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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 19-33
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Russia Under Putin
One Step Forward, Two steps back
Russia's March 2000 presidential election represents one step forward and two steps back for Russian democracy. For the first time in Russia's history, power within the Kremlin has changed hands through an electoral process. The election not only took place but was conducted as constitutionally prescribed, no small achievement for a country with Russia's authoritarian history. More than two-thirds of the eligible voters participated, and they appeared to make informed choices among a range of candidates who offered competing platforms, policies, and leadership styles. The election, however, was not contested on a level playing field. The winner, acting president Vladimir Putin, enjoyed tremendous advantages that tainted the process. Although weak in some arenas, the Russian state still enjoys too much power with respect to the electoral process, while nongovernmental forces--political parties, civic organizations, trade unions, and independent business groups--remain too weak to shape the outcomes of elections.
Does this latest election represent a fundamental turn away from democratic practices or merely a temporary setback for democratic consolidation in Russia? It is too early to tell. Putin may turn out to be Russia's Milosevic. Or he may develop into a weak leader presiding over a feudal order, dominated by oligarchs and regional barons, in which the people have little say. Yet it is also possible that he will lead Russia out of its chaotic, revolutionary, and anarchic recent past into a more stable decade of economic growth and political stability--and economic growth and political stability can help consolidate democratic institutions. Thus far, Putin has provided mixed signals about the direction in which he wants to take Russia and has demonstrated a real indifference to [End Page 19] democracy. Consequently, the only honest assessment to be made at this stage is that democracy in Russia is not lost, but its future remains uncertain.
Why Putin Won
The first step in coming to grips with post-Yeltsin Russia is to understand why Putin won. The election reveals much about the evolution of Russia's political system and the mood of Russian society.
The simple explanation goes like this: Putin was chosen by Yeltsin and his band of oligarchs as a loyal successor who would keep them out of jail and preserve the existing system of oligarchic capitalism, in which oligarchs make money not by producing or selling goods and services but by stealing from the state. To boost Putin's popularity in order to get him elected, they had to provoke a war with Chechnya. Some assert that this cabal was even responsible for blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere last fall--crimes that were attributed to Chechen terrorists--as a way to bolster support for the war and Putin. This "popular" war, however, could sustain Putin only for so long. Therefore Yeltsin resigned on 31 December 1999 to allow the presidential election to take place three months earlier. As acting president, Putin had at his disposal all the resources of the Russian state, which he wielded to win a convincing election victory.
There is much truth to this simple account, but it is only part of the story. To see the fuller picture, one must reexamine the role of the war in Chechnya and bring other actors into the analysis, including the voters and the other presidential candidates.
1) The Chechen war. Why do we always think that the people in the Kremlin are so smart and everyone else in Russia is so dumb? In the summer of 1999, no one believed that a quick little war with the Chechens would be the formula for delivering electoral success the following year. On the contrary, when Yeltsin ordered the Russian military to respond to the Chechen incursion into Dagestan in August 1999, most electoral analysts in Russia thought that the counteroffensive would result in another unpopular military debacle. 1 If the entire event was staged to assist Putin's electoral prospects, then Shamil Basaev--the Chechen commander...