Democratization in post-Soviet Russia

By David Zafiratos

            This paper sorts through the policies that have affected Russia’s development of a democratic system of government since the end of the Soviet era.  In determining whether present-day Russia fits the democratic bill, one cannot simply rely on an abstract notion of what a democracy is.  For purposes of this paper, the term democracy invokes Robert A. Dahl’s polyarchy, and the six political institutions he identifies as necessary for governing a large country using a modern representative form of government.[1]

            The structure of this paper is straightforward, and includes two main parts.  The first part is fact-based, the second analytical.  The facts begin with a brief overview of the significant events that led to the end of the Communist Party’s reign over Russia.  Next, it surveys the early post-Soviet transitions of power.  Last, it provides a more detailed discussion of the Putin Administration’s policies that have continued to shape Russia’s political system. 

Using these background facts as a starting point, the paper’s second focus is to analyze the current political system.   It first sets forth the institutions necessary for governing modern democracies.[2]  Then it applies the situation in today’s Russia to the definition and requirements of democracy. 


Part I: Historical background

            Analysis of Russia’s current political system deserves at least some background on what led to its creation.  Rather than offering a full discussion on the Soviet Union’s history, the next section highlights some of the significant events that culminated in President Putin’s presidency.


I(A). 1985-1993: Gorbachev’s reforms and the dissolution of the USSR

            Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party in March of 1985, and wasted no time in declaring his goals of economic modernization and political openness.[3]  Gorbachev intended to reform the Soviet economic system through a group of programs collectively called Perestroika.  His initiatives, formally introduced in 1986, “included legalizing cooperatives, relaxing central controls over state enterprises, and liberalizing foreign trade.”[4]  Glasnost was a policy aimed at creating greater transparency in the workings of the Soviet government, thus creating the necessary conditions for successful economic reform.[5]  In fact, Gorbachev began selling Glasnost and Perestroika, internationally, months prior to taking office when meeting with Margaret Thatcher.[6]  Then, in his first official statements as General Secretary, he “emphasized the need for transparency (glasnost) in the work of Party, Soviet, state and public organizations.”[7]  Regarding Perestroika, he also stressed the importance of “upgrading the economic mechanism and the system of management in its entirety.”[8]

            Crozier suggests that Glasnost can be seen as “the release of a ‘genie’ from a bottle,” and goes on to describe “examples of unprecedented freedom of speech.”[9]  However, it is believed that while Gorbachev wanted to reform the Soviet system, he was held back by a competing desire to maintain the Union and the Communist Party’s control over it.[10]  Nonetheless, the reforms “unleashed a drive for enhanced sovereignty spearheaded by the Baltic republics, a process that grew into a tidal wave of demands for devolution of power and responsibilities dubbed the ‘Parade of Sovereignties.’”[11]

            By 1990, changes to the Soviet constitution set the stage for what would be the final attempt by the Communist Party to maintain total control over the Soviet Union.  On March 13, 1990, the Congress of People’s Deputies[12] amended Article 6 of the Soviet Constitution to strip the Communist Party of its “monopoly of vertical power.”[13]  A proposed amendment that would have removed all mention of the Communist Party from the constitution barely failed.  Additionally, the Congress of People’s Deputies established a presidency of the Soviet Union, to which Gorbachev was elected.[14]  Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin won election as the chairman of Russia’s Supreme Soviet on May 29, 1990, effectively becoming Russia’s first President.[15]

            With Yeltsin as the President of Russia, and Gorbachev as the President of the Soviet Union, the stage was set for a struggle between the Soviet Union and its constituent Republics.[16]  As Kempton and Clark note, while Russia was just one of the fifteen Soviet republics, its size and location made its struggle with the Soviet government “a struggle between two contenders for the center.”[17]  Yeltsin employed the strategy of encouraging the Russian regional governments to “take all the sovereignty they could swallow,” which helped him gain popular support in Russia.[18] 

            In March of 1991, the Soviet Union held a referendum posing the question of whether the Union should continue to exist.  The results of the “all-Union referendum” showed the majority of those participating favored preserving the Union.  However, there was not full participation. Specifically, six of the Soviet Republics did not participate, and turnout in Russia’s largest cities was poor.[19]

            Ultimately, the Soviet Union’s fate would be decided not by the public, but by a failed coup attempt in August of 1991.  The Soviet government structure and the Republics negotiated a New Union Treaty during the summer of 1991, which would have established a looser federal relationship between the Soviet government and the Republics.[20]  Before the Treaty could be signed, however, conservatives within the Communist Party attempted to oust Gorbachev and regain their strangle-hold on the Soviet Union.[21] 

