The evolution of post-Soviet Russia is a fascinating subject for those interested in contemporary geopolitics. Its development, in just a quarter of a century, from a post-totalitarian regime to an imperfect electoral democracy, followed by its subsequent regression to competitive authoritarianism, offers a sui generis picture of the dynamics of institutional change in the world today.
At this point it is a well-known fact that Russian democracy has failed. The triple transition —from superpower to regional power, from a command economy to neoliberal capitalism, and from a one-party system to a precarious democracy— impacted, with its complexity and simultaneity, the birth of the new order. In addition, the resilience and penetration of Soviet political culture on different strata of society were a drag, from the outset, on the scope and quality of the civic organisation and action necessary for the health of any democracy. All this took place in a context of separatist conflicts and inter-ethnic tensions.
The Russian transition was polarised and incomplete, and one in which there emerged parties without social bases and whose leaders came, largely, from the old regime. Policy anchored in the State and loyalty to its figures; fragile political representation embodied by charismatic individuals, in the face of party weakness; and high levels of citizen apathy and disaffiliation were, from very early stages, hallmarks of the post-Communist political regime. Within this structure the enemies of democracy, from the old government elite, remained active and powerful in the civil service and society itself.
While the government of Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) satisfied minimum electoral standards, it did not attain levels qualifying it as a liberal and consolidated democracy. In the last quarter of 1993, with the violent suppression of the Duma and the approval of a new presidentialist constitution —that in force today— Russia's democracy regressed. A style of politics was bolstered based on the proximity of the oligarchs to the president, scant accountability, and the reckless exploitation of State resources.
The presidential elections of 1996, held in an atmosphere of economic crisis, growing inequality and poverty, rampant mafias and corruption scandals, led to an ageing Yeltsin as the winner, favoured by the major private media outlets, the abuse of public resources, and financial and political support from the west. Nevertheless, in those hard-fought elections different political platforms converged, including a Communist opposition empowered in the Legislature and in the local governments. These would be the last competitive elections in post-Soviet Russia.
In this way, the winning coalition led by Yeltsin had little incentive to undertake, for a decade, any profound democratisation of Russia. Democracy, identified by many Russians as an avenue towards the promises of western modernity, did not yield the expected results. The sharp deterioration of socio-economic indicators exacerbated citizens' disenchantment with politics, and their passivity. This opened the door to the return of leaders interested in rebuilding an openly autocratic model of government. The birds came home to roost.
The process of autocratic restoration was basically carried out during the first term Vladimir Putin (2000-2008). A meeting in June of 2000 at the president’s dacha yielded a pact with the business elites establishing a state monopoly on the political agenda, with a promise extended to protect private initiative and provide access to the reorganised national market, as well as State resources and contracts.
Between 1999 and 2002 the official party, Unity (later, United Russia), held most of the seats in the Duma —the Legislature's lower house— after a series of ad hoc alliances with Communists and liberals that marginalised and prevented these forces from controlling the Parliament. This operation was completed with the restructuring of the Federation Council —the upper chamber— with members amenable to the Executive.
At the same time regional powers saw their autonomy suppressed. By 2004 Russia had seven federal districts headed up by Putin associates, controlling their budgets and regional security bodies. The new governors would no longer be elected, but appointed by the president and confirmed by local parliaments also toeing official lines.
A new governance pact was imposed from the top, under which competition or dissent against presidential power were taboo for Russian elites. The business sector yearned for order, fearful of losing the properties they had acquired (and not always legitimately) in the 90s. As did the masses, interested in maintaining security, jobs and State benefits. Even the "loyal opposition," in order to enjoy a subordinate role within the regime, favoured authoritarian stability rather than democratic development. In the official political discourse, terms like "dictatorship of the law" (i.e., the vigorous interference by justice and police authorities in public life) superseded the notion and practice of the democratic rule of law, and managed democracy eclipsed political pluralism.
After two consecutive periods of Putin came the presidency of Medvedev (2008-2012), who sought a better balance between pro-openness technocrats and members of the security apparatus within the Kremlin elite. He announced an economic opening up to technological innovation and foreign investment, a less closed political system, and improved relations with the West. His time in office revealed the limits of authoritarian modernization —limited to the economic sphere and, to a lesser degree, to the public administration— without political liberalization, and with Putin as the power behind the throne.
While the openness rhetoric generated unmet expectations in the middle class, and in Europe and the US, under President Medvedev’s constitutional reform extended presidential and parliamentary terms, thereby strengthening the group in power. By September 2011, with the consent of a pliant president, Putin announced his return to the presidential sphere, with the political stability and structure built over a period of almost 12 years. The response of a major segment of the public shook, at least momentarily, Putin's hegemony, which ushered in a new, more authoritarian stage of the Russian regime.
The Putin system
In the view of many experts in Russian affairs, autocracy is a constant in the Euroasian country's history. This way of conceiving and exercising power takes the form of a strong State able to respond to the demands for security, redistribution and modernization heard in the country ever since the 16th century. This has favored, from Ivan the Terrible down to today, the recurrence of a personalized, militaristic and imperial power concentrating all the nation's human and material resources.
In this century this model has taken the form of a competitive authoritarianism in which autocratic power increasingly advances to the detriment of the population's civil and political rights. This is a regime with a civil facade under which democratic institutions (elections, a parliament, parties) formally exist, but officialdom owns and wields a wide arsenal of resources (electoral manipulation, control of the media, the abuse of public resources, forms of repression and mobilization), tilting the scales in its favor.
Under the Putin system, the president makes all the key decisions, supported by security and armed forces. The president is surrounded by a web of extra-institutional forms of governance, shielded by his entourage hailing from the former KGB, sections of the bureaucracy, and regional chiefs, all heeding values of loyalty, kinship, or territorial or occupational origin. While this kind of personalism aggravates the institutional drawbacks of the Russian state, in the short term its serves to allocate resources, mobilize allies, and ensure loyalty to power and the regime’s survival.
Old features from the Soviet era —men promoted for their loyalty rather than their performance, administrative and police methods to deal with dissenters— combine today with the extension of social patronage and the participation of various groups interested in a slice of the public revenues distributed by the state.
Given the State's control over much of the economy —especially the production of hydrocarbons and the defense industry— and the rampant obsession with obtaining and retaining politically-dependent public positions , it is no surprise that Vladimir Vladimirovich has been popular for so long. And he has only been bolstered, circumstantially, by the wave of nationalism and xenophobic desire for revenge generated after the crisis and occupation of Crimea. In this way, the concoction of repression, patronage and propaganda has cooked up a peculiar political stew in Russia, in which discredited democracy is not an appetizing ingredient for large segments of the population.