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  • What Went Wrong in Russia?The Perils of a Protracted Transition
  • Michael McFaul (bio)

On 17 August 1998, the Russian government took emergency measures to avert an economic meltdown, but these did little to halt the crisis. A week later, the ruble had lost two-thirds of its value vis-’a-vis the dollar. In one day, the two major economic achievements of the Boris Yeltsin era—control of inflation and a stable, transferable currency—were wiped out. The stock market all but disappeared, the ruble continued to fall, banks closed, prices soared, and stores emptied as people started to stockpile durable goods like cigarettes, sugar, and flour. Responding desperately to a desperate situation, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko and his government and eventually nominated Yevgeny Primakov to head a coalition government of centrists, communists, liberals, and even one member from Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party. Several months after taking power, however, this new government had done little to devise a strategy for halting Russia’s economic woes.

Many predicted that political breakdown would soon follow. Throughout the summer, and especially after the assassination of democratic leader Galina Starovoitova in November 1998, the Weimar metaphor surfaced in every discussion of Russia’s future. The threat of dissolution of the Russian Federation also loomed as a possible nightmare scenario, as regional leaders began to respond to the economic crisis with little regard for national laws or national interests.

To date, however, the more surprising story is how resilient Russia’s political system has proven to be. It has absorbed the shock of economic meltdown and survived. Although Russian political leaders flirted with extraconstitutional measures, they have so far generally [End Page 4] abided by the constitutional process in seeking solutions to the economic crisis. Most importantly, Russian political actors have followed the rules of the game in dismissing one government and selecting another. In the process, a de facto shift of power has occurred, with the president becoming weaker and the government and the two houses of parliament—the Federation Council and the State Duma—assuming greater responsibility for governing. This ability to adapt to new political situations underscores the system’s endurance. When put to the test, Russia’s nascent democratic system did not collapse.

In earlier crises in August 1991 and October 1993, institutions broke down, political actors used brute force to pursue their ends, and military confrontation ensued. Why has this latest crisis not produced a similar outcome?

Violence or extraconstitutional measures were not pursued because Russia is what Larry Diamond defines as an electoral democracy: “a civilian, constitutional system in which the legislative and chief executive offices are filled through regular, competitive, multiparty elections with universal suffrage.”1 Since 1993, when forces with alternative ideas for organizing the Russian state exhausted themselves, all Russia’s major political actors have committed themselves to the rules of electoral democracy for lack of a better alternative. The very existence of these rules and the adherence to them over time have helped to sustain the current institutional order. As the latest crisis demonstrated, these political institutions do not simply reflect the immediate interests of the powerful, but have an autonomous influence on Russian political life.

This does not mean, however, that Russia is a liberal democracy.2 On the contrary, the consequences of Russia’s transition have been dire for liberal democracy. Pluralist institutions of interest intermediation are weak; mass-based interest groups are marginal; and the institutions that could help redress this imbalance—such as a strong parliament, an effective party system, or an independent judiciary—still do not exist. These shortcomings leave Russia’s democratic system vulnerable to future challenges. This vulnerability, however, is not a permanent condition resulting from long-term historical or cultural forces, but a product of Russia’s protracted, confrontational, and imposed transition.

A Long Process

If it is accepted that Russia’s transition to democracy began in the mid-Gorbachev years, it is one of the longest in recent history. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan define a successfully completed democratic transition as the moment when “sufficient agreement has been reached about political procedures to produce an elected government, when a government comes...

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