By David Zafiratos
This paper sorts through the
policies that have affected
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
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. Then it applies the situation in today’s
Part I: Historical background
I(A). 1985-1993: Gorbachev’s reforms
and the dissolution of the
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. 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.” 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. In fact, Gorbachev began selling Glasnost and Perestroika, internationally, months prior to taking office when meeting with Margaret Thatcher. 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.” Regarding Perestroika, he also stressed the importance of “upgrading the economic mechanism and the system of management in its entirety.”
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.” However, it is believed that while Gorbachev
wanted to reform the Soviet system, he was held back by a competing desire to
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
With Yeltsin as the President of
In March of 1991, the Soviet Union
held a referendum posing the question of whether the
The attempt not only failed to propel the Communist Party back into
control, it backfired by creating a hero out of
I(B). The Yeltsin Presidency:
Boris Yeltsin’s Presidency had a
profound affect on the current state of
I(B)(1). The effects of early post-Soviet privatization
In terms of
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. The small region in southern
The war lasted until 1996, when
President Yeltsin’s administration negotiated a cease-fire and pulled out its
troops. The result was practical
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. In 1998, President Yeltsin appointed him to
head the KGB’s successor, the FSB. Then, on August 9, 1999, President Yeltsin
introduced Putin as his new prime minister. As prime minister, Putin gained authorization
from President Yeltsin to dispatch troops to
Part II: Putin’s reforms
Throughout his administration,
President Putin has set forth policies and proposed legislation that have
II(A). Regional Governors
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.
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. The regional legislature then must vote to approve the nominee by a simple majority. Should a regional legislature reject two nominees, however, the president can dissolve that legislature and simply appoint an acting governor. Additionally, the president may dismiss governors in whom the president loses confidence, or who improperly fulfill their duties.
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. It has also been justified by the need to
combat corruption. At the time the new
law came into being, however, State Duma
Deputy Sergei Glazev explained that President Putin had misjudged the affect
centralizing authority would have on the country. Others have argued the law violates the
Russian Constitution. Nonetheless,
II(B). The Federal Legislature and electoral politics
President Putin’s initiatives
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. 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.
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. Beginning with the December, 2007 elections, all members will be selected proportionally along party lines. 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. Election officials can petition the Supreme
Court to dissolve parties failing to meet the requisite registration
numbers. Such was the fate of
Critics of Federal Law No. 51-F3 have voiced concern that the new scheme allows for the majority parties to eliminate any remaining opposition. 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.
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
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
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.” President Putin signed the law on January 10,
2006, and it went into effect on April 18, 2006. The Organization for Security and Cooperation
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
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.” In a handful of separate instances within
just a few months, police have forcefully shut down anti-government
When hundreds of protesters tried to march on the
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. 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
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
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
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. He further explains that frequent elections are necessary for people to maintain control over their government.
Freedom of expression is necessary for people to participate in the democratic process. 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. 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. 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
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.
Appointing regional governors is
perhaps the clearest example of
The media must be allowed to cover all sides to the issues and all
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
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
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
IV(C). Freedom of Expression
Not surprisingly, the centralization of authority in
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
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
IV(D). Alternative Sources of Information
When state-backed Gazprom bought
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
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
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
It is immensely important that
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.
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
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 and President Putin has denied he wants to change that. 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,
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,
 ROBERT A. DAHL, ON DEMOCRACY 90 (Yale University Press, 1998).
 MIKHAIL GORBACHEV, MEMOIRS 166-68 (Doubleday, 1995).
E. ZIEGLER, THE HISTORY OF
 BRIAN CROZIER, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SOVIET EMPIRE 404 (Forum, 1999).
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 DANIEL R. KEMPTON AND TERRY D. CLARK, UNITY OR SEPARATION: CENTER-PERIPHERY RELATIONS IN THE FORMER SOVIET UNION 102 (Praeger, 2002).
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 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 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6202735.stm).
 Russia: Putin Seeking Government Changes to Strengthen Fight Against Terror, REUTERS, September 13, 2004, (available at http://www.rferl.org/featuresarticle/2004/09/3CD7720B-9B8A-4A74-9759-EB13B7522481.html).
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State Duma is the lower house of
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 See Ariel Cohen, Putin’s Legacy and United Russia’s New Ideology, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION, June 1, 2006 (available at http://www.heritage.org/Research/RussiaandEurasia/bg1940.cfm).
 RUSSIAN CONST. art 96 (available at http://www.russianembassy.org/RUSSIA/CONSTIT/chapter5.htm).
 Major stages of representative (legislative)
power history in
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 Duma Election Law: Details (available at http://www.russiavotes.org/duma/duma_electoral_system.php).
 Russian court liquidates veteran opposition party, REUTERS, March 23, 2007 (available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id//17752021.html).
 Daisy Sindelar, 2004 And Beyond: In Russia, Tragedy Furthers Kremlin Vision of Centralized State, RADIO FREE EUROPE/ RADIO LIBERTY, December 15, 2004 (available at http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/8505-4.cfm).
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 RUSSIAN CONST. art 29 (available at http://www.russianembassy.org/RUSSIA/CONSTIT/chapter2.htm).
 RUSSIAN CONST. art 31 (available at http://www.russianembassy.org/RUSSIA/CONSTIT/chapter2.htm).
 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 http://www.icnl.org/knowledge/ijnl/vol9iss1/art_6.htm#_ednref2).
 Yevgeny Volk, Russia’s NGO Law: An Attack on Freedom and Civil Society, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION, May 24, 2006 (available at http://www.heritage.org/Research/RussiaandEurasia/wm1090.cfm).
 Jeffrey Thomas, U.S. Says Russian NGO Law Does Not Meet Human Rights Commitments, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE (available at http://usinfo.state.gov/eur/Archive/2006/Jan/27-624688.html).
 Maria Danilova, Activists Say Russia Stifling Dissent, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, March 27, 2007, (available at http://www.msnbc.com/id/17826668.html).
beat anti-Putin protesters in
 Chess champion detained at Moscow march, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, April 14, 2007 (available at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18096644.html).
beat anti-Putin protesters in
 Erika Tyner Allen, The Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates, 1960, THE MUSEUM OF BROADCAST COMMUNICATIONS, March 19, 2007 (available at http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/K/htmlK/kennedy-nixon/kennedy-nixon.htm).
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Simon, Who will be
Bigg, Russia: Two Journalists Die in
Contract Killings a Year, RADIO FREE
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 The Russian state-run oil company, Gazprom,
 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 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6165596.stm).
 See Russians Support Putin’s Re-Nationalization of Oil, Control of Media, But See Democratic Future, WORLD PUBLIC OPINION, July 10, 2006 (available at http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/breuropera/224.php?nid=&id=&pnt=224&lb=breu).
 RUSSIAN CONST. art 81 (available at http://www.russianembassy.org/RUSSIA/CONSTIT/chapter4.htm).
 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 http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/04/26/world/main2730378.shtml).