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Journal of Democracy 12.4 (2001) 71-78

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Ten Years After the Soviet Breakup

Putin's Path

M. Steven Fish

Over the past decade, the lands of the former USSR have followed diverse trajectories with respect to democratization. The Baltic states established robust democratic regimes. Georgia and Moldova entered the postcommunist period under conditions of chaos and authoritarianism, but thereafter moved toward more democratic and stable politics. Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Kyrgyzstan experienced substantial openings but subsequently reverted to despotism. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan slid directly from Soviet rule to sultanism, with personalist dictatorships quickly replacing the rule of the communist party. Russia, Ukraine, and Armenia, following antiauthoritarian breakthroughs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, gradually drifted back toward political closure, albeit without the unequivocal consolidation of authoritarian rule witnessed in Belarus and Central Asia.

In Russia, by far the region's dominant country, a political transformation has been under way since Vladimir Putin's ascension to power at the beginning of 2000. After the paralysis of Boris Yeltsin's second presidential term, Russian politics has again become dynamic and extraordinarily interesting. Although Putin's path is usually portrayed in the West either as a continuation of the Yeltsin era's erosion of democratic advances or as a rush back to hard authoritarianism, its effects may prove to be mixed and complex. Some changes are indubitably reversing previous democratic gains, but others may advance democratization. [End Page 71]

Putin's political project stands on four pillars: centralizing state power, formulating a practical ideology, restoring state control of communication, and structuring political competition.

Recentralizing state power is the centerpiece of the Putin agenda. Decentralization, in a form that granted various territorial entities of the Russian Federation dissimilar rights and obligations, was a hallmark of the Yeltsin era. From the beginning of his political ascent, Putin made clear his intention to reestablish Moscow's supremacy and to humble the regional barons who had profited most from the policies of the previous administration.

Many Western observers hold that Putin's effort has already failed. After a decade of watching power flow from the center to the regions, many leading experts on Russian subnational politics doubt that measures such as the creation of "supergovernors" to supervise the new "super-regions" have any chance of reestablishing Moscow's primacy.

Yet this conventional wisdom lags behind events. St. Petersburg is now under virtually direct rule by the presidential administration. City governor Vladimir Yakovlev, whom Putin despises (or used to despise), has wisely decided that serving Putin with exquisite solicitousness is vastly preferable to resisting him. Even Yuri Luzhkov, the once-invincible mayor of Moscow, has begun to show great deference. Putin's successful effort to rid Primorskiy kray (the Maritime Province) of its gangster of a governor, Yevgeni Nazdratenko, represented a spectacular reassertion of central authority. Observers who are not impressed emphasize that the price of Nazdratenko's peaceful resignation was his receiving a top post in the fisheries ministry. But bringing Nazdratenko to Moscow, where he can be monitored and hemmed in, actually represents a remarkable step toward recentralization.

Nazdratenko's fate has not eluded the notice of other regional leaders, most of whom prefer their baronies to the fisheries ministry. Governors and republican presidents have striven to cultivate good relations with the "supergovernors" whom Putin has placed above them and with the provincial-level "inspectors" whom he has installed beside them. Putin's intimate personal control over the agencies of state security--an asset Yeltsin lacked--has enabled him to launch his bid for recentralization forcefully but quietly.

If some recentralizing is actually taking place, as I argue it is, how might it influence democratization? Prima facie, its effect would seem wholly negative. Democratic theory usually places local and provincial self-government at the heart of democratic practice. In the early post-Soviet years, knowledgeable and well-intentioned Western experts emphasized the need for a massive devolution of power. Given the dysfunctional hypercentralization of the Soviet regime, moving government closer to the governed seemed to make good sense.

What is more, the Russian government's most brutal and potentially [End...