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Johnson's Russia List


April 14, 2000    
This Date's Issues: 4247 ē 4248 ē 4249

Johnson's Russia List
14 April 2000


Testimony of
Michael McFaul (
Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
"Russia's 2000 Presidential Elections: Implications for Russian Democracy
and U.S.-Russian Relations"
Committee on Foreign Relations
United States Senate
April 12, 2000

In all democracies around the world, national elections generate important
data about the condition of the political system and the concerns, hopes,
and beliefs of society. In new democracies such as Russia, national
elections are even more important as they provide crucial measures of
democratic consolidation or the lack thereof. 

Russiaís latest presidential election, completed on March 26, 2000,
represented one step forward and two steps backward for Russian democracy.
For the first time in Russia's history, power within the Kremlin changed
hands through an electoral process. The election did occur and was
conducted as prescribed by the constitution. More than two-thirds of the
eligible voters participated, and they appeared to make informed choices
between a range of candidates who offered alternative platforms, policies,
and leadership styles. The differences between presidential candidates
Vladimir Putin, Gennady Zyuganov, and Grigory Yavlinsky, were real and the
Russian voter judging by my own research using polls and focus groups
appeared to know the difference. At the same time, this election did not
occur on a level playing field. Vladimir Putin enjoyed tremendous resources
advantages that tainted the process. Although weak in some arenas, the
Russian state still enjoys too much power regarding the electoral process,
while societal organizations -- political parties, civic organizations,
trade unions, and independent business groups -- remain too weak to shape
the outcomes of elections. 

Does this recent election represent a fundamental turn away from democratic
practices or a temporary setback for democratic consolidation in Russia?
It is too early to tell. However, prematurely answering this question in
either the affirmative or the negative will most certainly generate
distortions of analysis and bad policy. Putin may turn out to be Russia's
Milosevic. 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. But he may also lead Russia out of its chaotic, revolutionary, and
anarchic recent past and into a more stable decade of economic growth and
political stability. So far, he has provided mixed signals on which
direction he wants to take Russia. 

During this uncertain time in Russia, the task before U.S. foreign
policymakers is to remain true to our principles and defend our national
security interests which, in my opinion, includes the development of
democracy in Russia. Unfortunately, this will be a difficult task in the
next few years since Russian leaders will continue to send mixed signals.
To fully embrace Putin is foolhardy. To fully reject the new president of
Russia is equally shortsighted. U.S. foreign policymakers must be prepared
to respond to positive steps initiated from the Kremlin but also react
against negative developments as they occur. 

To demonstrate why Russian democracy is alive but not well and then
outline U.S. policy recommendations for addressing this situation within
Russia, this testimony proceeds in four parts. Section one explains why
Putin won. Section two suggests what Putin's electoral victory might mean
for Russian policy. Section three discusses the implications of this
recent electoral cycle for Russian democracy. Section four outlines a set
of policy prescriptions for the United States that follow from the analysis
of the first three sections of this testimony. 

I. Why Putin Won.

The first step in coming to grips with a post-Yeltsin Russia is to
understand why Putin won the March 2000 presidential election. The
election reveals much about the evolution of Russia's political system and
the mood of Russian society. 

The simple story for why Putin won is the following. Putin was chosen by
Yeltsin and his band of oligarchs as a loyal successor, who would (1) keep
them out of jail, and (2) preserve the basic system of oligarchic
capitalism, in which oligarchs make money not by producing goods and
services sold for a profit in the market, but by stealing from the state.
To get him elected, they had to provoke a war with Chechnya as a way to
boost Putinís popularity. Some assert that this cabal even blew up
apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere last fall, and murdered
innocent Russian citizens as a way to bolster support for the war and
Putin. The ďpopularĒ war, however, could only sustain Putin for so long.
Therefore, Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999 to allow the presidential
election to happen in March instead of June. As acting president, Putin
had at his disposal all the resources of the Russian state, which he
wielded convincingly to run away with election victory.

There is much truth to this simple account. Yet, to know the rest of the
story, one has to question the genius of the Kremlin and the folly of the
Chechens as well as bring others actors into the analysis, including first
and foremost the voters and the other presidential candidates. 

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 to deliver
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
counter offensive would result in another unpopular military debacle. If
the entire event was staged to assist Putinís electoral prospects, then
Shamil Basaev -- the Chechen commander who lead the military intervention
in Dagestan to free the people of Dagestan from Russian imperialism -- must
either be a traitor or a fool. Basaev, it should be remembered, is the
same Chechen commander who managed to seize a Russian hospital in southern
Russia in the August 1995, killed hundreds of Russians citizens, and then
escaped. His record in the field suggests that he is neither a traitor nor
a fool.

