The path to democracy, Russian-style

The political system in modern Russia is often described as "an imitation of democracy". The country has a parliament, an opposition, several political parties and elections. But all these institutions are subordinate to a "vertical power structure" and are used by the Kremlin as political instruments.

Bearing in mind the centralisation of Russian political life, few people expect Sunday's presidential election to spring any surprises. It is almost certain Russians will vote for Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's favoured candidate.

Instead, the real question of this election centres on its procedure: does the Medvedev coronation signify that Russia is moving towards democracy, or back into a shell of authoritarianism?

In the formal terms of electoral procedures, a rollback from democracy would seem a reasonable enough statement. Competitive transfer of power is a reasonable distinguishing mark for democracy. On the other hand, a little knowledge of Russia's recent experiences would suggest otherwise. With such knowledge, there is little doubt that the chances of a stable democratic regime being established in Russia are much higher today than, say, at any time during the Yeltsin presidency.

This statement may appear paradoxical to those who consider it odd how the Russian population has so easily given up so many the democratic gains of perestroika and Yeltsin's reforms. After all, under Yeltsin the media was independent, there were alternative centres of power and there was real competition between parties for control of the legislature and the executive. Right?

Closer inspection reveals the situation is not that odd at all. Rather, that the main threat to an emerging Russian democracy is not so much the elite's penchant for concentrating power in their own hands, so much as an underestimation of the role of proper state institutions in the process of democratisation.

In the 1990s, the Russian ruling class perceived the state purely as an institution for the poor, the main aim of which was to cushion the social impact of the transition to a market economy. That was a mistake. By diverting attention from other government activities, it gave oligarchs unlimited control over resources, media and legislature. Regional protectionism and the political autonomy of governors reached absurd extremes, with some planning to establish regional currencies, and others threatening the secession of Siberia and the Far East. There was Yeltsin's inept handling of Chechen separatism and a war which left the military with powers too broad for comfort. Talk about the threat of a military coup was a stock tool of political blackmail at the time. Finally, social inequality reached a grotesque scale.

In his eight years as President, Putin has managed to restore the authority of the state. The prospect of a military coup today looks remote. Gone are the maverick governors and local separatists. The interests of the oligarchs are geared to the priorities of the state. And the state has at last been more active in redistributing national wealth and making strategic investments.

One of the most significant problems is the lack of representative parties and, as a consequence, an independent parliament. But it is arguable that no such parties would have appeared even if the President were an ardent supporter of OSCE democratic standards. And the reason for this is, quite simply, that the institutions of civil society - the "networks of confidence", trade unions and NGOs - are in an embryonic state in Russia. There are no organisations or independent discussion forums to impose a clear pattern of political formulas and demands on the chaotic polyphony of popular opinion.

Indeed, Russians are only just beginning to acquire experience of self-organisation. So far they have been more readily taking part in social rather than political movements. Take the example of Sochi, host of the 2014 winter Olympics. When authorities opened up vast tracts of land, leading to serious conflicts over ownership rights, the threat of a government landgrab was instantly met with resistance on the part of both general population and business. Then the government had to enter into negotiations to sort out property relations.

If you were asked to sum up the Russian experience of democratisation, you might say that democracy is growing not from recognised international standards but is from the fabric of social conflicts. Certainly, Russians are not overly worried by political ideologies, party platforms, the schemes of transition of power, procedures and so on. They are much less concerned about the OSCE's claims and assessments of the freedom of elections, or lack of it, than the more sensitive political and diplomatic observers.

Moreover, opinion polls show that more than 60pc of Russians approve of Putin's choice of Medvedev as his successor, with a majority expressing a tolerant attitude to the very procedure of succession. This would seem to be a temporary acceptance, however: one Levada-tsentr poll taken in October 2007 showed only 20pc of Russians believe that opposition parties and movements are not needed, with 66pc believing these parties are needed.

Ruslan Khestanov holds a degree in philosophy from Fribourg University in Switzerland. He is deputy chief editor of the weekly Russky Reporter.

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