Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 19

Russia: How deeply is democracy rooted?

By Elizabeth Teague

Russia has made enormous strides toward democracy since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Anyone attempting to assess how deeply rooted its reforms now are should bear in mind that countries generally considered to be democracies differ a great deal among themselves, and that numerous criticisms may be made of the particular rules of the political game under which each of them operates. Therefore, we should not expect Russia to have some perfect model of democracy.

Democracy’s hallmark is the accountability of the government to the people. This is partly a matter of formal mechanisms which can and do differ widely from country to country. Partly, it depends on the presence of what is often called civil society, social capital, or trust, which affects how the mechanisms work in practice. This article looks first at the formal, procedural issues and then at civil society issues — though in practice it is often hard to disentangle the two.

Political Process and Rule of Law

In December 1995, Russia held its second consecutive multiparty parliamentary elections. They were generally judged to have been free and fair. (1)

In June 1996, Russia held a presidential election. This was the first time in the history of Russia as an independent state that the president was elected directly by the population. There had been talk among President Yeltsin’s entourage of suspending the election, but in the end, it took place on schedule. There seems no reason at present to suppose that the next presidential election, due in 2000, will not take place on time.

However, last year’s presidential election, while free, was not fair. The Yeltsin team hugely overspent the campaign expenditure limit of $3 million per candidate. It exploited its influence over the media to sway voters to vote for Yeltsin. This pattern has since been repeated in regional elections. The Russian people have yet to vote to change an incumbent president.

Russia has a post-Soviet constitution, approved by nationwide referendum in 1993. It provides for a democratic government founded on three branches, though with weak separation of powers — the executive vastly outranks the legislature and the judiciary. The constitution guarantees human rights and civil liberties without any of the weasel words of the Stalin and Brezhnev constitutions.

The judiciary is not fully independent. Judges at all levels are appointed by the president, though he cannot fire them, and they are funded (rather, they are underfunded) by the federal budget. Underfunding seriously threatens the impartiality of the judiciary: many judges are Soviet-era holdovers, and reportedly tend to be corrupt. Many are now under the influence not of the CPSU but of the mafia.

The chairman of the constitutional court is nominated by the president and approved by parliament. While the president cannot fire the chairman, Yeltsin took care earlier this year to appoint a Soviet-era lawyer who has demonstratively supported Yeltsin’s own assertion that it would be "hasty" to amend the constitution before the end of the millennium.

Russia’s main constitutional problem is the weakness of parliament. Russia has a "superpresidential" system, based on that of France’s Fifth Republic, but the powers of the Russian president considerably exceed those of the French president. The executive is so strong that the directly elected lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, can aptly be described as a Potemkin village.

The upper house, the Federation Council, also has few real powers. The Duma has virtually no say over the appointment of the government. If it wants to reject the president’s choice of prime minister, it has to be prepared to commit hara-kiri because that opens the president’s way to dissolving parliament. Yeltsin has used this threat several times to face parliament down.

Parliament passes few laws and those that the president does not like he has vetoed on a variety of pretexts. The constitution gives the president the right to rule by decree. Yeltsin reportedly signs some 1,500 decrees a year — about five a day. As a result, parliament enjoys little respect among the population. The president and the government may not be much liked, but parliament is despised.

Because parliament is so weak, the government is not properly accountable to the population. There is an urgent need for constitutional reform to strengthen the legislature and control the powers of the president, but the constitution is hard to amend and there seems little likelihood this will happen. Recognizing that Yeltsin is unlikely to agree to relinquish his powers, the political movement Yabloko has sensibly proposed a constitutional reform that would take effect only after the 2000 election. Yabloko’s parliamentary influence is so small, however, that its proposal is not likely to be adopted.

Substantial power is devolved to regional governments, less through the constitution than by means of the unconventional bilateral power-sharing treaties so far signed by the Russian Federation with 37 of its 89 constituent republics and regions. As a result of gubernatorial elections in 1996-97, all of Russia’s provinces now have democratically elected presidents or governors. The regions enjoy significant autonomy — largely because the federal government has been too weak to prevent them from taking, in Yeltsin’s phrase, "as much autonomy as they can swallow." The center’s decision to negotiate the groundbreaking treaty with Tatarstan in 1994 kept the Russian Federation together after a period in 1992-93 when there was a strong perceived danger that it might fall apart. Peter Rutland has argued that this shift in the balance of power toward the regions could prove beneficial by acting as a shock absorber were a "wild card" candidate to be elected president in 2000. (2) By the same token, extensive regional autonomy allows some governors to behave like feudal barons or petty tyrants on their own territory.

By contrast with the authorities at republic- and oblast-level, local or municipal governments are pitifully weak. Less than a quarter of their revenue comes from sources they control. Until the signing in September this year of a new law on local government financing, they have had to go cap-in-hand to the regional government for almost every ruble of their budget. The new law is intended to change that. If it makes municipal governments more independent, it would be a positive development.