However, he did overestimate the anti-imperial sentiment in Dagestan and
underestimate the resolve of the Russian state to respond. As Prime
Minister and with the blessing of Boris Yeltsin, Putin acted decisively.
Everyone who has discussed the Chechen war with Putin personally will tell
you that Russia's new president expresses real passion about his resolve
"destroy the Chechen terrorists." For the first time since 1941, a
military force invaded Russia last summer. To argue that the Russian
military response to this incursion was motivated solely by electoral
calculations, therefore, is inaccurate. Any responsible leader of any
country would have responded (though not, of course, using the similar
inhumane means that the Russian military has deployed). Terrorist attacks
on apartments buildings in Moscow and elsewhere shortly after the invasion
heightened the feeling of a nation under siege within the Russian
population. Society demanded a response from its leaders and Putin

What was different about this particular response was its "success" or
appearance of success. In the first Chechen war, Russian forces appeared
to be losing the war right away, in part because they performed so
miserably and in part because the rational for the war was not embraced by
either the Russian army or the population as a whole. An independent media,
lead by the national television network NTV, reported on military setbacks
and continued to question the purposes of the war. After several months of
fighting, a solid majority in Russia did not support the war. Compelled by
electoral concerns, Yeltsin called for a cease-fire in April 1996 and then
allowed his envoy, Aleksandr Lebed, to broker a temporary settlement with
the Chechen government. The second war started under very different
circumstances. First, the Russian military and the Russian people believed
that the rationale for the war was self-defense. A majority of Russian
citizens supported the counter offensive from the very beginning and have
continued to support the invasion of Chechnya throughout the military
campaign. Second, the Russian army used different tactics in this campaign
relying on air power to a much greater extent than the first war. The
complete demolition of Grozny is the gruesome result of this change in
tactics. Third, the media coverage of the war within Russia has been much
less critical of both the military tactics and the political rational. The
Russian state has exercised a greater degree of control on the media's
coverage of this war, while at the same time learned the value of
conducting a propaganda war on the airwaves to help sustain a military
offensive on the ground. Over time, NTV has become more critical of the
war aims and the means deployed, but only lately and not nearly to the same
degree as in the last war. All other major media outlets firmly support
the Kremlin's position. 
Consequently, this second Chechen war has been a popular war in Russia.
Public support has remained steady at roughly 60 percent throughout the war
and has not wavered, as many predicted, when Russian casualties increased.
Without question, this popular support for the war translated into positive
ratings for Putin as a political leader. Opinion polls conducted in the
fall of 1999 demonstrated that people were most obliged to Putin for
accepting responsibility for the security of the Russian people. He looked
like a leader at the top who was taking charge during an uncertain,
insecure time and then delivered on his promise to provide stability and
security. By the end of 1999, he enjoyed an astonishing 72 percent
approval rating. 

A Vote for the Future, not the Past

Putin's decisive response to the sense of insecurity that prevailed in
Russia in the fall is the reason why he initially rose in the polls.
However, Putin's policy in Chechnya is not the only reason why Putin
maintained a positive approval rating throughout the spring of this year.
In fact, our polls of Russian voters in December 1999-January 2000 showed
that 28 percent of those planning to vote for Putin believed that Chechnya
should be allowed to leave the Russian Federation, while roughly the same
number of his supporters --35 percent --believed that Russia should keep
Chechnya at all costs. This distribution of opinions roughly reflects the
distribution of opinions on this question among all Russians. Therefore,
Putin's execution of the Chechen war is not the only reason why Russian
voters supported him. Other factors -- more psychological than material in
nature -- also came into play.

First, Putin symbolized for voters the end of revolution. For the first
several years of the last decade, Russian politics were polarized by the
struggle between communists and anti-communists. Unlike the more
successful transitions from communist rule in Poland or Hungary, the debate
about communism as a political and economic system continued in Russia for
many years after the Soviet collapse. A period of volatile and
unpredictable politics resulted. In his last years of power, Yeltsin
further fueled political instability by constantly changing prime
ministers. Putin's coming to power signaled for many an end to this
volatile period -- the Thermidor of Russia's current revolution. Coined
during the French revolution, the Thermidor of any revolution marks the
cooling off of the revolutionary fever and the beginning of a period when
old institutions are revived and melded into the new practices of the
post-revolutionary order. Thermidor is also the moment in a revolutionary
transition when the state becomes stronger and nationalism replaces the
more idealistic slogans of the earlier revolutionary period. The parallels
between contemporary Russia and the periods of Thermidor in other great
revolutions are striking. 

His youth and energy also punctuated the end of an old and sick ruler at
the top. The voters welcomed this generational change. In focus groups
that I commissioned in December 1999 and March 2000, Russian voters
uniformly stated that Putin's youth was a positive attribute. For many in
Russia, Putin's rise to power ironically reminds them of Gorbachev rise to

Second, Putin's lack of a record as a public leader allowed voters to
project onto Putin their wishes and desires for the future. With the
exception of policy towards Chechnya, he was a tabula rasa onto which
voters could write what they wanted. In focus groups that I commissioned
on the eve of the March 2000, participants generated a long and diverse
list of expectations they had about Russia's future under Putin's
leadership. The list included everything from order in Chechnya, respect
for Russia on the international stage, and a crackdown on crime to higher
pensions, a better educational system, and more job opportunities for young
people. In other words, supporters were casting their votes for Putin as a
future leader, and were not supporting him for his past achievements, his
ideological beliefs, or his policy positions. Putin and his campaign
managers understood this mood in the Russian electorate and as an explicit
campaign strategy deliberately refrained from articulating a program or set
of policies before the election. To do so would have alienated a part of
Putin's rather eclectic electoral base. 

