Russia: a failed democratization [i]

Author: Armando Chaguaceda[ii]

The evolution of post-Soviet Russia is a fascinating subject for those interested in contemporary geopolitics. The transformation in just a quarter of century from a (post) totalitarian system into an imperfect electoral democracy, followed by subsequent regression to competitive authoritarianism, offer a sui generis overview of the dynamics of institutional change in today’s world.

By now it is common knowledge that the Russian democratization failed. The birth of the new order get impacted by the triple transition – from superpower to regional power, from command economy to liberal capitalism and from a sigle political party to precarious democracy- . In addition, resilience and penetration of Soviet political culture in different strata of society detracted from the outset the scope and quality of the organization and civic action necessary for the democratic health. All this in a context of separatist conflicts and ethnic tensions.

The Russian transition was polarized and incomplete, where political parties emerged without social base and whose leaders came, largely, from the old regime Were traits of this post-communist regime: A political program anchored in the State and loyalty to its occupants. A fragile political representation embodied by charismatic individuals before the party weakness, and high levels of apathy and political disaffiliation. In this regime, enemies of democracy and members of the old nomenclature, remained active and powerful within the civil service and society itself.

While the government of Boris Yeltsin (1991-1999) meet minimum electoral standards, it did not reach the levels of a consolidated liberal democracy. In the last quarter of 1993, with the violent suppression of the Duma and presidential approval of a new constitution -today force- young Russian democracy was degraded. A kind of politic related to the proximity of oligarchs to the President, poor accountability and the spurious usufruct of state resources get strengthened.

The presidential elections of 1996, developed in an environment of economic crisis, growing inequality and poverty, rampant mafias and corruption scandals, led to an aging Yeltsin winner; which was sponsored by the major private media, abuse of public resources and the financial and political support from the West. Nevertheless, in those close election, there were present different political platforms, including empowered communist opposition in the legislature and local governments. Would be the last competitive elections in post-Soviet Russia.

In that way, the winning coalition led by Yeltsin had little incentive to undertake, for a decade, substantive democratization of Russia. Democracy, identified by many Russians as an avenue to the promises of Western modernity, did not bring the expected results. The sharp deterioration in economic indicators amplified citizen disenchantment and passivity towards politics. Opening the door to the return of leadership interested in rebuilding an openly autocratic model of governance. That dust begat this mud.

[i] Translated by Aram Zaldívar

[ii] Political analyst and historian. Professor and researcher at the University of Guanajuato (México)

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