The attempt not only failed to propel the Communist Party back into control, it backfired by creating a hero out of Russia’s President Yeltsin.[22]  Yeltsin is credited with quelling the coup attempt by climbing atop a tank aimed at the Russian government building he was in, declaring that he was in control of the Russian military, and calling for resistance to the coup.[23]  In this way, the coup attempt that was to save the Soviet Union led to its downfall.  For Gorbachev, the coup attempt destroyed his political authority, leading to his resignation as President and the official dissolution of the Soviet Union in December of 1991.[24]  In the years that followed, an independent Russia attempted to strengthen its independent political system, culminating in the 1993 Russian Constitution that remains in effect today.[25]


I(B). The Yeltsin Presidency: Economics, Chechnya and Putin

            Boris Yeltsin’s Presidency had a profound affect on the current state of Russia’s political system.  The three most important aspects of the Yeltsin Presidency, in terms of their influence on the current political system, were his handling of Russia’s fledgling capitalist economy, his stance against the Chechen separatist movement, and his installment of Vladimir Putin as prime minister, and later interim president, in 1999.


I(B)(1). The effects of early post-Soviet privatization

            In terms of Russia’s early post-Soviet economy, the magnitude of the task at hand in 1992 cannot be understated.  All things considered, Yeltsin deserves credit for moving the country away from the planned economy of Soviet times.  The first set of economic privatization, known as “shock therapy,” included “abrupt deregulation of prices, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and the shift to a market economy.”[26]  This rapid privatization, however, has been blamed for causing the accumulation of wealth in very few hands.[27]  The rapid privatization has also been blamed for causing extreme levels of poverty.  That poverty has resulted in a depressed social climate as evidenced by the rise in alcoholism and suicide rates, and the drop in length of life expectancy[28]


I(B)(2). Chechnya

            Russians and Chechens have a long history of conflict with one another, marked significantly by Stalin’s deportation of all Chechens in 1944, their return home under Khrushchev, and the ethnically-based discord that has continued to this day.[29]  The small region in southern Russia is of particular importance to Russia because of its oil pipelines and rail links.[30]  By 1994, the inability of the weakened Russian state to exert its control over Chechnya led to armed conflict.  What started as a proxy war against the regional governor’s regime became a full-scale military campaign by that summer.[31]  The insurgents were led by Chechnya’s Djokar Dudaev, who declared Chechnya’s independence from Russia and violated the Russian Constitution by basing his regime on Islam.[32] 

            The war lasted until 1996, when President Yeltsin’s administration negotiated a cease-fire and pulled out its troops.  The result was practical autonomy for Chechnya, with final status to be postponed for five years.[33]  Before those five years elapsed, however, Chechen separatists forcefully attempted to merge Chechnya with neighboring Dagestan, another Russian region, hoping to combine the two Islamic regions into one independent state.[34]  Thus began the second round of armed conflict between the Russian government and Chechnya. 


I(B)(3). President Putin

In the last part of the 1990s, President Yeltsin catapulted Vladimir Putin up the political charts, eventually all the way to the presidency.  Putin’s early career included fifteen years with the KGB.[35]  In 1998, President Yeltsin appointed him to head the KGB’s successor, the FSB.[36]  Then, on August 9, 1999, President Yeltsin introduced Putin as his new prime minister.[37]  As prime minister, Putin gained authorization from President Yeltsin to dispatch troops to Chechnya in response to the Chechens’ move against Dagestan.[38]  On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin resigned from the presidency.  Under the Russian Constitution’s succession of power provisions, Vladimir Putin became interim president.


Part II: Putin’s reforms

            Throughout his administration, President Putin has set forth policies and proposed legislation that have shaped Russia’s political system.  Often citing the dual purposes of counteracting the influence of corrupt business owners and protecting the country from terrorist threats, President Putin has worked to centralize more authority in the federal executive branch of government, at the expense of the federal legislature and the regions.  The Beslan school hostage crisis of September, 2004[39] reiterated President Putin’s concerns over national security, giving him a reason to impose further reforms on the Russian political system.[40]


II(A). Regional Governors

            Russia is a diverse country, with twenty-one of its regions considered non-Russian, ethnically.  That makes up thirty percent of the territory and twenty percent of the population.[41]  Structurally, Russia’s political system is set up as a federal system.  Of the numerous benefits of federalism, one relates particularly to minority groups within a country.  It allows a minority group “to preserve itself by allowing it control of cultural and educational policy within a set territory.”[42] 

As early as his first year as president, President Putin had already altered the national executive branch’s control over the regional governors, thereby altering the federal balance of power.  In 2000, he appointed special envoys to oversee the governors.  Most of these envoys were former military or security service personnel.[43] 