This electoral motivation is radically different than what we witnessed
among supporters of Yeltsin in 1996. In that election, voters knew exactly
what they were getting with Yeltsin and had no illusions about a more
promising future. Yeltsin won 54 percent of the vote in the second round
of the 1996 election even though his approval rating was 29 percent at the
time. In 1996, people were voting against communism, supporting the lesser
of two evils. In 2000, Putin supporters have a much more positive
assessment of their leaders and are much more optimistic about the future.
They were more motivated by this emotional feeling about the future and
less motivated by individual material interests, ideological beliefs, or
party identification. For instance, when asked in a January 2000 poll,
about their attitudes about Russia's political future, 41 percent of
respondents believed that the new year would be an improvement over the
last year, while only 9 percent believed that the political situation would
worsen. Likewise, regarding the economic situation in the country, 39
percent believed that the economy would improve in 2000 while only 12
percent believed that the economy would worsen. The last time that
Russians were so optimistic about the future was the fall of 1991. 

Strikingly, Putin's support was national in scope and not influenced by age
or even income level. He did just as well in rural areas as urban areas
and won as many votes from poor as he captured from the rich. Amazingly,
he won the most votes in 84 out of 89 regions. Communist leader Gennady
Zyuganov, his chief opponent, won in only 4 regions, while Aman Tuleev
received the highest number of votes in the region where he is governor,
Kemerovo Oblast. In contrast, Zyuganov placed first in 25 regions in the
second round of the 1996 presidential vote. 

The Absence of an Effective Opposition

In addition to Chechnya and this psychological yearning for a better future
within the Russian electorate, a third important reason why Putin won was
the weak competition he faced. Often forgotten in analyses of Russian
politics, the real story of the 1990s is not how clever the Kremlin has
been, but how ineffective the opponents of the Kremlin have performed. The
Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has continued to dominate
the space of opposition parties in Russian electoral politics and yet this
party has not generated new leaders or a new image. To be sure, Zyuganov
tried to look and sound more modern for several specific audiences, and
even appeared on a campaign poster with young people. So far, however, the
makeover has not succeeded. The contrast between the modern,
Western-oriented, and young leader of the left in Poland, Mr. Kwasniewski,
and the traditional, anti-Western, and old leader of the left in Russia,
Mr. Zyuganov, could not be more striking.

Years ago, well before we had even heard of Vladimir Putin, all experts on
Russian electoral dynamics knew that whoever emerged as the candidate of
the "party of power" would win the 2000 election. The reasoning is simple
when one remembers the solid and consistent electorate support for Zyuganov
and Russia's two-ballot electoral system. Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the
CPRF, was assured a second place showing and possibly a first place showing
in the first round no matter who ran against him in this presidential
election. His voters have consistently supported him and his party for the
last decade. There was no reason to believe that they would not support
him in this election. At the same time, polls also have showed for years
that Zyuganov would lose to almost everyone in a run-off. The only
presidential contender he could beat was Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
Consequently, Putin and his associates were eager to see Zyuganov and the
CPRF do well in the parliamentary vote to insure that he would participate
in the presidential election. 

We also knew that Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the liberal opposition in
Russia and the party head of Yabloko, would run for president in 2000. Yet,
no serious analyst ever believed that Yavlinsky stood a chance of getting
into a second round. Like Zyuganov, Yavlinsky also has his loyal
electorate, but his core of supporters has never exceeded more than 5
percent of the voting electorate. 

The only real question, then, was who would emerge from the so-called party
of power. Two years ago, Moscow major Yurii Luzhkov looked poised to assume
this mantle. Then last year, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov
emerged as a more likely candidate, especially after the extremely
unpopular Boris Yeltsin fired him as prime minister. Primakov's popularity
soared and many regional leaders and part of the Moscow elite rallied to
his cause. As a symbol of stability in a time of uncertainty, Primakov
skyrocketed in the polls. Having navigated Russiaís out of a financial
crisis that began in August 1998, Primakov earned a reputation as a
pragmatist who would chart a slow, ďcentristĒ reform course somewhere
between radical reform and communist restoration. He originally joined the
Fatherland-All Russia electoral bloc as a means to jump-start his
presidential bid and as a strategy for building parliamentary support for
his presidency. 

These plans proved premature. In fact, Primakovís participation in the
parliamentary election exacted real damage to his prospects as a
presidential candidate. During the fall campaign, the Kremlinís media
empire launched a full-scale negative campaign against Primakov and his
bloc. With varying degrees of truth and evidence, the Kremlinís media
accused the former prime minister of being a feeble invalid, a lackey of
NATO, a Chechen sympathiser, a closet communist, and a destabilizing force
in international affairs who had ordered the assassination attempt against
Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. This smear campaign, in
combination with Putinís spectacular rise in popularity, helped to
undermine popular support for Fatherland-All Russia. They won only 12
percent of the popular vote, while the Putin-endorsed Unity bloc won 24

In effect, the parliamentary vote served as a presidential primary for the
party of power. Primakov lost this primary and pulled out of the
presidential race. 

With Primakov out of the race, there was never any question that Putin
would win the presidential election. The only real question was whether
Putin could win more than fifty percent the first round and avoid a
run-off. He did, capturing 52.9 percent of the vote in the first round
compared to Zyuganov's 29.2 percent. 

