Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 1

By A. V. Buzgalin

Two years have passed since the presidential elections that brought Vladimir Putin to power. The public mood is predominantly one of expectation, coupled with a belief that Putin will meet it. He is popular, among both ordinary Russians and the economic and political elite. I fear, however, that both the majority and the elites are heading for yet another huge disappointment. This is inevitable when a politician’s personal charisma gets in the way of an impartial analysis of his actual performance in a given situation, and of the situation itself. What, then, is the current situation, and how is Russia’s political elite–which Putin leads–performing?


On June 12, 1991, Russia elected its first president, Boris Yeltsin, who, by that September, had effectively concentrated total power in Russia into his own hands. By December this power was transferred to him formally. It was during the fall and winter of that year that Russia’s reformers, led by Yeltsin, undertook intensive preparations for what they called “radical reforms.” These, by the nature of their radicalism and to the extent of the social upheaval they caused, were in fact reminiscent of a revolution.

But now, ten years down the line, what is the effect of these reforms? What did the reformers achieve?

Two things. First, freedom of movement, which had begun to be recognized in Gorbachev’s day. Second, freedom of the press, which had also effectively come about under Gorbachev. But that is it. The list of failures is far more impressive.


In the sphere of politics and the structure of the state, the reformers took a massive step backwards from the level of democracy that had been established under Gorbachev. Their first major act was to break up the Soviet Union. Leaving aside any evaluation of this act per se, it was handled extremely badly. They disbanded the union without the preliminary courtesy of consulting the lawful organs of power in the majority of union republics. They did not take the trouble to resolve or attempt to resolve the controversial issues of the future of Russia’s ethnic minorities, who now found themselves no longer in a familiar single state, but spread across different, newly independent ones. There was no attempt to come to a provisional agreement on the fate of federal property, federal debts or the form of the monetary system in the new post-Soviet space. This gave rise to a number of bloody conflicts, on top of a multitude of economic problems.

Top on the agenda of these reforming “democrats”–as early as 1991–was an attack on the organs of local government. First, using various devices, powers were effectively transferred from the elected councils (soviets) to organs appointed by the executive. The soviets were thus relieved of control of staffing policies in the executive bodies.

This campaign came to its logical conclusion in October 1993 with the dissolution of the soviets, which left the country without any organs of local government for quite some time. The process of restoring them dragged on, in certain regions, into 1995. But the newly formed local bodies had far fewer rights and far smaller budgets than the disbanded soviets. The structure of federal power was thoroughly reworked in 1991 along the lines of presidential authoritarianism, for which cause Boris Yeltsin did not balk at launching a coup d’etat, dissolving the highest organs of the legislature and judiciary, liquidating the constitution and using force, which claimed the lives of hundreds of defenders of the constitutional order.

As a consequence of adopting a new constitution–pushed through in a referendum in December 1993 with a host of overt and covert violations of existing legislation–the prerogatives of the legislature were substantially curtailed and the powers of the president extended. In the process, the president was placed outside both the legislature and the executive, but was vested with both legislative and executive powers.

His accountability before the law was made conditional on such an array of formal procedures that it effectively amounted to zero. As to the question of relations between the regions, a policy was adopted for a voluntary demarcation of powers between regional and federal organs of power, laid down in each case by special agreement. As a result, the regional governors and the presidents of republics forming the federation were presented with broad opportunities for administrative arbitrariness in their territories. Often this arbitrariness (as in Chechnya in 1991-92) was directly encouraged and supported by Moscow.


Freedom of speech, which burst into flower under Gorbachev, was subjected to ever increasing pressure from the Kremlin bureaucrats, beginning with mass dismissals of undesirable television workers in 1991-92, the closure of undesirable newspapers in the fall of 1993, and harsh political censorship, going as far as blatant disinformation, on television in the fall of 1993 and during the presidential elections of 1996.

Regional bureaucrats were not to be outdone by the Kremlin in this respect, constantly resorting to various methods–often completely shameless–of suppressing undesirable media outlets and showing no intention of changing their policies of doing so.

Freedom of speech is clearly dependent on big business, which buys up media outlets in order to put them to work in its own interests. The political ambitions of the oligarchs have brought them into conflict with the Kremlin bureaucracy (which explains the many clashes over television channels), but this confrontation within the elite has only an indirect bearing on freedom of speech. The main problem remains: Formally declared rights and freedoms are not guaranteed.

The right to life is subjected to massed attacks from every side. Suffice it, on this point, to mention the conflict in Chechnya of 1994-96, during which tens of thousands of civilians suffered from the actions of both sides. Indeed, throughout the 1990s “human rights” in Chechnya was an empty phrase.

