#11 - JRL 7175
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
On May 6, 2003, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a seminar by Harley Balzer. Balzer, Associate Professor of Government at Georgetown University, presented his newest paper, "Managed Pluralism: Vladimir Putin's Emerging Regime," which will be published in the Fall 2003 issue of Post-Soviet Affairs. Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center served as discussant; Andrew Kuchins, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment, chaired the session.
Balzer opened the session by explaining that his interest in two puzzles led him to his current topic. First, he noted that foreign policy and economics experts tended to approve of Putin's conduct, while those who follow domestic developments have become more concerned about the direction in which Russia is heading. Second, he was fascinated by the contradiction between modernization theory-which holds that Russia boasts almost all the attributes necessary to complete the transition to democracy-and Russia's current course, which is carrying it further away from democracy. Although he seeks to avoid jargon in his work, Balzer concurs with the postmodern view that tensions like those so evident in contemporary Russia are intentional and inevitable. Putin knows that Russia cannot be both a dictatorship and a major world power, yet he practices a top-down management style and warily seeks to manage the cultural and social diversity associated with globalization.
In its opening pages Balzer's paper draws on the emerging literature on hybrid democracy. He challenges the utility of stringing adjectives-e.g. virtual, illiberal, delegative, pseudo-onto the word "democracy," arguing that some are stretching that term "beyond the point of useful application." Balzer's larger purpose, however, is to analyze the political system in Putin's Russia, which is still evolving. He believes that the general trend is toward the increased control of society by the state, though there is limited tolerance for alternative modes of expression-so long as they don't cross arbitrary and constantly changing boundaries established by the Kremlin. Balzer argued against interpreting the flexibility of this political system as a positive attribute; the fact that it is not based on rules-and that the rules in place are either unenforced or unevenly enforced-is not conducive to the development of a stable democracy. Balzer's paper also contests the notion that democracy simply "happens." Rather, he tries to envision what factors or movements might allow Russia's composite system to become more democratic.
Balzer believes that "managed democracy"-a term first coined by Nicholas Gvosdev in his writing on religion-is the best way to describe Russia's current system. Indeed, Balzer sees the Kremlin's religious policy as indicative of the manner in which Moscow strives to strike a balance between diversity and order and between democracy and robust leadership. The 1997 law on religion recognized Russia's four "traditional religions"-Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism-and unleashed a debate about whether the first should receive special privileges. Other faiths are not banned, but they must register with the government and receive special permission to raise funds and own or rent property. Balzer acknowledged that such legislation is not unique to Russia: France and Japan, for example, have banned cults that uphold values considered antithetical to their culture.
Still, the trend toward "managed pluralism" in other sectors of Russian life is impossible to ignore. Putin knows better than to create a one-party system, but he is attempting to eliminate many of the smaller parties. He has taken a hands-off approach to print and radio media, and presumably condones free and open discussion among the intellectual elite. He has allowed Internet journalism, which reaches less than 3-4% of the population on a regular basis, to remain unfettered. Yet independent television stations with a national reach seem to fall beyond the Kremlin's definition of acceptable media outlets. In spite of recent strikes by air traffic controllers, workers at Norilsk Nickel, and Aeroflot employees, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions maintains close ties to the government. However, Balzer pointed out that the fact that Russian pluralism is "managed" does not mean that it is managed well. Although Putin established several "GONGOs"-government-organized non-governmental organizations-in the wake of the Kremlin's Civic Forum, his desire to organize civil society from above was a failure. Likewise, the shadowy collusion between Putin's administration and nationalist youth groups like Walking Together (Idushchie vmeste) has generated concern, but such movements have not attracted broad-based support.
If the problems associated with "managed democracy" are evident, the means of resolving them are not. Balzer takes issue with those who see Putin's heavy-handed tactics-take his campaign to reign in the regional governors as an example-as a means of creating a centralized power system through which he can later implement democracy. He also disagrees with the view that the fact that Russians do not oppose democracy all but ensures the future consolidation of democracy there. Similarly, Balzer dismisses the notion that Putin will become more democratic once he wins a second term: American and Russian history have shown that leaders become more conservative as their administrations progress. In short, Balzer sees no easy escape from "managed pluralism." The phenomenon is linked not only to Putin's personality, but also to the institutional interests of elites, who have no incentive to relinquish their power.
In her role as discussant, Lilia Shevtsova commended Balzer for effectively incorporating the literature on democratization into his paper, speculating that his paper will raise a lively debate once it is published. Like Balzer, she also disapproves of modifying the word "democracy" with too many adjectives. She added, however, that she is not certain whether "managed pluralism" can accurately describe the situation in today's Russia. It is not that Balzer's terminology is inadequate; it is just that the reality on the ground defies simple explanations. She suggested, following the lead of two Russian historians, that only the term "the Russian system"-that is, a preeminent state, the principle of personalized power, and the fusion of power and business interests-can encapsulate the complexity of today's Russia. This "Russian system" has operated in various modes, but it is the common thread linking 16th century and contemporary developments. Shevtsova also urged Balzer to elaborate on the differences between Russian "managed pluralism" and similar phenomena in Europe and America.