By the end of his first term, President Putin had gone a step further.  A December 11, 2004 law vested the Russian president with the authority to nominate the regional governors.  According to the law, the president nominates a candidate thirty-five days prior to the end of a sitting governor’s term in office.[44]  The regional legislature then must vote to approve the nominee by a simple majority.[45]  Should a regional legislature reject two nominees, however, the president can dissolve that legislature and simply appoint an acting governor.[46]  Additionally, the president may dismiss governors in whom the president loses confidence, or who improperly fulfill their duties.[47]

This scheme was designed to create a single chain of command for purposes of addressing national security concerns exposed by the Beslan school hostage crisis.[48]  It has also been justified by the need to combat corruption.  At the time the new law came into being, however, State Duma[49] Deputy Sergei Glazev explained that President Putin had misjudged the affect centralizing authority would have on the country.[50]  Others have argued the law violates the Russian Constitution.  Nonetheless, Russia’s Constitutional Court declared the procedure to be valid under the Constitution.[51] 


II(B). The Federal Legislature and electoral politics

            President Putin’s initiatives regarding Russia’s federal legislative branch have been intended to solidify support for his administration.  Changes to the way members of both the Federation Council and the State Duma are selected make it easier for the current majority party, United Russia, to maintain control of the legislature.[52]


II(B)(1). The Federation Council

            The upper house of the Russian legislature, called the Federation Council, is composed of two members from each region.  Article 96 of the Russian Constitution leaves the particular method of selecting members of the both Federation Council and the State Duma up to federal law.[53]  At its inception in 1993, a presidential decree established that members were to be popularly elected by the regions.  That changed in 1995 when a federal treaty called for the heads of the regions’ legislative and executive branches, who were elected by the regions, to sit as members of the Federation Council.  The system changed again on August 8, 2000.  Federation Council members are now either elected by regional legislatures or appointed by the regional executive branch.  If appointed by the executive, the legislature must approve the nominee.[54] 


II(B)(2). The State Duma

            Federal Law of 18 May 2005 No. 51-F3 drastically changes the way the 450 members of the State Duma will be selected, beginning in December, 2007.  A mixed-member system was used from 1993 through 2003, whereby half the seats were filled by single-constituency districts and the other half were filled on a party-proportionality basis.[55]  Beginning with the December, 2007 elections, all members will be selected proportionally along party lines.[56]  Also, the threshold for winning seats will increase from its previous level of five percent of the total seats won to seven percent of the total seats won. 

Additionally, under Federal Law No. 51-F3, political parties must have a membership of at least 50,000 to register and get onto the ballot.[57]  Election officials can petition the Supreme Court to dissolve parties failing to meet the requisite registration numbers.  Such was the fate of Russia’s Republican Party in March of 2007, which was shown to have only 40,000 members.[58]  Though the Republicans never won State Duma seats, some members won election as independents from single-constituency districts in the past.[59]  The justification for the 50,000 member requirement is to improve electoral efficiency by ridding Russia of the numerous small parties that formed in the 1990s.[60]

            Critics of Federal Law No. 51-F3 have voiced concern that the new scheme allows for the majority parties to eliminate any remaining opposition.[61]  In addition, reports tell of parties selling spots on their party lists.  The current majority party, United Russia, is reported to have placed popular governors at the top of its party list for the 2003 State Duma election, only to assign seats to other candidates after the election.[62] 

President Putin defended the change in the same way he defended his new power to appoint regional governors.  He views the law as necessary for combating terrorism and corruption.  Yevgenia Albats of Moscow’s Higher School of Economics is among the unconvinced.  She has argued the reforms are merely an attempt to gain total control cloaked in national security concerns.[63]


II(C). Human Rights

            The Russian Constitution explicitly protects free speech and incorporates international law to protect other human rights.  Article 17 states, “the basic rights and liberties in conformity with the commonly recognized principles and norms of the international law shall be recognized and guaranteed in the Russian Federation and under this Constitution.”[64]  Article 29 expressly protects “the right to freedom of thought and speech.”[65]  Article 31 protects freedom of assembly, stating, “Citizens of the Russian Federation shall have the right to gather peacefully, without weapons, and to hold meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets.”[66] 

In practice, however, these constitutional provisions mean nothing if the Russian government refuses to respect them.  The government exercises control over non-governmental organizations.  Individuals wishing to voice dissent against their government’s policies and practices have been stifled.  Then there is the well-publicized threat of bodily harm to Russian reporters.  Each of these categories deserves a more detailed examination. 


