Escape from Freedom
August 15, 2016
The twenty-fifth anniversary of the August 1991 coup is a sad one for supporters of democracy. In twenty-five years, Russia has not only failed to draw closer to political freedom, but has grown ever more distant from it. According to Freedom House, immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was a “partly free” country with an average of 3.5 on the scale of the political and civil liberties (Finland rates a 1, while North Korea rates a 7), whereas the 2015 rating described the country as a consolidated authoritarian regime with an average rating of 6. A return to the good old days of the “good” Soviet Union, a political and economic regime resembling its Soviet counterpart but lacking its inherent fatal defects, has become the slogan of the day for the Russian ruling class and society at large. The fall of the communist regime seemingly gave Russia the chance to move towards democracy. Why was it frittered away?
From Dictatorship to Dictatorship
The twenty-five post-communist years in Russia and elsewhere have taught us the fall of authoritarianism does not lead to democracy by default. An alternative to the success stories is the transition from one authoritarian regime to another. The American political scientist Barbara Geddes has calculated this turn of events happens much more often than democratization. Most often, the failure of democratization is ascribed to structural causes such as low levels of social and economic development or strong ethnic and religious fragmentation. Sometimes, however, the most capable and cynical politicians, seeking to maximize their own dominance, seize power amid the ruins of autocracy. Regime change often goes hand in glove with considerable upheaval, and the stabilization that succeeds it tends to favor potential new dictators. As Adam Przeworski has noted, “Since any order is better than any disorder, any order is established.”
In some cases, however, the new autocrats have managed to achieve their goal, while in other cases they have not. Democracy emerges only if and when politics are faced with insurmountable barriers, forcing them to play by the rules, which involve losing power if they are defeated in elections. In turn, these barriers are the side effect of other phenomena: an inherent conflict among elites, a standoff among various social groups, including class conflicts, influence on post-authoritarian countries on the part of the west, and the ideological preferences of political leaders. In countries from Eastern Europe to Latin America where one or more these factors came into play, democracies were able to take root, although not immediately. But events have taken a different turn in Russia and a number of other post-Soviet countries.
Russia: Building Authoritarianism
In the recent book Authoritarian Russia: Analyzing Post-Soviet Regime Changes, I wrote that post-1991 Russia can serve almost as ideal case study of the successful building of authoritarianism. The objective conditions in no way condemned Russia to an authoritarian trajectory. The level of the country’s social and economic development, and the scale of its fragmentation were, by international standards, quite sufficient for successful democratization. But no barriers arose to prevent the emergence of a new authoritarianism in Russia. Indeed, all the conflicts among elites (between Russian and Soviet authorities in 1991; between the president and parliament in 1993; among the various clans hoping to succeed Yeltsin in 1999) were resolved as zero-sum games. The victors completely destroyed or absorbed their opponents. Popular politics (with the exception of the brief outburst of protests in 2011 and 2012) have played a secondary role since the fall of the Soviet Union. At best, ordinary Russians have been tools in the hands of elites struggling for power; at worst, they have been passive spectators. The west’s influence on domestic politics in Russia has been insignificant for the entire post-Soviet quarter of a century, and it has only waned over time. Finally, since the fall of the Soviet Union, all political ideas have been subordinate to the vested interests of pragmatic politicians, which has made our country quite different from many post-authoritarian countries, ranging from late-19th century France to Weimar Germany.
In the 1990s, political leaders were prevented from maximizing power by a long and deep economic recession and the weakness of the Russian state in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Boris Yeltsin aphoristically stated his vision of power in Russia: “Someone has to be in charge of the country, and that is that.” Under these circumstances, he was forced to behave not like a full-fledged autocrat, but as the leader of a rather motley ruling coalition, maneuvering among his allies, including oligarchs, federal officials, and regional officials. In the 2000s, amid economic growth and the strengthening of the law enforcement and security agencies, Vladimir Putin was able to enlist the support of the elites and the masses, and free himself of the restrictions imposed during the “wild” nineties. By reformatting the ruling coalition and introducing institutional changes (which included abolishing gubernatorial elections and transforming the system of political parties), he succeeded in consolidating a new Russian regime and earning an A+ in the global college for autocrats. So, in each of the critical moments of post-Soviet political history, Russia has retreated further and further from freedom. The rejection of political reforms immediately after the coup was crushed in 1991, the dissolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1993, the 1996 presidential election, the systematic restriction of political competition in the 2000s, and the repressive politics of fear since 2012 have been the milestones on the road to Russian authoritarianism. A quarter-century after the collapse of the communist regime, the illusion of democratization in Russia has been completely dispelled.
Can the Authoritarian Balance Be Maintained?
At first glance, today’s Russia is an example of a sustainably balanced personalist authoritarian regime. Neither political protests, international conflicts and foreign policy isolation, or economic slowdown have so far seriously challenged it. But unavoidable risks are inherent even to Russian authoritarianism. First, it is threatened by palace and military coups. It is they, not popular uprisings, that are the most common cause of the fall of such regimes. Not surprisingly, changes in the ruling coalition (including shuffles in the security agencies) and promotion of officials on the basis of personal loyalty are meant to lower such risks. Second, and more important, personalist regimes usually survive as long as their leaders. It is possible the political status quo in Russia can be maintained as long as the current generation of leaders is alive. But the likelihood they will successfully transfer power to their chosen successors is statistically insignificant, and that means Russia is likely to live through another regime change, perhaps more than one. However, these changes need not necessarily take place in another quarter of a century. Indeed, the Soviet regime seemed unshakeable for a long time, and the prospects of its collapse, about whose inevitability sagacious observers warned us, were not taken seriously for years. Sooner or later, a regime change may (though not necessarily) open up new chances for democratizing Russia. The future will show whether these chances will be seized on or once again, like twenty-five years ago, they will be squandered.
Vladimir Gel’man is a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg (EUSP) and Helsinki University. See my translations of his recent articles “The Politics of Denial” and “The Vicious Circle of Bad Governance.” Translation and photo by the Russian Reader