- Where Is Russia Headed?Toward Stability or Crisis?
It is undeniable that many aspects of Russian political life have changed since the Soviet Union was dismantled. During the past five years, a Russian president and legislature have been popularly, and unproblematically, elected. More significantly, a program of political liberalization has been so successfully—albeit perhaps not intentionally—sustained that many new players have emerged as claimants to power in national and regional politics. Although some think that these trends bode well for continued steady progress toward democracy and the market, many others have forecast long-term catastrophic social and political upheavals resulting from Russia’s transition. Recent infighting in the Kremlin and fears that ailing president Boris Yeltsin will not finish his second term have only heightened concerns that disorder is on the horizon.
Strangely enough, neither the shock of Gorbachev’s liberalization campaign 1 nor the disruptive five years following the breakup of the Soviet Union have been enough to provoke protracted instability in Russia. It is true that rapid and far-reaching change is inherently destabilizing. But it is also obvious that Russia has largely been spared devastating turmoil. Why is this true, and for how long will the situation continue? And what does this mean for Russia’s further steps toward liberalization?
The answer that we propose here is simple and may, for optimists, be disappointing. Despite its stunning evolution, Russian political life [End Page 12] has not really been dramatically transformed. Indeed, just beneath the surface of what is being cast as one of history’s most remarkable transitions is an enduring inheritance from the past—old structures, networks, practices, personnel, and modes of interaction—that affects, and in some instances seriously impedes, the development of new institutions. Inherited structures and practices from the Soviet period are not likely to break down in the short run. That is probably not the best news for those who are eager to see Russia move more steadily and quickly forward along a path of political and economic reform. On the positive side, however, despite all the surface commotion, this type of evolution has been responsible for—and will likely continue to produce—the stability, albeit fragile, that has accompanied Russia’s great transformation.
At first glance, Russia appears to have come a long way in its struggle to break with its totalitarian past. First, political life is now marked by a plurality of views and actors. This development is surely bolstered by the increasingly widespread appreciation for political competition, the clash of ideas, and open debate, which, in itself, represents a substantial achievement. 2 Second, opposition movements are proliferating and now seem to be well entrenched as permanent features on Russia’s political landscape. They are free to criticize government policies and officials (although not yet with complete impunity); they have the right to participate in elections; and they even dominate the Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament. Finally, the Russian elite now seems to be firmly committed to elections as a means to effect its own renewal. This is one of the most extraordinary developments in Russian politics. Indeed, Yeltsin defied repeated predictions that both the parliamentary and presidential elections in 1995 and 1996, respectively, would be canceled because he feared that the Communist Party would trounce him and his allies. Moreover, as of the time of this writing, there has not been a single word from the Office of the President about canceling regional elections set for autumn 1996, despite some forecasts that opposition groups will fare exceptionally well and thereby regain a strong foothold in national politics. 3
In other areas as well, Russia evinces signs of a striking metamorphosis toward increased liberalism. On the economic front, there are some who believe that Russia has broken the stranglehold of centralized planning and irreversibly crossed the threshold to a market-governed economy. 4 While they are probably unduly optimistic, it is impossible to deny that competition among private interests is beginning to drive economic relations. Like their counterparts in Western liberal democracies, these interests lobby government officials for influence and advantage. Although still cast in a mostly...