I appreciate the thoughtful and informative comments of Professors Colton and McFaul in their article on Russian politics in the July/August issue of the Problems of Post Communismm ("Russia Democracyy under Putin," reprinted in JRL 37264). However, I fear they once again they mistake form for substance.
For purposes of brevity let me focus on the last paragrah of their article, each sentence of which I disagree with:
"In Russia, though, the most likely outcome for the near future is neither more democracy nor more autocracy-neither liberal democracy nor dictatorship-but a stable regime somewhere in between."
-- Comment: Whatever the ultimate trajectory of the Russian system, certainly the Khodorkovsky Affair shows that politics in Russia are not stable. Stability is - as the distinguished political scientist Seweryn Bialer once noted -- the balanced outcome of numerous, sometimes contradictory forces. While the major elite players such as Big Business and the security services have coexisted under Putin (to the extent that they are unitary, which they are often not) they have not been in balance -- just relatively quiet. Morever, the current array of elite forces excludes other potential actors from power, such as the small business class and intellectuals. This could be a factor in increased future instability. Finally, as Georgiy Satarov has stated - Satarov has conducted carefully quantified broad-based multiregion surveys -- corruption is an additional factor of instability. The topic of corruption is conspicuously absent in the article.
"Putin has eroded democratic institutions and practices but has not destroyed them, nor has he articulated a plan for their further erosion."
-- Comment: Russia's institutions and practices were not "democratic" under Yeltsin, nor are they now (Calling these some of these personalized, politicized, erratic loci of power institutions at all is often stretching the point). We usually describe nations "democratic" if they conform to a principle of governance articulated by Joseph Scumpeter, that they posses institutional arrangements for decisionmaking "in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote." Neither Putin in 2000, nor Yeltsin in 1996 was selected by such a "competitive struggle."
"Russian society seems content with the current quasi-democratic, quasi-autocratic order. Russians value democracy but are too exhausted, from decades of turmoil, to fight for better democracy. Stability is the greater priority."
-- Comment: It is not at all clear what Russian's "want," nor, to the extent that they endorse democracy in the abstract, how intensively they favor it compared to other values such as security or economic well being. Moreover, public opinion data in many countries -- including in the US -- shows that people can support "democracy" or "civil liberties" in the abstract, but reject it in specific instances. In any case, the most important thing to remember about public opinion in Russia is that it is extraordinarily passive compared to many Westerm democracies, and plays little role the country's politics. The plain fact is that the population is atomized and easily manipulated by Russia's elite. In 1999, for example, an government-backed bloc with no ideology or even a platform garnered 23.3 percent of the vote.
"Managed democracy could be around in Russia for a long time."
-- Comment: Having already mentioned my reservations about whether Russia is a democracy, I would add that elite attempts at systemic "management " are not something invented by Putin, but a practice inherited from his predecessor. Putin himself is the product of managed democracy, selected as he was by a small coterie around Yeltsin. More noteworthy are how often and why the efforts at management of the system do not work.
What is striking about politics under Putin is not how much of a departure they are from politics under Yeltsin -- there are of course some changes -- but the continuities. Despite Putin's reputation in the West as a strong leader, he continues to struggle with the same crises of efficiency and decay that confronted his predecessor and, frankly, the last few Soviet General Secretaries. That he has been so unsuccessful in slowing the decline suggests more turmoil ahead.
Donald N. Jensen Director of Communications RFE/RL Washington, DC