Even leaving aside military conflicts, the number of deaths from violent attacks have also risen. Contract killings have long since ceased to be news, and the vast majority of them go unsolved. There has been a huge increase in deaths from abuse of alcohol substitutes, production of which increased dramatically following the repeal of the state monopoly on alcohol. Approximately the same number of people are now being held in prison and remanded in custody as in the worst days of Stalin’s Great Terror. Infectious diseases long thought to have been eradicated have started flaring up again. The incidence of social diseases such as tuberculosis and syphilis has shot up (particularly among minors). Since the start of the reforms, the mortality rate in Russia has overtaken the birth rate (the respective lines on the graph form a cross–the cross that Russia has to bear), and this trend shows now sign of changing.

The freedom to hold rallies, street protests and demonstrations was regularly subject to curbs in 1992-93, during which period the authorities regularly used force to break up meetings, demonstrations and pickets they didn’t like the look of, citing laughable pretexts–or often not bothering to do even that. We should give the authorities their due, however: There are currently no major infringements of the freedom to hold rallies and demonstrations.

Freedom of movement has not been subject to any formal bans, though in many regions it is sometimes restricted randomly. Often an atmosphere of intolerance is created, with institutionalized targeting of people from the Caucasus. In addition to this, economic limitations have forced Russians to scale down their journeys, both within Russia and abroad. However, by way of compensation there has been an increase in the number of involuntary migrants (as refugees are now euphemistically and shamefacedly termed).

Freedom of conscience is compromised by the propaganda of official Orthodoxy openly carried in the state-owned and semi-state-owned media (particularly television), reinforced by the propaganda of various forms of mysticism and superstition. I think that is enough.


The right to live in conditions fit for a human being are not guaranteed at all in a period of economic decline. Well over 20 percent of the population still live below the poverty line, existing only on illegal earnings. The right to housing is an unaffordable luxury when the price of one square meter of living space is approximately equal to six months’ average wage, and long-term home-buyers’ loans are pitifully small.

The right to education has ceased to exist for more than two million homeless children (and that’s only according to official figures) who have no opportunity to go to school.

The freedom to form a trade union is a mockery when company managers can with impunity apply illegal repressive measures against trade union activists. There is only one bright side to this: The ability to resort to such arbitrary rule means it is not necessary for big business to use “death squads” as in Latin America. However, murders of labor leaders do happen, and these also go unpunished.

Property rights are not guaranteed. There is a constant division of property using semi-legal and illegal methods, up to and including murder, and involving the direct, interested participation of public officials. Sometimes even the property of big business is not guaranteed, let alone the property rights of ordinary people, who were openly robbed first by the state savings bank, Sberbank, in 1992, then by the numerous private financial pyramid schemes of 1993-94, and then by the state again, when it refused to pay out on GKOs (short-term state bonds) in 1998.


Under Putin, it is impossible to identify any positive trends in the development of political democracy or human rights and freedoms. The military conflict in Chechnya continues, and there has been no improvement whatsoever in the human rights situation for the tens of thousands of refugees and the victims of terrorist acts by Chechen fighters or the arbitrariness of the military authorities.

Elections of leaders of the executive authorities in Russia’s regions are constantly accompanied by political scandal, high-handed intervention on the part of the Kremlin (the removal of undesirable candidates from the elections), and mass violations of electoral law by local administrations, which use various methods to apply pressure on voters, intervene in the electoral process and resort to the direct and indirect bribing of the electorate. The politicians and big businessmen running for office in these elections are no better: Slander and rumor-mongering, defamation of opponents and attempts to buy votes have become standard fare. There have even been cases of the use of direct terror (in the North Caucasus).

The trend towards the restriction of freedom of speech that began under Yeltsin has continued in the pressure placed on a number of television channels not pursuing a pro-government line. Between 1999 and 2002 the Moscow television channel TVTs was threatened with suspension, the proprietors and management of NTV were replaced under the pretext of bankruptcy, and then attention was turned to the elimination of TV-6.

The rights of hired workers and their trade unions, which had been ignored already, were cut back even further under Putin with the introduction of the new Labor Code.

Dubious operations to divide up property continue, with the active involvement of law enforcement agencies and government officials. The rule of law in such cases is blatantly on a selective basis, clearly exposing the fact that the authorities are interested not in observing the law but in deciding property issues in favor of this or that group. The latest scandal involving the Gazprom subsidiary Sibur provides a clear example of this. Information about the dodgy dealings inside Sibur has been available for some time, but has only been given wide circulation now.


In the ten years of reforms, then, a great deal of what was achieved in the sphere of political democracy and human rights and freedoms during the years of perestroika has been blunted or forfeited. Russia continues to declare formally that it is a democracy. But this mask is fairly transparent, and through it the arbitrary rule of the executive is visible. The proudly proclaimed struggle for the triumph of the law over corruption has yet to begin. Although democratic rights and freedoms are observed in many cases, they are not guaranteed. The legal system is no reliable defense against bureaucratic arbitrariness, and in fact often becomes its tool.

But the saddest thing is that the ascension to power of a younger and more active politician to replace Yeltsin has changed nothing for the better. The hopes that Vladimir Putin inspired, and which brought him to power, are still merely hopes.

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.