Post-Communist Russia: A Historic Opportunity Missed by Lilia Shevtsova

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    Post-communist Russia:

    a historic opportunity missed

    International Afairs83: 5 (2007) 891912 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute o International Afairs

    LILIA SHEVTSOVA

    Russia is approaching the end o a cyclea cycle defined not just by the termo Vladimir Putins presidency, but by the act that the country has reached the

    logical endpoint o the path set or it by its two post-communist leaders, BorisYeltsin and Vladimir Putin. The goal o this article is to shed light on the nature othe current Russian system built by the two leaders, assessing its efectiveness, itssustainability and its uture trajectory.

    Consolidation of the system

    Vladimir Putin will definitely enter Russian history not as the creator but as theconsolidator o the process begun during Boris Yeltsins tenure. The first post-Soviet Russian Pesident had dismantled the old state and laid out the blueprint o

    the new one. Appointed by him, his successor finished the job, working withinthe ramework provided, and the result o their joint eforts turned out to bevery amiliar. The Russian system we see today reflects a contradiction: Russiahas moved ar away rom its past, yet in many respects it paradoxically remainsdeeply entrenched in it.1 To understand Russia today one needs to be aware o acomplicated interplay o continuity and change, in which continuity oten imitateschange discrediting the very ideas o innovation and modernization.

    Under Yeltsins and Putins leadership, the Russian political class was orcedto abandon several principles upon which the power o the state had been basedor centuries. For the first time in Russian history, the regime sought legitimacythrough elections rather than by ideology, totalitarianism or hereditary succession.The days o rallying the Russian people by both openly conronting the West asan alien and even hostile system and ofering a civilizational alternative to it werelet behind. A ree market was introduced, which weakened the states control osociety and individual alike. Finally, the Russian political elite began to learn howto live in a competitive environment. Admittedly, some backtracking on many othese developments has become evident during Putins presidency.

    What remains today o the traditional Russian way o exercising power?The elite has preserved two key elements: personalized powerand the principle o

    1 On the evolution o the Russian system under Putin, see Lilia Shevtsova, Russia lost in transition: the Yeltsin andPutin legacies (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment or International Peace, orthcoming).

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    Lilia Shevtsova

    892International Afairs 83: 5, 2007 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute o International Afairs

    indivisibility. Power remains monolithic and ocused at the top o the executivebranch o government. The Russian president is elected, but not accountable to theelectorate. Power in Russia is urther consolidated by the mingling o business andpolitics, and the economy continues to experience heavy political pressure. Stateinterests retain primacy over the interests o the individual and society. The eliteand the overwhelming majority o the population continue to see Russias globalrole and regional spheres o influence as undamental. This sentimentsharedeven by Russian liberalsis encapsulated in the term derzhavnichestvo: Russia is agreat power or it is nothing.

    Among the actors that have afected Russias recent evolution are its historicallegacy, institutional obstacles to change, and the subjective actor, that is, the roleo the leader and the ruling elite.2 In the postwar period Russias predecessor theSoviet Union was not shaken by revolutions or political and social turmoils likethose that acilitated the opening up o communist Poland, Hungary and Czecho-

    slovakia. At the crucial moment when Gorbachev threw open Russias windowsto the world in the late 1980s, Russia had neither an opposition that presented acredible alternative to the system nor pragmatists inside the ruling team capableo unctioning in a politically competitive atmosphere. No less influential is theact that Russia missed out on the period in European history when the spirit oconstitutionalism flourished. In the nineteenth century, beore European societydemocratized, the Rechtsstaat evolved, expressing the principle that the state itselshould be subject to the law. Russia missed what Ral Dahrendor has called thehour o the lawyer, thus ailing to acquire the basis o liberal constitutionalism.Without that basis Russian society could not successully move to the next stages o

    transormation, the hour o the economist and the hour o the citizen.3 Instead,Russia moved towards the system Fareed Zakaria called illiberal democracy.4