The Early Election

The final critical factor to Putin's electoral success was the early date
of the election. Be resigning on December 31, 1999 and thereby moving the
electoral calendar forward three months, Yeltsin delivered to Putin the
most important campaign present of all. According to Putin's own advisors,
his popularity peaked in mid-January when 55 million eligible voters were
prepared to vote for him. On election day on March 26, 2000, only forty
million voters cast their ballot for the acting president. In other words,
Putin lost the support of five million voters every month between January
and March. Putin campaign strategy of no campaign was only viable in a
short-campaign season. If the vote had occurred in June, Putin most
certainly would have faced a run-off. 

The Insignificance of the Campaign Itself

This rapid decline in support suggests that the tremendous television
coverage that Putin received during this period as acting president did not
bolster his electoral prospects. Nor, however, did Yavlinsky's massive
media campaign increase his electoral support. At the same time, Zyuganov
devoted very few resources to television and yet managed to capture thirty
percent of the electorate. In other words, there appeared to be little
correlation between money and television time on the one hand and electoral
performance on the other. 

Winners and Losers

Putin was the obvious winner of this election. As in all presidential
systems, he will now serve for a fixed four-year term. The ebbs and flows
of his popular approval rating will matter very little for the next three
years. The fact that he won by only a few percentage points also will fade
in importance over time. 

Putinís small margin of victory, however, does have a few immediate
implications as well as other more intangible psychological effects.
Because Putin just squeaked by in the first round, he and his team are much
less likely to dissolve the Duma and call for new parliamentary elections
anytime soon. In the wake of the strong showing for the pro-Putin Unity
bloc in the December 1999 vote and Putinís skyrocketing support earlier in
the year, some of his allies, including the new leaders of the Unity bloc,
had called for new elections for the Duma immediately after the
presidential vote. They believed that Unity could win an even larger share
of the parliamentary seats after Putinís election. Now, however, such a
move is unlikely since most now believe that a new parliamentary vote would
yield basically the same result as last December. This is a positive
outcome, which will result in stable executive-legislative relations for
the foreseeable future. 

Putin small margin of victory is also likely to make him more cautious in
taking steps against those who helped him win. Before the election, for
instance, Putinís advisors spoke brashly about removing "difficult"
governors from office. With this smaller mandate, Putin is now less likely
to move aggressively against regional leaders. He must tread especially
lightly in those places where regional leaders probably falsified the
results to help push Putin over the 50 percent threshold. If Putin strikes
out against these regional leaders, they might be tempted to expose their
falsification efforts, which in turn could call into question the
legitimacy of the election results more generally. For the same reasons,
Putin might now be more cautious about taking actions against the
oligarchs, especially those that helped him win. He is also less likely to
pursue constitutional amendments such as extending the presidential term to
seven years. More generally, Putin does not start his first elected term
with the same momentum that he would have had with a more decisive victory.

Gennady Zyuganov and the CPRF must be satisfied with their performance in
the first round, even if they were unable to force a second round. Citing
the results of their own parallel vote count, CPRF officials claim that the
result were falsified and that Putin did not win 50 percent in the first
round. However, they have not pursued this issue vigorously. Many believe
that they are not pursuing a court investigation of the election results
because Zyuganov believes that the CPRF can cooperate with Putin in forming
a coalition government. Communist leaders assert that Zyuganovís showing
gives them a mandate to participate in the new government. On election
night, Putin made very conciliatory comments about Zyuganov and the
communists, reflecting that their strong showing demonstrates that many
Russian citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo. Boris Yeltsin would
have never made such a comment on election night.

Putin, however, is not likely to include communists in major positions in
his new government. He understands the importance of creating an
ideologically unified team. At the same time, he is likely to continue to
consult and cooperate with the communists on a whole range of issues where
they hold similar positions. And this list is long, and includes
continuing the war in Chechnya, greater support for the military industrial
complex and intelligence services, and the building of a stronger state.
More generally, Putin is much more of a nationalist than Yeltsin and
therefore shares the worldview of many prominent CPRF leaders.

For Zyuganov personally, his strong showing five points above what the
CPRF won just three months earlier in the parliamentary vote insures that
he will remain the leader of the CPRF for the foreseeable future. The
Kremlin had backed Aman Tuleev, hoping that the popular Siberian governor
might win a large portion of the communist and protest vote and therefore
weaken the lock of the CPRF on this part of the electorate. Outside of
Kemerovo, however, support for Tuleev was minimal. 

Russiaís liberals suffered a major setback in this presidential election.
The Union of Right Forces (SPS) -- a coalition of liberals 
headed by former prime ministers Sergei Kiryenko and Yegor Gaidar, former
deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, and a handful of
other prominent figures such as Samara governor Konstantin Titov and
businesswomen Irina Kakamada emerge from the December 1999 parliamentary
vote with real momentum. To the surprise of everyone, they placed fourth
in this election, winning 8.5 percent of the popular vote. Importantly,
they surpassed the total of their rival, Yabloko, by new more than two
percentage points. For many, their smashing electoral victory marked the
rebirth of Russian liberalism. However, they then squandered this momentum
by demonstrating indecision in the presidential election. SPS failed to
endorse a presidential candidate, even though one of its founding members,
Governor Titov, was on the ballot. Some, such as Kiryenko and Chubais,
backed Putin while others wavered. In the end, SPS had no impact on the
presidential vote.