II(C)(1). Non-governmental organizations

            Federal Law No. 18-FZ, known commonly as the Russian NGO Law, “significantly expands government control over NGOs and considerably restricts the right to association and the right to privacy of NGOs and NGO members.”[67]  President Putin signed the law on January 10, 2006, and it went into effect on April 18, 2006.[68]  The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s U.S. Ambassador, Julie Finley, has set forth specific concerns over the law.[69]

The law allows the Federal Registration Service to initiate judicial action to halt the activities of foreign NGOs that “threaten the sovereignty, political independence territorial integrity, national unity and self-identification, cultural heritage and national interests of the Russian Federation.”  It also “gives extensive powers to the Federal Registration Service to refuse registration of Russian and foreign NGOs and to monitor and control their activities.”  Finley has ultimately concluded that, “given the use of vague criteria, there is a real risk that the law could be applied selectively for political purposes.”[70]


II(C)(2). Freedom of speech and assembly

Recently, activists have pointed to a continued increase in “Soviet-style restrictions on freedom of speech and expression.”[71]  In a handful of separate instances within just a few months, police have forcefully shut down anti-government protests.  The United States described one of the crackdowns as “‘Russian government heavy-handedness’ against people trying to exercise democratic rights.”[72]  Two recent protests, one in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg, resulted in numerous arrests and allegations of police brutality.[73]

When hundreds of protesters tried to march on the Moscow landmark of Pushkin Square, many, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, were arrested. Others who fought with police were beaten.[74]  At the St. Petersburg protest, participants claim riot police became physically violent towards peaceful protesters.[75]


II(C)(3). An independent media

            Television has arguably overtaken print media in terms of how the average person receives news and information about his or her government.  Its impact on the perception of the September 26, 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is the classic example of television’s influence on democracy.[76]  That influence is not lost on President Putin, who has taken steps to assert control over Russian television stations.  A state-controlled company called Gazprom took over Russia’s only independent television station on April 14, 2001, thus granting the government greater control over television’s ability to influence the public.[77]

            Print media, while more independent than television, thanks to the Internet, faces an entirely different threat.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, over the past fifteen years Russia is the third most dangerous country for journalists, behind only Iraq and Algeria.[78]  Russia is different than Iraq and Algeria, however, which have both experienced wars in that time frame.  As Committee to Protect Journalists communications director Abi Wright noted, there have been thirteen “contract-style killings since Vladimir Putin took office.”  Wright calls this a “major indicator of the kind of press freedom climate that you find today in Russia.”[79]


Part III: A definition of democracy

            Most people have some abstract notion of democracy.  They know it when they see it, yet may be unable to put their understanding of democracy into words.  In order properly to designate Russia’s current status as either democratic or non-democratic, one must work within a definitional framework.  According to Robert A. Dahl, large-scale, modern representative democratic (“polyarchal”) governments are characterized by the use of six political institutions.  The six institutions of polyarchal governments include entrusting power in elected representatives; free, fair, and frequent elections; freedom of expression; access to independent sources of information; associational autonomy; and inclusive citizenship.[80]  A closer look at each of Dahl’s institutions reveals why they help to define modern democracies.

            Pure democracy, in which every citizen has a chance to voice concerns and exercise control, simply cannot work on a large scale.  This is where elected representatives come in.  By concentrating governmental authority in public representatives, democratic government allows the masses to have a say in what policies the government chooses, at least in the most practical way possible.

            Free, Fair, and frequent elections are a corollary of the use of elected representatives.  If people are to choose government officials, and entrust them with the power to enact and administer laws, those officials must be the candidates the people actually want to elect.  Dahl defines a free election as one in which people participate without fear of reprisal, and a fair election as one in which all votes are counted as equal.[81]  He further explains that frequent elections are necessary for people to maintain control over their government.[82]

            Freedom of expression is necessary for people to participate in the democratic process.[83]  To run a successful democratic government, people must have a chance to persuade others of their views.  Moreover, freedom of expression allows people to influence elected officials.  When people are free to express their opinions, the decisions and actions of elected officials can more closely reflect the will of the public.

            Availability of independent sources of information is closely related to freedom of expression.  For people to share their ideas properly they must have access to the information they need to formulate those ideas in the first place.  That information must come from some source other than the government if society is to form accurate opinions of the government, taking into account criticism of the government’s policies and conduct. 

            Dahl explains that for elections to succeed, people must be free to join into groups for the furtherance of their ideas.[84]  Moreover, once one group forms, people opposed to that group must be free to join together.  Modern democratic governments rely on political parties to energize the electorate as well as to educate it.  Trade associations, professional groups, trade unions, and NGOs also play an essential role in political mobilization.

            The notion of inclusive citizenship was, according to Dahl, the last institution to form in modern democracies.[85]  By an inclusive citizenship, Dahl means that nearly adult citizen must have the right to participate in the political process.  They must be afforded the opportunity to vote and to run for political office.


