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Metropolis (Moscow Times)
book review
Complacent Constituents and Political Power
By Caroline McGregor
Caroline McGregor is deputy business editor at The Moscow Times and a former junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

In certain circles, it has become fashionable to compare Russian democracy to a Potemkin village -- a pleasant facade with little underneath.

"Elections Without Order: Russia's Challenge to Vladimir Putin" by Richard Rose and Neil Munro follows much in this vein. With freely elected officials and a full range of outspoken political parties, the country looks democratic from a distance, the authors write, yet its society lacks the rule of law, which is key to achieving democracy in substance as well as style.

Throughout much of the 1990s, Russia was a disorderly state suffering from its own unpredictability -- and, some argue, it remains so today. Wage earners were not always paid on time, leaders acted arbitrarily and corruption was tolerated at all levels.

In this context, President Vladimir Putin easily swept to power in 2000 with promises to establish a "dictatorship of law" characterized by the predictability and poryadok, or order, that strict observance of laws would bring.

In their book, which was released by Cambridge University Press last October, Rose and Munro -- two British political scientists from the University of Strathclyde -- have undertaken to make sense of Russia's first decade of post-Soviet transformation and the ever-evolving picture of democracy here. Light bedtime reading this is not. But it is a valuable resource for those hoping to peer through the fog of Russia's political climate and the complex social attitudes underpinning it.

Despite its pro-democracy rhetoric, Putin's Russia remains an "untrustworthy, unaccountable regime in which corruption is taken for granted," the authors write. It's a rather biting judgement, though one that's backed up by the 64 tables and charts the authors provide, drawn from polling data from 10 New Russia Barometer surveys conducted since 1992 by the Moscow-based public opinion research agency VTsIOM.

The state may not be perceived by the authors as trustworthy, but Putin certainly is, as demonstrated by his steady, stratospheric approval ratings. The latest VTsIOM survey numbers, from the first week in March, show Putin enjoying a 76-percent approval rating, just off his record-setting 83 percent last November, following the resolution of the hostage crisis at the Dubrovka theater. Meanwhile, ratings for the government headed by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov have slid almost 10 points since last fall to 35 percent, and for the Duma, they hover lower still, at 30 percent -- its all-time high.

But the authors argue that not only is the Duma one of the least trusted institutions in Russian society, but that it is also one of the least accountable. Russia's so-called floating political system -- whereby 225 of the Duma's 450 seats are doled out proportionally, based on votes cast by party list, while the other half run as individuals, elected from single-mandate districts -- allows representatives to change their party affiliations at will after taking office, enabling many, the authors write, to operate as political chameleons.

The parties themselves are ephemeral, disappearing as quickly as they appear, with more than half of the Duma list vote in 1999 going to parties participating in national elections for the first time, Rose and Munro write. Unity, for example, had been formed only 10 weeks before the December 1999 vote. Putin, like Boris Yeltsin before him, ran for president as an independent in a field where all candidates were either supported by a number of diverse parties, or by none.

Rose and Munro note that transparent political identity and continuity from one election to the next is necessary for society to be able to punish or reward its representatives: "Citizens cannot vote to turn out the rascals when it's unclear which rascals are governing." The public attitude, they suggest, is this play on a popular Soviet saying: "They pretend to represent us, we pretend to support them." Within Russia's hourglass-shaped society, where horizontal interrelationships among the ruling elite and among ordinary individuals are myriad -- but with little vertical contact connecting the two -- demand for change is weak.

"Most Russians regard a corrupt state as part of the eternal order of things rather than a problem that can be solved," Rose and Munro write, illustrating a frustrating tendency for people to throw their hands up in the face of political problems that are not actually insurmountable, but only seem to be. The authors' 2001 surveys showed that 66 percent of the Russian population considered government corruption the biggest obstacle to the country's ever becoming a "normal" society, but no doubt a considerably smaller percentage were propelled by their indignation to take action to fight that corruption.

During the heady days of early post-communism, citizens were less complacent and democracy held more promise. Somewhere en route toward liberal democracy, though, transition fell off track, Rose and Munro write. (It should be noted that "transition" and "toward" are somewhat problematic words, implying unidirectional momentum along a single trajectory from authoritarianism to democracy, which scholars argue is not always the case.)

Efforts to transform Russia's political system into one where civil society flourishes, holding leaders accountable and within bounds of the law stalled -- an "unfinished revolution," as Stanford political science professor Michael McFaul has termed it. The danger, he has said, lies in that the longer Russia stays in the no-man's land between dictatorship and democracy, the greater the chances that this illiberal system -- democratic elections without strong democratic institutions -- will put down roots.

Faced with such reproach, Russia's leaders are quick to respond that the Western model of liberal democracy is alien to its nature and therefore cannot be expected. Yet Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Center, dismisses this as a convenient way for the political class to justify its desire to preserve the old rules of the game. When elections can be used to legitimize managed democracy, when insiders can be "appointed millionaires," as banker Peter Aven famously put it, and when change comes from the top down, where is the incentive to reform a system that allows such privileges? There is none, Shevtsova says.

The stability of Russia's political system hinges almost entirely on Putin and public support for him, and power concentrated in one person has its disadvantages. As Rose characterized Putin's support in a recent meeting with policy-makers in Washington: "It's a mile wide, but how deep?" Russia's political landscape would be thrown into significant upheaval if Putin or his support were to disappear.

But there are benefits, too. Putin single-handedly can choose to tackle reform of the federal bureaucracy. He can opt to turn a blind eye no longer to corruption within the ranks and he can apply the rule of law to all who act in the state's name. Whether or not he will remains to be seen. But this is what he promised to do, and this is Russia's -- and the authors' -- challenge to him.

"Elections Without Order: Russia's Challenge to Vladimir Putin." By Richard Rose and Neil Munro. Cambridge University Press. 262 pages. $22.

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