Yavlinsky, however, fared no better. In this presidential vote, Yavlinsky
was flush with money. Without question, he spent more on his campaign than
any other candidate. He also enjoyed access to all major television
networks. He did endure some slanderous attacks from ORT, the largest
television network, only days before the vote. But, few experts believed
that these attacks had any effect. By most expert accounts (including my
own), Yavlinsky also ran a very professional campaign, his best performance
to date. And yet, despite an excellent and well-funded campaign, marginal
harassment form the state authorities, and no real competitors for the
liberal vote, Yavlinsky won only 5.8 percent of the vote, well below his
7.4 percent showing in 1996 showing and only a fraction above what his
party garnered in the December 1999 parliamentary vote. This result was a
major defeat for Yavlinsky personally and for Russian liberals as a whole. 

This election was also a setback for nationalist leaders and parties
independent of the Kremlin. Zhirinovsky fared very poorly, winning a
paltry 2.7 percent, and all the other nationalist hopefuls did not win more
than one percent of the vote. This outcome is very different from 1996,
when General Alexander Lebed won a strong double-digit third place showing,
which then allowed him to play a critical endorsement role for Yeltsin in
the second round. 

In several respects, this first round of the 2000 vote resembled the second
round of the 1996 vote. Third party candidates played a much smaller role
in this last election. The biggest losers in this election were liberal and
nationalist parties whose candidates performed so poorly that one has to
wonder if they will be able survive as political movements in Russia in the

II. Implications for Russian Policy

Because Putin ran an issue-free presidential campaign, we know very little
about what he intends to do as president. Putin himself probably is still
forming views on the thousands of issues that he must now address. This is
not a man who spent decades preparing to become president. The first time
he ran for political office, after all, was last month! At the same time,
we do have some clues regarding his priorities.

We know that Putin is committed to preserving Russiaís territorial
integrity. For years, many in the West have written about the
fragmentation of power within the Russian Federation, the weakness of the
center, and the possible disintegration of the Russian state altogether.
These threats have been greatly exaggerated. Chechnyaís desire for
independence from Russia is the exception, not the rule, among Russiaís
other republics. No other republic or oblast has ever made a credible
threat to leave the federation. Under Putin, we will witness attempts to
strengthen the centerís control over the regions. 

Regarding economic reform, Putinís initial signals have been clear and
positive. Putin has invited a young team of economists many of whom
formerly worked for former prime minister Yegor Gaidar to draft a
comprehensive reform program. The new program covers all the right
subjects, including tax reform, deregulation, social policy restructuring,
and new bankruptcy procedures. Words are just words. It remains to be seen
if Putin has the will and the political skill to execute these plans. At
this early stage, however, there is little doubt among those liberal
economists currently working for him that he intends to pursue radical
market reforms. 

Regarding foreign policy, Putinís initial signals have been less clear, but
still mostly positive. He does not speak fondly of multi-polarity or use in
the tired language of balance of power politics. Instead, he wants to make
Russia a normal, Western power. His international heroes come not from the
East or the South, but the West. In his short time in office, he has
devoted particular attention to England. He appears to want to give a
greater focus to Europe and place less emphasis on Russiaís relations with
the United States. Yet, even with the United States, Putin appears ready to
cooperate on key issues such as Start II ratification, Start III
negotiations, and modification of the ABM treaty. At the same time, Putin
has emphasized the need to expand Russian arms exports, a new initiative
that could include the transfer of nuclear technologies to countries such
as Iran. 

The area in which Putinís views are most murky concerns his attitudes
towards democracy. Although he has expressed his admiration for past Soviet
dictators such as Yurii Andropov, Putin has not intimated a desire to
recreate authoritarian rule in Russia. In words, he had pledged his loyalty
to the constitution and has not supported (yet) calls for the creation of
new authoritarian regime like Pinochet in Chile as a means for jumpstarting
market reform. Yet, he is also not a passionate defender of democracy. In
his first several months in office, Putin has demonstrated that he is
willing to use the power of the state and ignore the democratic rights of
society in the pursuit of his objectives. For Putin, the ends justify the

In the realm of electoral politics, Putin and his allies wielded the power
of the Russian state in ways that exacted considerable damage to democratic
institutions. Putin and his allies created a party, Unity, out of thin air
in October 1999, which then won nearly a quarter of the vote in December.
State television incessantly promoted the new party and destroyed its
opponents with a barrage of negative advertising never before seen in
Russian politics. Putin then used national television to broadcast his
anti-campaign campaign for the presidency. 

More gruesome has been Putin's indifference to the human rights of his own
citizens in Chechnya. Russia has a right to defend 

its borders. Yet, the atrocious violations of human rights in the cause of
defending Russia's borders reveals the low priority Putin assigns to
democratic principles. 

Independent journalists and academics also have felt the power of the
Russian state under Putin. Reporters such as Andrei Babitsky from Radio
Free Europe have suffered the consequences of reporting news from Chechnya
that inconveniences the Kremlin. Commentators and columnists critical of
Putin report that many newspapers are unwilling now to carry their
articles. Self-censorship has returned to Russia. 