Part IV: What Putin’s reforms mean within the democratic framework

            The facts, and the framework within which to analyze the facts, are clear.  The appointment of regional governors, the practical limitations on dissent, the situation with the media, and the new legislative election procedures all impact Russia’s ability to govern within the framework of Dahl’s polyarchy.  What follows is the analysis of these issues against the backdrop of elections, elected officials, freedom of expression, alternative sources of information, associational autonomy, and inclusive citizenship.



IV(A). Free, Fair and Frequent Elections

            One thing that can be said in favor of Russian elections is they are frequent.  With election cycles at intervals similar to the world’s healthiest democracies, frequency is not the problem.  Successful democracies however, must utilize frequent elections that are also free and fair.  Russia exemplifies the use of frequent elections that are neither free nor fair.  The appointment of regional governors, the media problem, and the new system for electing the State Duma all impact Russia’s ability to utilize free, fair and frequent elections.

            Appointing regional governors is perhaps the clearest example of Russia’s failure to use elections.  No longer will citizens of the various regions have a direct voice in choosing their governors.  Instead, they will be forced to rely on their legislature to approve or deny the president’s appointments.  While this offers some regional control over the choice of governor, it is likely that the regional legislatures will be wary of defying an ever more powerful president, considering the president can dissolve the legislature if it rejects two consecutive nominees.

The media must be allowed to cover all sides to the issues and all candidates for Russia to run fair elections.  Likewise, candidates must have access to media outlets in order to get their messages across to voters.  The dwindling number of independent news agencies in Russia poses the prospect of abusive campaign tactics going unreported.  The total lack of independent television stations is perhaps the greatest risk factor for misuse of mass media by the majority.  Ultimately, the government can use state-run television and print media as a way of monopolizing the attention of the voting public. 

            Federal Law No. 51-F3 determines how the Duma is to be elected in the future.  Hopefully, voters will be able to discern which party best promotes their interests.  Unfortunately, the proportional system does not seem as capable of creating a connection between would-be legislators and the voting public.  Coupled with the majority’s hold over the media, this system is less capable of establishing a successful institution of elections than elections via single-constituency districts.


IV(B). Elected Officials

            On both the national and regional level, Putin’s reforms led Russia away from polyarchy’s institution of governance by elected officials.  As one of the most basic requirements of a democratic system, elected officials serve the vital purpose of holding policymakers accountable to the true power holders, the public.  There is room for improvement in the use of elected representatives at the regional governor level and in the federal legislative branch.

While the president and local legislatures are still elected, regional governors are now appointed by the president.  This is just the latest step in President Putin’s quest to gain more control over the regions.  His appointment of the seven envoys early in his presidency was just the beginning.  While the regions’ legislatures have a say in approving or disapproving the president’s appointment, they do so at their own peril.  In effect, the president has near total control over the regional executive branches.

The federal legislative branch is also insufficiently composed of elected officials.  Much of the blame goes to Federal Law No. 51-F3.  Granted, the proportional representation scheme the Duma will employ beginning in December, 2007 still relies on elections to choose legislators.  Unfortunately, without single-constituency districts, Russian citizens will no longer be able to point to a particular Duma member and know whom to hold accountable for government policies.  In this way, the new scheme removes one of the main benefits of government by elected representatives.

            Additionally, the use of a purely proportional system in the Duma harkens back to the days when the Communist Party controlled all facets of government.   Instead of appealing to local voters’ needs, politicians looking for a Duma seat will need to work their way up the party hierarchy.  This system has already proven highly susceptible to corruption in Russia, and the reports of bait and switch tactics in the 2003 election show it still is.  An example of this bait and switch tactic occurred in the 2003 State Duma election when United Russia placed popular governors atop its party list, thus enticing voters’ support, only to award seats to other party members later.[86]

            The Federation Council can be considered an even less democratic body than the State Duma.  Since 2000, regional elites, and not voters, choose the two representatives who sit in Moscow.  With the president now appointing regional governors, a president can exert control over the very regional elites who pick the Federation Council members.  Thus, the Federation Council has now become a mechanism whereby the president can exert further control over lawmakers. 


IV(C). Freedom of Expression

Not surprisingly, the centralization of authority in Moscow, justified by a need to combat terrorism, has had residual effects on freedom of expression.  The right to protest government actions peacefully is essential to freedom of expression.  Unfortunately, the majority’s unrelenting drive to maintain authority has led to crackdowns on free expression.  Individuals’ rights to free speech and assembly have not been respected.  Likewise, journalists must go about in fear that criticizing the majority will make them a target for retribution.

When police violently stifle protesters, the effect is twofold.  First, an individual protester who is beaten or arrested is effectively silenced at that moment.  Second, and arguably more damaging to free expression, is the chilling effect on other would-be protesters.  It is clear that for Russia to satisfy the requirement of free expression, people must be allowed to gather together in public and express discontent with their government’s policies. 