Civil Society

The past decade has seen a spectacular growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, where their number is currently estimated at some 50,000. Interest groups are guaranteed access to the political process by the constitution. (3) Some, such as the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, are extremely influential. Given Russia’s experience with the CPSU, however, we should not be surprised to find that Russians are not party animals. Research by Harvard University’s Timothy Colton some two years ago found that the average Russian belonged to less than one NGO, political party, professional association, church, etc. (4)

Colton excluded trade union membership, as a legacy of virtually compulsory union membership in the Soviet era. About 65% of the Russian work force is notionally unionized, with the vast majority belonging to the old official umbrella organization, the FNPR. Today, the FNPR is nominally independent, but its unions have a long way to go to disentangle themselves from enterprise management. Sarah Ashwin of the London School of Economics recalls being in the office of a trade union organizer in a Kuzbass coal mine when the mine director burst in, demanding: "Are you going to organize this strike? I need it to put pressure on Moscow!" Meanwhile, membership of Russia’s small and more genuinely "independent" unions does not exceed 3 million.

Russia’s lack of a functioning multiparty system is, in my view, a major weakness of its political system. This is not a structural problem: no legislation exists that would prevent the formation of political parties or hamper people from joining them or voting for the party of their choice. Yet parties remain weak. The Russian Communist Party — the country’s only real political party — has lost ground since its candidate lost the 1997 presidential election. Yeltsin is sometimes blamed for this, since he has refused to found a presidential party and has insisted that the president must stand above party politics.

The reason seems, however, to lie deeper and may be attributable to the traditional weakness of links between the Russian population and their rulers. Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that "There is no such thing as society, only groups of individuals," seems to be more applicable to Russia than to Britain, about which she said it. Richard Rose of Strathclyde University has coined the striking image of Russia as "an hour-glass society." By that he means that contacts between ordinary people tend to be conducted horizontally, between peers, as do those between members of the elite, but that vertical links between top and bottom are extremely limited. (5)

It is fashionable nowadays, in Russia and elsewhere, to say that Russia is ruled by an oligarchy of competing clans and to deplore the intertwining of its political and financial elites. Harvard’s Edward Keenan pointed out in 1986 that Russia has been ruled by oligarchies ever since the emergence of Muscovy. (6) Pessimists would say that this pattern has not basically changed except that, as Blair Ruble put it last year, the elite has coopted the facade of democratic politics and added popular elections to their arsenal for use in inter-clan warfare. Optimists would reply that the more Russians vote, the more accustomed they will become to the idea their vote should make a difference. (7) As their expectations rise, the more entrenched democracy will become. Gradually, the government may be forced to behave more accountably.

Implications for the Future

Looking forward to 2000, I would suggest that two important indicators to look for are a) whether parliament manages to gain some power and respect and b) whether political parties begin to emerge at either national or regional level. I am not optimistic on either count.

On the first count, a more powerful parliament is urgently needed not only to counterbalance a potential maverick president but to enable the people’s democratically elected representatives to hold the government to account. However, Yeltsin has repeatedly spoken against constitutional reform.

On the second count, there is little sign of the emergence of political parties in the near term. On the contrary: a trend toward the depoliticization of government has gathered strength in many Russian regions since the recent round of governmental elections. Governors elected with the support of opposition movements such as Aleksandr Rutskoi in Kursk have abandoned their earlier confrontational stance and assured the Yeltsin government of their eagerness to do business with it. Governors elected with the support of the center, such as Saratov’s Dmitry Ayatskov, have exploited the advantages of office, just as Yeltsin did in the 1996 election, to ensure that only those personally loyal are appointed to official posts or elected to the regional legislature. The result is the creation of a regional power elite that provides no space for opposition opinion and is not accountable to the population. (8)

Some observers might criticize this argument on the grounds that, given Russia’s experience, it is unrealistic to expect parties to emerge quickly. The present system delivers much needed stability which, the argument runs, is more valuable than abstract notions of democracy. The present author feels, however, that parties are an indispensable tool enabling the population to hold their leaders accountable for their actions. Had Yeltsin belonged to a real political party, rather than to the murky and self-appointed "party of war," he might not have launched his disastrous 1994 invasion of Chechnya. Stability is all very fine — and ranks high among the aspirations of many Russian citizens — but studies by Freedom House and the World Bank have consistently revealed a close correlation between successful transition to the market and the transition to democracy. (9)

Mikhail Gorbachev was often accused of driving the horse of political reform too far out in front of the cart of economic liberalization; the present leadership might perhaps be accused of having gone too far in the other direction. But if economic conditions improve for a significant number of Russians in the next two years, that could spark an upsurge of political and social activity and improve the chances for further growth of Russian democracy.


1) This section draws on the typology and conclusions elaborated in the Freedom House compendium, Nations in Transit 1997, edited by Adrian Karatnycky, Alexander Motyl and Boris Shor, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1997

2) Peter Rutland, "Yeltsin: Problem, not Solution," The National Interest, Fall 1997, pp. 30-39

3) Freedom House, op. cit.

4) Presentation at 1996 annual conference of the Centre for Russian and East European Studies, Birmingham University, UK

5) Richard Rose, "Russia as an Hour-Glass Society," East European Constitutional Review, Summer 1995, pp. 34-42

6) Edward L. Keenan, "Muscovite Political Folkways," Russian Review, No 45, 1986, pp. 115-81

7) "Russia’s Election: What Does It Mean?" Hearings before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996, pp. 26-30

8) Ilya Malyakin, "The New Political Situation in Russia’s Regions: The View from Saratov," Prism, November 7, 1997

9) Freedom House, op. cit.; World Development Report: From Plan to Market, Washington, DC: The World Bank, 1996

Elizabeth Teague is the editor of Prism and a Senior Analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.


Prism is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is edited by Elizabeth Teague and Stephen Foye.

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