To date, many of Putin statements of political reform also sound
anti-democratic. Putin advisers speak openly about eliminating proportional
representation from the Duma electoral law, a revision that would
practically eliminate all pro-democratic political parties in Russia. Putin
and his aides also have expressed support for the highly anti-democratic
idea of appointing rather than electing governors. Putin has even hinted
that he would like to extend the term of the Russian president to seven
years, instead of four. Individually, none of these innovations would spell
the end of democracy. In combination, however, they could recreate a system
dominated by a single "party of power," i.e., the Kremlin. 

Despite all of these ominous signs, it would be wrong to conclude that
Putin is an "anti-democrat." The Russian president is simply too modern and
too Western-oriented to believe in dictatorship. Rather, Putin is
indifferent to democratic principles and practices, believing perhaps that
Russia might have to sacrifice democracy in the short run to achieve "more
important" economic and state building goals. He will continue to allow for
an independent press, elections, and individual liberties just as long as
they do not come in conflict with his agenda of securing Russia's borders,
strengthening the Russian state, and promoting market reform. But what
happens, however, when democracy does become inconvenient for him?

III. Implications for Russian Democracy

The rise or fall of democracy in Russia does not depend solely on Putinís
view about democracy. If the shape of the political system in Russia
depended exclusively on Putinís preferences, then the polity could not be
considered a democracy. Many in the West and Russia now make this
assertion. It has become fashionable to assert that Russia is not a
democracy. The rise of Putin is the latest confirming evidence. Some assert
that Russia has never been a democracy. The tens of thousands of people
who took to the streets throughout Russia a decade ago did not have any
impact on the way decisions get made in Russia. Instead, contemporary
Russia is compared at best to the late Soviet period in which a small group
people at the top decide who will be president, who will be governor, or in
short, who will make all political decisions. Others have even likened
contemporary Russia to feudal Europe, a system in which a handful of
princes -- now called oligarchs and regional barons --decide all, while
the peasants and serfs decided nothing.

Such historical analogies to Russiaís past, however, are dangerously
distorting. They suggest that no change in Russia has occurred in the last
decade or the last four hundred years. These arguments imply cultural
continuity in Russia; Russian leaders are authoritarian and Russia people
support them because Russians leaders and Russian society have always
supported dictatorship. This line of argument also suggests that there is
no threat to Russian democracy today, because there is no democracy to be

To be sure, Russian democracy is weak and unconsolidated. Russia is not a
liberal democracy. Pluralist institutions of interest intermediation are
weak, mass-based interest groups are marginal, and institutions that could
help to redress this imbalance -- such as parliament, the party system, and
the judiciary lack strength and independence. The absence of these
democracy-supporting institutions means that Russiaís democracy is more
fragile than a liberal democracy. In addition, a deeper attribute of
democratic stability a normative commitment to the democratic process by
both the elite and society is still not apparent in Russia. Although all
major political actors in Russia recognize elections as Ďthe only game in
towní and behave accordingly, anti-democratic attitudes still linger in
Russian elite circles and society as a whole. Finally, the rise of a
leader with Putinís background and the process by which he was elected are
not positive signs for democratic consolidation. No one who fought for the
destruction of the Soviet police state can be happy that a former KGB
officer has now become the president of Russia. 

Yet, when assessing Russian democracy and its prospects, the real question
is compared to what? Compared to American democracy today, Russian
democracy has a long way to go. Compared to Polish democracy today,
Russian democracy is way behind. Yet, compared to other states that
emerged from the Soviet Union, Russia does appear to have made progress in
building a democratic political order. The degree of freedom of speech in
Russia towers above Uzbekistan; the consequences of elections in Russia are
much greater than in Kazakhstan. Even when contemporary Russia is compared
to its own past, be it Soviet communism or tsarist absolutism, the current
system is vastly more democratic. Peasants did not vote, did not read
independent newspapers, and did not travel freely. Nor did Soviet citizens.

Princes were not removed from power by the ballot box as were four out of
nine regional leaders and hundreds of Duma deputies in the December 1999
election. The next time you hear someone argue that elections in Russia do
not matter, ask one of these electoral losers if they agree. Moreover, let
us not forget that two-thirds of an extremely educated population opted to
participate in these elections of parliament and president. If elections
were meaningless, then why did these people bother to show up? 

The more interesting question is not whether Russia is a democracy or not,
but rather to ask what is the trajectory for the future. Putinís victory
and the process of that victory are not positive steps. Yet, it would be
premature to generalize about the long-term future of Russian democracy
from this one election. The same party can stay in power for decades in
established democracies. Only time will tell if Putinís electoral is the
beginning of the creation of one-party state or just a rather accidental
consequence of a popular war, hopes of the future, and a weak opposition.
At this period in Russiaís history, the Russian people actually want a
leader with a strong hand who promises to build a stronger state. Such
desires are common after years of revolutionary turmoil. Those who claim
that this election was undemocratic must demonstrate that the demos the
people were prevented from voting into office someone more desirable for
the majority. The demand for some other kind of candidate does not appear
to be robust, and most certainly did not constitute a majority among
Russian voters. 

IV. Implications for U.S. Policy toward Russia

The Putin era will constitute a very difficult period for U.S.
policymakers. Putinís policies and actions will be neither all good nor
all bad. For instance, he may proceed with economic reform, cooperate on
arms control issues, but do little to crack down on corruption or defend
democratic principles. How to respond to such mixed signals will present a
major challenge to U.S. policymakers. Within the ruling elite, there are
no more good-guys and bad-guys, or communists and anti-communists, but only
shades of gray in Russia today. 

In developing a new strategy to deal with the Putin era and a new strategy
is necessarythe fundamental principles of U.S. policy towards the Soviet
Union and then Russian must be remembered. For several decades, the United
States was right to oppose Soviet imperialism, communist economics, and
totalitarian politics. At different moments during the Cold War, U.S.
politicians and diplomats argued for dťtente with Soviet dictators and a
lack of attention on internal maters within the Soviet Union for the sake
of allegedly more importance strategic goals such as arms control and
"stability" in U.S.-Soviet relations. In hindsight, we can now see that
this strategy was wrong. Clever diplomacy, greater respect for Soviet
concerns, or arms control did not end the Cold War. Rather, it was the
collapse of communism and the emergence of democracy within the Soviet
Union and then Russia that suspended the international rivalry between the
United States and the Soviet Union. It will be regime change in the
opposite direction in Russia that will rekindle the Russian threat to the
United States. 

Consequently, the new refrain in Washington today about the need to focus
less on Russiaís internal problems and more on state-to-state relations is
dangerous and shortsighted. U.S. policymakers must continue to see the
development of a market economy and a political democracy in Russia as U.S.
national security interests. If Russian democracy fails and a nationalist
dictatorship eventually consolidates, we will go back to spending trillions
on defense to deter this rogue state with thousands of nuclear weapons.
After all, remember why we are about to spend billions on National Missile
Defense to defend our borders against North Korea and other rogues states.
The threat from North Korea is not only military capacity. Rather, the
threat comes from the intentions of an erratic regime not answerable to its
people. In fact, every country in the world that now threatens U.S.
national security interests is an authoritarian regime. If Russia reverts
back to dictatorship, The United States is much more likely to drift
towards confrontation with this great nation. And no one will remember who
ratified the Start II treaty or who negotiated the modifications to the ABM

How to remain engaged in Russiaís reforms, however, must be rethought.
Policies that worked in the past may not always work or be necessary in the

Economic reform

Regarding economic reform, the United States should refrain from
prescribing formulas, and instead react to positive proposals originating
from Russia. A decade ago, technical assistance for economic reform was
critical and played a positive role in educating Russiaís new leader about
economic principles. That era, however, is over. Russian economists know
what they must do regarding structural reforms. If they provide a program
for tackling the issues of structural reform, then Western lending
institutions such as the IMF and World Bank should respond in accordance
with the level of commitment discerned in Moscow. 

Above all else, however, the IMF, the World Bank or any other Western
agency should not deliver economic assistance based on political or
strategic motivations. Rather, these institutions should focus exclusively
on what they know best, economic reform. The converse is equally true.
Sound economic assistance programs if truly sound -- should not be held
captive to the ebbs and flows of the politics of U.S.-Russian relations.
The IMF works best when it is acting like an independent bank i.e. like the
Federal Reserve and works least effectively when it acts like another
political arm of the U.S. government. 

In return for more autonomy over decisions of when and how much to lend to
Russia, the IMF and World Bank must make their decisionmaking processes
more transparent. Greater openness will expose IMF and Bank decisions to
greater scrutiny, which can only improve the quality of decisions. Equally
important, greater transparency will allow more Russians to understand and
therefore engage in influencing the IMF-Russian relationship. More
information about the execution of an IMF program should also be made
available to the public as a way to help counter corruption. 

Regarding U.S. bilateral economic aid to Russia, all economic assistance to
the Russian state, including most humanitarian assistance should be cut.
(Cooperation in fighting infectious diseases and some state-to-state
educational programs are notable exceptions) Most of these programs are
either unnecessary or fuel corruption. Those programs that merit
continuation should be channeled through non-governmental actors. Only
programs that assist Russian society directly should be continued. To their
credit, the Clinton Administration gradually has reoriented U.S. assistance
from the Russian state to Russian society, but a full shift in focus now
needs to be completed and better funded.

Political Reform

Regarding the promotion of democracy, the United States should be even more
engaged in defending and assisting those individuals and organizations
within Russia willing to fight for democratic institutions and values --
not less. Unlike the debate about the market, the debate about democracy
in Russia is not over. As long as advocates for democracy within Russia
still remain active and engaged in this battle for Russian democracy, we
must continue to support their struggle with ideas, educational
opportunities, moral support, and technical assistance.

Since Putin wants cooperation with the West, the Clinton administration now
has an opportunity to help the cause of Russian democracy even further.
Rather than shower Putin with faint praise about his businesslike demeanor
as a way to secure the Russian president's support for arms control
treaties, Clinton and his foreign policy team must at every opportunity
stress that the preservation of democracy in Russia is a precondition for
cooperation. In parallel to a more constructive engagement of Putin
regarding issues of human rights, the United States also needs to give
greater support to Russian societal forces still fighting to preserve
Russian democracy.

