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Journal of Democracy 11.3 (2000) 36-38
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Russia Under Putin
Can Electoral Autocracy Survive?
Comments On "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"
In his article, Michael McFaul offers a brilliant analysis of the change of government in Russia in 1999-2000 and the role of elections in bringing the Yeltsin era to a close. I will try to take his conclusions as a point of departure for my own reflections on the "dead end" that the Russian transformation appears to have reached.
In the course of his presidency, Yeltsin not only failed to consolidate democracy in postcommunist Russia but did little to ensure that the [End Page 36] country would continue along the democratic path in the future. The main reason for this failure was the inability, not just of Yeltsin, but of Russian society as a whole to resolve the problem of choosing a civilizational model. After the fall of communism in 1991, the alternative identity that Russia had tried to establish over the centuries--on the basis of Russian messianism, Russia's claims to be a major geopolitical power center, and its unique history--had exhausted itself. At the same time, however, Russia lacked the political will and the cultural and other prerequisites to achieve its inclusion into Western civilization. As a result, Russia found itself in a condition of ambivalence and uncertainty.
The political regime that Yeltsin left as his legacy, which can be provisionally defined as a constitutional electoral autocracy, is a reflection of this condition. This regime is marked by a constant conflict between a democratically elected and legitimated government and a leader whose powers are authoritarian in their scope. 1 The Russian presidency has a monarchical character, reflected in the ruling class's desire to maintain its position by appointing an "heir," the weak separation of powers, and the reliance on personalistic leadership rather than democratic institutions. Yeltsin's political legacy is unique not just in combining democracy with oligarchic authoritarianism but also in bequeathing a regime that is impossible to consolidate, because doing so would deprive the Leader-Arbiter of the maneuvering room that is essential for the regime's survival. 2
A constitutional electoral autocracy faces its gravest challenge when the government changes hands. The 1999-2000 elections, as McFaul justly points out, demonstrated Russian society's ability to resolve this problem democratically at the ballot box. Yet it is also important to note that the elections were a legitimation after the fact of a choice that the ruling class had already made on its own by designating a successor to Yeltsin and by neutralizing any opponents who could compete with him in the elections. In other words, we are talking about the legitimation of autocracy. To resolve this problem, the Yeltsin regime was forced to resort to Soviet-style tactics, launching the war in Chechnya as a means of whipping up wartime patriotic sentiments and consolidating society around the hatred of a common enemy. Moreover, the regime's use of elections to resolve the succession problem does not mean that, after the elections, it will feel any need to take responsibility before society for the results of its actions. Thus the regime faces the constant threat of losing the democratic legitimacy that it receives in the course of elections.
The new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, came to power as an Arbiter-Stabilizer, whom the political class expects to uphold the rules of the game introduced by Yeltsin. For the time being, Putin is trying to make this hybrid regime more effective by strengthening the executive vertikal. (This term is used in Russia to describe a system of strong executive power supported by presidential appointments of loyal [End Page 37] supporters to leading positions at all levels and frequent resort to presidential decree.) There are no influential forces in society seeking to induce him to move toward a deepening of the liberal-democratic model. This gives rise to questions to which there are as yet no answers: To what degree can an electoral autocracy be stabilized? Is this regime a temporary formation? And...