Additionally, journalists who criticize the government put themselves in danger.  While most analysts do not go so far as to suggest President Putin has a hand in the violence against journalists in Russia, they all agree he could do more to protect them.  The fact that Russia is the third most dangerous country for journalists has the same effects on free expression as police crackdowns on protesters.  First, it silences individual journalists who fall victim to the violence.  Second, the frequency of the killings and their continued status as unsolved mysteries dissuade others from covering stories that might expose the government’s flaws.


IV(D). Alternative Sources of Information

            Russia has certainly not met polyarchy’s requirement of alternative sources of information.  Granted, this aspect of polyarchy is better developed than some of the others, thanks to the Internet.  Unfortunately, both television and print media have fallen under governmental control.[87]  The endangered journalist situation also comes into play here. 

When state-backed Gazprom bought Russia’s only independent television station, the most influential source of mass media fell under the control of the national government.  State-run and state-influenced television stations only present information the government decides they may, sometimes ignoring stories an independent station would air.[88]  Even with the best of intentions, the ability to disseminate any message over television airwaves creates too strong a temptation to use control over television for political gain. 


IV(E). Associational Autonomy

            The recent reforms, particularly those to the federal legislature and non-governmental organizations, have limited the level of associational autonomy in Russia.  Federal Law No. 51-F3 has two effects on associational autonomy.  It limits would-be legislators’ abilities to associate with the party of their choice.  It also disallows smaller political organizations from even existing.

Whereas single-constituency district Duma seats left open the possibility of independent and minority party candidates winning elections, the only way to win election now is by becoming a member of one of the main political parties.  Aspiring legislators must now join up with one of the larger political parties to have any chance of earning a State Duma seat.  While a small number of large political parties are the norm in even the healthiest democracies, the fact that seats are chosen only on party lines means a would-be legislator does not have the option of associating with no party at all.  Independent and minority party candidates will stand no chance of being elected, though not because the public fails to support them.  They will fail, instead, because the electoral system shuts them out completely.

The second impact of Federal Law No. 51-F3 on associational autonomy affects an even greater number of people.  With the requirement that political parties have a registered membership of at least 50,000 people, even parties with no chance of meeting the 7% threshold for winning State Duma seats may be stamped out by Supreme Court.  This makes it nearly impossible for new political parties to grow from minority opposition voices to viable alternatives to the majority.

The Russian NGO Law also negatively affects associational autonomy.  With the Federal Registration Service empowered to monitor the activities of NGOs, people may be chilled from entering into civil society to begin with.  The government’s power to initiate proceedings to ban foreign NGOs deemed harmful to Russia means an organization someone wants to join may not even exist in Russia.  Of course, if an organization is truly a threat to the public, the government must have the authority to ban it.  The concern with the Russian NGO Law, however, is that it will be applied for political purposes.  Such an application would exemplify the type of limit on associational autonomy that cannot exist in a healthy democracy.


IV(F). Inclusive Citizenship

            While the institution of inclusive citizenship was historically the last to develop in modern democracies, it is already well established in Russia.  No official barrier exists on the right to vote.  However, the 7% threshold means some voters are left without a choice they like.  Of course, even in what are considered the healthiest of democracies, people are often left without a viable option supporting their ideals and goals.  At some point, the desire to give everyone a voice must give way to the practical requirement that government be capable of functioning day to day.  In these terms, Russia has struck a good balance.



Considering Russia’s inexperience with representative government, the political institutions suitable for a democracy were already fragile by the time Putin ascended to the presidency.  Under the shroud of national security, even healthy democracies can begin to chip away at democratic political institutions.  When viewed against the standards of polyarchal governments, today’s Russia is far from deserving the designation of a democracy.  Despite President Putin’s outward expressions in favor of a democratic Russia, in practice the country is less democratic now than it was just a few years ago.  The response to the Beslan school hostage crisis along with the ongoing situation in Chechnya gave President Putin the motive for scaling back democratic reforms achieved in the early post-Soviet era. 

            It is immensely important that Russia establish and maintain the institutions through which democracies govern.  If it does, both the international community and the people of Russia will be far better off for it.  Economically, Russia continues to hold sway over the world’s energy market and is a major player in the defense industry.  Politically, its permanent United Nations Security Counsel seat gives it real authority over international affairs. 