This means empowering democratic activists in Russia through high-level
meetings with U.S. officials. President Ronald Reagan never went to the
Soviet Union to meet with Soviet leaders without holding separate meetings
with societal leaders. This practice must return. Independent journalists,
human rights activists, civic organizers, business leaders, and trade
unions officials must be engaged, celebrated, and defended when the Russian
state abuses their rights. The Clinton Administration was right to push for
greater access to Chechnya by international agencies such the International
Red Cross. Likewise, the move by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council
of Europe (PACE) to suspend Russia's voting rights in the council should be
applauded. The West must maintain the same standards when investigating
abuses of human rights conducted by Chechen fighters. This campaign for
ending the war in Chechnya and investigating human rights violations on all
sides must be sustained and cannot be forsaken for short-term gains in arms
control negotiations.

A renewed strategy for defending Russian democracy also means increasing,
not decreasing as currently planned, assistance programs designed to
strengthen the independent media, trade unions, political parties, civil
society and the rule of law. Heroes in the struggle against Soviet
communism such as Sergei Kovalev have warned that Russia democrats are
facing their most difficult test in the coming years. Why are we
abandoning these people now? Make no mistake, that is what Russian
democrats are saying all over Russian now. Critics say that U.S.
assistance to these agents of democratic change taint their image within
Russia. I say that we should let Russiaís democrats make decisions about
their image at home. Let them decide the level of engagement they desire to
pursue with their Western counterparts. My own sense is that they desire
more cooperation, not less. 

In the political realm, all of U.S. assistance should be transferred
exclusively through non-governmental actors. This means continuing lending
to small businesses, and supporting the development of political parties,
civic organizations, business associations, and trade unions -- not state
bureaucrats. This means supporting public interest law organizations,
providing seed money for a Russian Civil Liberties Union, and assisting new
investor advocacy groups rather than aiding Russian law enforcement
officials as a strategy for fighting corruption and promoting law and
order. Based on my years of living in Russia and studying the Russian
transition, I firmly believe that state reform in Russia will not be
generated from within the state. 

Rather, state institutions will reform only when there are strong societal
groups in place that can pressure them to do so. 

Likewise, the comparative empirical record of the post-communist
transitions demonstrates that the best way to fight corruption is through
greater democracy -- i.e. greater empowerment of society as a control on
state activities -- not greater resources for state police agencies. In
fact, after a decade of post-communist transition, one of the most
surprising outcomes is the positive correlation between democracy and
economic growth. 

More generally, programs that increase contacts between Russians and
Americans must be expanded. America's most effective tool in promoting
markets and democracy is the example of the United States itself. The more
Russians are exposed to this model, the better. This exposure can come
from military-to-military programs, sister city programs, or
business-to-business meetings, but educational programs especially for
young Russians must be emphasized above all else. Tens of thousands of
Russian students, not dozens, should be enrolled in American universities.
Mass civic education projects within Russia, with a focus on expanding
internet access, also should be expanded. While hundreds of business
schools have sprouted throughout Russia, there are virtually no public
policy schools and only a handful of organizations dedicated to the
dissemination of materials on democracy. Because the concept of democracy
in Russia has been discredited by all the nasty policies undertaken in its
name, those seeking to resurrect democratic ideals must be fully supported.

More generally, any program that increases the flow of information about
entrepreneurial and civic ventures throughout Russia should be encouraged.
The demonstration effect of a profitable small business in Perm will mean
much more to a future entrepreneur in Novosibirsk than an example of
success from the Silicon Valley. In providing this kind of assistance to
Russian society, organizations that provide small amounts of support to
many rather than large amounts to a few should take the lead in dispersing
American assistance in Russia. 

Keeping Our Eye on the Big Picture

Ten years from now, Putinís rise to power may look like the initial stage
of authoritarian restoration in Russia and the beginning of sustained
conflict in U.S.-Russian relations. The Yeltsin-Clinton era, despite all
the setbacks, may seem like the good old days of U.S.-Russian cooperation.
If this scenario unfolds, the U.S. policy of engagement with Russia will
look in retrospect like a naÔve project pursued by romantic liberals who
did not understand the world in which they lived. 

It is equally plausible, however, to assume that ten years from now our
current debate about Russian dictatorship and failed U.S. policy towards
Russia will look like a premature conclusion made by an impatient and
exhausted American foreign policy community. Over the long-term, Russia's
size, natural resources, educated population, and strategic location in
Europe and Asia suggest that Russia will play a major role in the
international system. Whether Russia makes this re-entry as a member of
the international society of core Western states, or as a rogue state
seeking to threaten this international society depends in large measure on
the kinds of institutions that shape economic and political activity within
Russia in the years to come. Several years after the collapse of the
Soviet Union, there is still a chance that Russia will consolidate a market
economy and a democratic polity, and that Russia therefore will join rather
than threaten the community of democratic and capitalist states. That this
window of opportunity is still open, considering all that Russia has
endured over the last decade, is surprising. 

Now, therefore, is not the time to declare Russia lost and abandon the
strategy of engagement. Though resurgent, anti-Western forces in Russia do
not enjoy a monopoly over policymaking in either domestic or international
affairs. Disagreements between Russian and American diplomats over Iraq,
Iran, or Serbia, past failures regarding aid programs, the threat of
authoritarian rule within Russia, or the growing ill will between Russians
and Americans more generally are not arguments for abandoning engagement,
but evidence for the need to reorient and reinvigorate the policy.


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