Shevtsova suggested that it would be worthwhile for Balzer to consider incorporating into his analysis a number of unanswered questions clouding Russian politics after the Iraq war. First, is "managed pluralism" worse than pragmatic authoritarianism? Second, can the "Russian system" be transformed without social activism? In other words, does authoritarianism in the abstract sense have the potential for transformation? Third, might economic crisis be necessary to catalyze change? Fourth, with the West now divided, how will the lack of outside pressure for democratization affect the "Russian system?" Fifth, which is more necessary: systemic change, or regime change? Shevtsova contends that it might be the former; perhaps Russia's current problems are the result of the fact that while the Communist regime was discredited and dismantled, elements of the Communist system remain intact.
Balzer responded that there does seem to be a potential for change in Russia in spite of the troubling recent developments there. He reminded the meeting attendees that Russian politics are always unpredictable, and suggested that popular indignation at Russia's disintegrating infrastructure may catalyze reforms. In fact, Balzer added, change can already be seen in some sectors of Russian society. Although Russia's entrepreneurial class remains small, its innovative spirit and desire to succeed are good omens. Finally, Balzer concurred the West could and should increase the pressure on Russia to democratize. He believes that the West's laissez faire attitude toward Russia is the result not only of the war in Iraq, but also of the post-9/11 security environment: so long as western nations view other countries as allies in the war against terror, they have proven hesitant to push for major domestic changes.
In the question and answer session, much of the discussion focused on Balzer's terminology. One of the meeting attendees wondered how "managed" Putin's system actually is, pointing out that oligarchs, bureaucrats, and local governors often seem to be managing the Kremlin. He also questioned the designation of Putin's system as an "emerging regime," arguing that there are more continuities between contemporary Russia, Yeltsin's Russia, and even Soviet Russia than Balzer acknowledges. Another participant questioned whether "managed pluralism" is at all unique to Russia, noting that a recent Austrian law on religion is almost directly translated from Russian legislation. He also asserted that Russia's top-down approach to ruling is fully consistent with continental European norms developed during the Enlightenment. The Russian system of governance appears arbitrary to American observers only because we judge it by Anglo-Saxon standards, which emerged from the more populist Scottish Enlightenment.
Balzer responded to the first critique of his paper by acknowledging that Putin is not in total control of Russia and that he knows it. Still, he maintained, he has proven far more capable at picking off potential rivals than Yeltsin. Balzer believes that Yeltsin established rigid-and at times arbitrary-rules, but that he played by them; the most troubling element of Putin's Russia is the fact that legal norms are in constant flux. In response to the second critique, Balzer agreed that similarities can be seen in the religious legislation of many countries, and that globalization raises universal fears about the subversive power of "the other." But he insisted that Putin's encroachments into the territory of various social players-political parties, media outlets, and labor groups, for example-distinguish Russian "managed pluralism" from that of other states. He also disputed the notion that the Russian situation looks peculiar merely because of the point of view with which Americans examine it. He noted that Russian civil society was independent and vibrant between 1890 and 1914, and suggested that he seeks not for Russia to emulate the path of other countries, but simply to rediscover the strong society it once boasted.
Another meeting participant asked Balzer to explain why the Russian public seems so passive, and inquired whether the spread of AIDS or outrage over the treatment of military conscripts might galvanize public support behind the cause of reform. Balzer responded that such a chain of events is unlikely, pointing out that it took many years for AIDS to become a major concern in this country. Although Lilia Shevtsova shares many of Balzer's concerns about the current health of Russian society, she added that recently she has seen important psychological changes at several levels of Russian society. The fact that Mikhail Khodorkovsky urged Putin to establish firm and fair rules of the game indicates that he-and possibly other oligarchs-realize that the rough and tumble world of big business and Kremlin intrigue has become too dangerous. She is also heartened by public opinion surveys, which show that 47% of Putin's supporters favor him because they believe he can bring change. These statistics show that Russia still enjoys the potential for change, and also that Putin's political future depends on his ability to promote reform.
The meeting closed with Anders Aslund discussing Russia's potential for systemic change. Agreeing with another meeting participant, he argued that change is not only possible, but also inevitable. Russia has maintained a 6% economic growth rate per year for four years, and Putin has taken on the challenges of tax, judicial, and fiscal management reform as well as deregulation. Putin's focus on economic issues is itself an indication that Russia is moving in the right direction. Just as economic growth encouraged the democratization of Germany and Japan in the 1960s, Aslund expects that it will propel Russia into modernity and aid its integration into the international community. Indeed, he argued, Russians are politically passive because they are confident that the country is moving in the right direction. Balzer countered that while a few Russians are doing very well, the middle classes-the backbone of civil society-continue to struggle. The entrepreneurial class is fairly healthy, but professionals, from whose ranks Russian political leaders historically have arisen, remain chronically underemployed and underpaid. The condition of the Russian public sector will not improve until the sociopolitical elite decides that it deserves major investments of their energy and money.
Summary prepared by Faith Hillis, Junior Fellow in the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment.