms that further centralize authority. In Russia today opinion surveys suggest a sort of mixed opinion about these sorts of reforms, not a clear rejection, although there are definite reservations. So it's not clear that what Putin has done so far is really unpopular. Much of it is actually quite popular.

What Is Causing the Drift Toward Centralization?

So let me go on to very quickly talk about a couple of other questions. First of all, what's causing this drift toward greater centralization and concentration of power on the one hand and restrictions on individual freedoms? And secondly to speculate just a little bit about what conceivably might reverse those trends or slow them down. On the first question, why is Putin doing this, why is he trying to centralize power and reduce individual freedoms, the short answer is, I don't know. But I am struck by the level of confusion among his advisors, especially those on the economically liberal side, about the latest proposals. They don't seem to know exactly where this is coming from. It's hard to understand why Putin would want to make himself personally responsible for every pothole in Vladivostok and every pension check in Pskov that doesn't get delivered on time. But that's the effect of these policies, establishing this vertical line of authority right down to the local level will make him responsible and will focus any potential protest or discontent on him.

The same thing is true if there is another terrorist attack, which the authorities will be seen as not having dealt with effectively. He won't be able to divert dissatisfaction onto regional or local leaders, authorities at other levels, because he will have made himself responsible for everything that happens. Why might he be doing that?

One theory is that this has to do with the 2008 presidential elections. Perhaps Putin plans to seek a constitutional amendment to let him run for a third term, because the constitution says the president can only serve for two consecutive terms. Perhaps he wants to change the constitution and he thought having completely loyal governors would be useful for this. But most people feel that wasn't necessary. He could have done that anyway if he wanted to. And this move might risk backfiring if it stirs up resentment at the regional level.

Another possibility is that perhaps Putin anticipates that his popularity is going to decline and he wants to insure himself against that by strengthening the state. The Putin administration has committed itself to a whole series of reforms that are likely to be very unpopular. Some of them we already know are unpopular, things like replacing social benefits which were given in kind to certain categories of pensioners, veterans and so on, with monetary benefits that people think will be eroded by inflation. That is one reform that has been extremely unpopular.

There is a housing reform which would allow the eviction of tenants who don't pay their rent, also potentially very unpopular. And there is a reform to limit the extent to which people can get deferments from the draft, from conscription, which is really going to hit the more elite and middle class elements very hard and be very unpopular with them.

So there are a whole series of reforms which he is moving ahead with that are likely to be unpopular. Perhaps he anticipates his popularity is going to fall and he wants to insure against that in some way. On the other hand, centralizing power the way he has done and plans to do would focus those protests more centrally on him individually, which might actually make things worse.

Fears of Hostile Manipulations by the West

Another possibility is that these reforms weren't well thought out, that they are reactions, instinctive reactions, to the Beslan terrorist events. One interesting recent development that has struck many observers is the emergence of a vein of angry anti-Western rhetoric in official pronouncements recently. Some of this was in Putin's speech immediately after the Beslan events when he alluded implicitly to Western powers who he seemed to think were deliberately supporting the terrorists in order to weaken Russia.

There was an interview about a month later with the deputy head of Putin's central administration, Vladislav Surkov, which picked up on that line of argument. Surkov accused what he called some circles in America and Europe and in the East of seeking "the destruction of Russia and the filling of its huge area with numerous dysfunctional quasi-state formations." He also accused what he called a fifth column of left-wing parties and extreme right-wing parties within Russia of working "for the defeat of their own country in the war against terrorism." So really, a sort of Stalinist type of rhetoric that we haven't heard in recent years.

Now, Surkov might have been free-lancing. He might have been trying to express what he thought the thinking in the Kremlin was. We don't really know. But it is possible that Putin genuinely believes that his political critics, both at home and abroad, genuinely want to undermine the Russian state and would be on the side of terrorists in weakening Russia.

Putin's Enormous Popularity

What could reverse or slow down these trends in the future? This may not be even speculation but just wishful thinking, but I would point to a few issues to keep in mind in thinking how in the future this might change.

It is hard to imagine Putin reversing himself without there being a fundamental and sustained drop in his popularity. Since he has been in power, or since the beginning of 2000, his popularity in one tracking poll has never fallen below 61% of respondents who were asked the question: overall do you approve or disapprove of how President Putin has been performing his duties? Something like that. And the percentage saying they overall approved of Putin's performance has ranged from about 61% to about 84%, but has never fallen below 61%. It was dropping a bit in recent months, but now in the last month or so it has gone back up to the mid 70s.

There is another poll which asks how well people think Putin has performed. They have categories: perfectly, well, satisfactorily, not well, and so on. The percentage saying perfectly, well, or satisfactorily was 80% in 2000, 84% in 2001, 86% in 2002, and 85% in 2003. So with popularity at this astronomical level, it inoculates Putin against just about any opposition. Any governor who thinks of picking a fight with Putin knows that his constituents are not going to support him. They are actually going to oppose him. People running for office at any level know that the president's endorsement will help them a lot. So given this, I think it is very unlikely that Putin will reconsider his policies without his popularity falling.

Note, there are a lot of possible explanations for Putin's high popularity. His rating rose initially to very high levels in response to his tough rhetoric and his military reaction in 1999 when he was first prime minister and when Chechen warlords invaded Dagestan and he sent troops there and restarted the Chechen war. This was very popular initially. It's much less popular today. In fact in the latest poll, 55% of Russians would support opening some sort of peace negotiations over Chechnya compared to 31% who say that Russia should continue the military operations. So support for his Chechen policies has reversed but still Putin's popularity stays extremely high. I think a lot of this has to do -- there is no way to prove this that I know of -- with extremely good economic performance throughout this whole period. Personal incomes have risen by, on average, 10% a year.

What Might Precipitate a Retreat from Authoritarianism?

But imagine that Putin's popularity were to drop significantly and for a period of time and suppose that this were to be publicly known, so assuming that existing polling organizations aren't closed down. Then I think one might see opposition or criticism reemerging from various places. The Putin Unified Russia faction in the Duma is actually a very odd coalition of very different groups, including a lot of opportunists, and if they felt that Putin's popularity was falling, that he was actually becoming a liability rather than an asset, I think you would see a lot of these people speaking out, trying to build their own support base before the 2008 elections.

Even without a large drop in the president's popularity, though, we might see or sense some competition within his entourage about what the future course of the administration should be. I would say that it is clear that the FSB [Federal Security Service], the security forces, the professionals who have backed Putin, have won this round of the game. And what usually happens after a victory is division, internal division. So it would seem to me quite possible, although this is again pure speculation, that we might see some division into different factions over what Putin should do with this victory.

It is probably simplistic to split the possible factions into hard liners and soft liners, but we might see one group made up of more traditionalist security service personnel who would have no inhibitions about using the legal system and the security forces to crush opposition. So you might see that sort of faction on the one hand. You might see another, more technocratic, economically liberal, modernizing faction that views such heavy-handed use of the security forces as counterproductive and costly.

Divisions might also emerge over Russia's international course, whether it should be more pro-Western: whether it should continue to try to keep respectability in the Western world or whether it should just give up on any such considerations and adopt a more nonaligned, independent role in the world.

It is possible that palace intrigues between two factions like this might at some point force Putin to pick between them for some sort of showdown, and perhaps he might choose the more modernizing, technocratic branch over the more hard-line security forces branch. But here we are just in the realm of idle thoughts about the future and we will simply have to wait and see.

To print this page, select "Print" from the File menu of your browser.