Internally, the Russian people will be far better off living under a healthy polyarchal government.  While not perfect, representative government is better suited to preserve and protect human rights and economic freedoms.  It is also easier to counteract tyranny of the majority than tyranny of a single, supreme ruler.  After centuries of authoritarian rule, the Russian people had a brief glimpse of self-governance.  They now know what it means to live in an open and free society.  The Russian public, however, continues to support leaders and policies that push the country back towards authoritarianism.[89]

The outcome of the upcoming December, 2007 parliamentary elections seems rather easy to predict.  The Putin-backed majority party will likely maintain its hold on the State Duma.  Perhaps the next real opportunity for a meaningful change in Russia will come with the 2008 presidential election.  It is clear that the top echelon of Russian government has historically enjoyed significant sway over the direction of the country.  That was true in pre-Soviet times and during the Soviet era.  However, when that trend carried over to post-Soviet Russia, the prospects for a healthy democracy were severely diminished.

After the 2007 parliamentary elections, the focus will shift to the 2008 presidential election.  Two important questions will ultimately be answered.  The first question is whether President Putin will see to it that he is able to run for a third presidential term.  The Russian constitution limits presidents to serving two successive terms[90] and President Putin has denied he wants to change that.[91]  The second question is whether President Putin will pick a successor, assuming he does not run for a third term, and then attempt to maintain control over the country through that successor.  Ideally, for Russian democracy, future presidents will not be obligated to answer to their predecessors.

Going forward, in order to establish a healthy democracy, Russia’s next president will need to show restraint when dealing with the federal legislature and the regions.  That will require the courage to trust that the public’s spirit is a capable guide for public policy.  Of course, for the public to develop an informed spirit, the next president must also take heed of the Russian Constitution’s protection of individual rights, particularly freedoms of speech and association. 

Some Putin-era reforms were based simply on federal laws.  Others were merely practices without the backing of formal authority.  This means hope remains that future presidents will push for new laws and carry out different policies that favor democratic government.  All is not lost for Russian democracy, but the system instituted under its constitution cannot sustain many more years of micromanagement from the top.  If left free from the type of top-down meddling that has exemplified the past decade, post-Soviet Russia has the potential to grow into a healthy democracy. 

[1] ROBERT A. DAHL, ON DEMOCRACY 90 (Yale University Press, 1998).

[2] Id. at 85.

[3] MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, MEMOIRS 166-68 (Doubleday, 1995).

[4] CHARLES E. ZIEGLER, THE HISTORY OF RUSSIA 150 (Greenwood Press, 1999).

[5] Id. at 153.


[7] GORBACHEV, supra note 3 at 167.

[8] Id.

[9] CROZIER, supra note 4 at 409.


[11] Id. at 170.

[12] The Congress of People’s Deputies was a parliamentary institution to which members were first elected in 1989.  It was responsible for choosing the 450-member Supreme Soviet, which exercised legislative authority.  JOHN R. ROBERSON, TRANSFORMING RUSSIA: 1682-1991 146 (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992).

[13] CROZIER, supra note 4 at 430.

[14] Id. at 431.

[15] Id. at 435.

[16] Id. at 446-48.

[17] KEMPTON AND CLARK, supra note 8 at 32.

[18] Id.

[19] CROZIER, supra note 4 at 446-47.

[20] GORBACHEV, supra note 3 at 626-27.

[21] CROZIER, supra note 4 at 449-53.

[22] KEMPTON AND CLARK, supra note 8 at 34.

[23] ROBERSON, supra note 12 at 158.

[24] CROZIER, supra note 4 at 462.

[25] KEMPTON AND CLARK, supra note 8 at 34-41.

[26] ROBERSON, supra note 12 at 176.


[28] Id. at 34.

[29] Id. at 90-91.

[30] ZIEGLER, supra note 4 at 191.

[31] Id. at 93.



[34] Id. at 54.

[35] JACK, supra note 22 at 46.

[36] Id. at 80.

[37] Id. at 42.

[38] BAKER AND GLASSER, supra note 26 at 54.

[39] On September 1, 2004, pro-Chechen gunmen took hostages at a school in North Ossetia, Russia.  Russian security forces stormed the school in an attempt to free the hostages.  331 people, many of them school children, were killed during the standoff and the attempted rescue.  Rebels Blamed for Beslan Deaths, BBC NEWS, December 22, 2006, (available at

[40] Russia: Putin Seeking Government Changes to Strengthen Fight Against Terror, REUTERS, September 13, 2004, (available at

[41] KEMPTON AND CLARK, supra note 8 at 16.

[42] Id.

[43] Sophie Lambroschini, 2000 in Review: Putin’s Policy Aimed At Strengthening The State, RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY, December 19, 2000, (available at

[44] David Johnson, Court upholds constitutionality of new gubernatorial election procedures, CENTER FOR DEFENSE INFORMATION, December 21, 2005 (available at

[45] Robert Coalson, Analysis: How Will Russian Governors Be Appointed?, CENTER FOR DEFENSE INFORMATION, November 1, 2004 (available at

[46] Jeremy Bransten, Russia: Putin Signs Bill Eliminating Direct Elections of Governors, RADIO FREE EUROPE/ RADIO LIBERTY, December 13, 2004 (available at

[47] JOHNSON, supra note 36.