    It would be unair to overlook the serious di culties Russia aced in its trans-ormation in the 1990s. No imperial superpower with messianic pretensions hadever successully democratized. And the Russian elite needed simultaneously todemocratize a regime and orm a new statetasks that are not easy to recon-cile.5 As i that were not enough, Yeltsin and his team were orced to attemptourrevolutions at once: create a ree market, democratize the state, abolish an empireand create a non-imperial Russia, and seek a new geopolitical role or a ormernuclear superpower that had been or decades an adversary o the West. The devel-

    oped world had passed through the phases o nation-building, capitalist growth,political liberalization and democratization in sequence: Russia tried to take allthose steps in one great leap. Moreover, all successul post-communist transitions

    2 On the efects o the historical legacy on the evolution o the current Russian state, see Robert Legvold, ed.,Russian oreign policy in the twenty-first century and the shadow o the past (New York: Columbia University Press,2007); Stean Hedlund, Vladimir the Great, grand prince o Muscovy: resurrecting the Russian service state,EuropeAsia Studies 58: 5, July 2006.

    3 Ral Dahrendor, Reflections on the revolution in Europe (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), p. 79.4 Fareed Zakaria, The rise o illiberal democracy, Foreign Afairs 76: 6, NovemberDecember 1996.5 Juan Linz and Alred Stepan rightly warned that a precondition o successul democratization is a stable state:

    No stateno democracy. Juan J. Linz and Alred Stepan, Problems o democractic transition: southern Europe,South America, post-communist Europe (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 145.

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    Post-communist Russia

    893International Afairs 83: 5, 2007 2007 The Author(s). Journal Compilation 2007 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/The Royal Institute o International Afairs

    in Central and Eastern Europe began with the establishment o a new politicalsystem, whereas in Russia, everything started with the privatization o propertybeore the introduction o any independent political institutions and rule o law.

    Theoretically, a reorm-minded leadership and a socially responsible elitein Russia might have compensated or the lack o some o the prerequisites ordemocratic transormation. This is what occurred in Central and Eastern Europe,proving that Giuseppe di Palma and Juan Linz were right to predict that efectiveleadership and political engineering can compensate or the absence o some othe conditions or a successul transition.6 This did not occur in Russia, however.Communism collapsed at a time when the Russian elite had no vision o a newsystem. Even liberals and democrats in the 1990s were not up to the challenge ocreating a liberal political system, preerring instead to rely on Yeltsin.

    Alas, Yeltsin was neither a Russian Surez nor a Russian Havel. The firstPresident o Russia may go down in history as the leader who missed a chance to

    transorm his countryand apparently did not even understand what a chance hehad missed. During his tenure, Russians began to enjoy unprecedented reedoms(although these reedoms were more the work o Gorbachev); but beore long,while Yeltsin was still in o ce, Russia began slipping backwards, having ailedto cope with its newound reedom. It was Yeltsin who handed over power tohis avourites and enabled cliques to help themselves to state property. It wasYeltsin who adopted (and even edited) the authoritarian constitution that createda ramework or the electoral monarchy. It was Yeltsin who, by ailing to copewith the deepening crisis and paralysis o power, provoked among Russians thelonging or order and an iron hand. It is paradoxical that the degeneration o

    Yeltsins leadership strengthened demands, not or independent institutions thatcould prevent urther abuses o power, but or a new and more powerul authori-tarian leadership. Putin has merely ollowed the path laid out by his predecessor.Ironically, in the eyes o society he became Yeltsins antidote and antithesis, whilein reality he guaranteed the continuity o the system his predecessor had begunto establish.

    The second and third waves o democratization in Europe showed thatintegrating transitional societies into the European community was an importantactor in ensuring the success o their democratic reorms. Such integration provedimpossible in Russias case. Europe was having di culty digesting East Germany

    and was unwilling to engage in urther sel-sacrifice. Post-communist Russia, orits part, having begun to build a new state, could not aford to surrender sover-eignty to supranational institutions.

    The post-Soviet system bequeathed to Russia by Ye