[48] Peter Baker, Putin Moves to Centralize Authority, WASHINGTON POST, September 14, 2004 (available at

[49] The State Duma is the lower house of Russia’s parliament, comprised of 450 members.  ZIEGLER, supra note 4 at 7.

[50] BRANSTEN, supra note 38.

[51] David Johnson, Court upholds constitutionality of new gubernatorial election procedures, CENTER FOR DEFENSE INFORMATION, December 21, 2005 (available at

[52] See Ariel Cohen, Putin’s Legacy and United Russia’s New Ideology, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION, June 1, 2006 (available at

[53] RUSSIAN CONST. art 96 (available at

[54] Major stages of representative (legislative) power history in Russia and establishing of the Council of Federation (available at

[55] BAKER, supra note 48.

[56] Duma Election Law: Details (available at

[57] Russian court liquidates veteran opposition party, REUTERS, March 23, 2007 (available at

[58] Russia’s Republican Party was considered a liberal opposition party.  It often voiced challenges of President Putin’s policies, including his reforms of the political and electoral system.  See Leon Aron, Democracy in Russia: can a rejuvenated Republican party unify the liberal opposition to Putin? THE WEEKLY STANDARD, September 26, 2005 (available at

[59] Id.

[60] Id.

[61] Daisy Sindelar, 2004 And Beyond: In Russia, Tragedy Furthers Kremlin Vision of Centralized State, RADIO FREE EUROPE/ RADIO LIBERTY, December 15, 2004 (available at

[62] BAKER, supra note 48.

[63] SINDELAR, supra note 49.

[64] RUSSIAN CONST. art 17 (available at

[65] RUSSIAN CONST. art 29 (available at

[66] RUSSIAN CONST. art 31 (available at

[67] Alison Khami, The Russian NGO Law: Potential Conflicts with International, National, and Foreign Legislation, 9 THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF NOT-FOR-PROFIT LAW, December 2006 (available at

[68] Yevgeny Volk, Russia’s NGO Law: An Attack on Freedom and Civil Society, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION, May 24, 2006 (available at

[69] Jeffrey Thomas, U.S. Says Russian NGO Law Does Not Meet Human Rights Commitments, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE (available at

[70] Id.

[71] Maria Danilova, Activists Say Russia Stifling Dissent, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, March 27, 2007, (available at

[72] Id.

[73]  Police beat anti-Putin protesters in Russia, REUTERS, April 14, 2007 (available at

[74] Chess champion detained at Moscow march, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, April 14, 2007 (available at

[75]  Police beat anti-Putin protesters in Russia, supra, note 61.

[76] Erika Tyner Allen, The Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960, THE MUSEUM OF BROADCAST COMMUNICATIONS, March 19, 2007 (available at

[77] BAKER AND GLASSER, supra note 26 at 78-79.

[78] Joel Simon, Who will be Russia’s conscience? Murder of crusading journalist spotlights dangers of the profession, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS, October 22 October, 2006  (available at

[79] Claire Bigg, Russia: Two Journalists Die in Contract Killings a Year, RADIO FREE EUROPE/ RADIO LIBERTY, October 10, 2006 (available at

[80] DAHL, supra note 1 at 85.

[81] Id. at 95.

[82] Id. at 96.

[83] Id.

[84] Id. at 98.

[85] Id. at 89.

[86] BAKER, supra note 48.

[87]  The Russian state-run oil company, Gazprom, took over Russia’s last independent television station, NTV, in 2001.  BAKER AND GLASSER, supra note 26 at 78-79.  In 2005 Gazprom also purchased over half the shares of Izvestiya, one of Russia’s largest general circulation newspapers.  Claire Bigg, Russia: State-Controlled Gazprom Buys Leading Independent Daily ‘Izvestiya’, RADIO FREE EUROPE/ RADIO LIBERTY, June 3, 2005 (available at

[88] For example, it is reported that Russian televisions stations ignored the story of poisoned ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko after a radio station first broke the story.  Kyrill Dissanayake, Russian media shun poisoning case,” BBC NEWS, November 20, 2006 (available at

[89] See Russians Support Putin’s Re-Nationalization of Oil, Control of Media, But See Democratic Future, WORLD PUBLIC OPINION, July 10, 2006 (available at

[90] RUSSIAN CONST. art 81 (available at

[91] Putin: I Won’t Run Again: Russian President Insists His Rule Coming To End; Tells West To Stop Interfering, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, April 26, 2007 (available at