Monday, 10 December 2007

Yeltsin wasn't Russia's democrat: Putin is following in his footsteps

Dmitry Medvedev looks set to be the next President of the Russian Federation. Whether he acquires real power or whether Vladimir Putin, who will give United Russia's chosen candidate his backing, retains the bulk of influence will become clear in the months after the March election.

Putin’s murmurings about alleviating election fatigue have been interpreted in a sinister fashion by some commentators. The suggestion is that Russia is embarking on a course whereby managed elections could become effectively no elections at all.

The difficulty with this argument lies not necessarily with the assertion that Putin is becoming increasingly tyrannical but rather with the conception of Russia between 1991 and 2000 being on a meaningful road to liberal democracy. This view posits a tradition of authoritarianism linking Putin to the Soviet regime, interrupted by movement toward a democratic path under Boris Yeltsin.

More subtle commentators may acknowledge a much earlier psychological attachment to authoritarian rule in Russia and link a continuing tradition of autocratic and tyrannical government further back to the Tsarist regime. But in so doing they tend to conflate Yeltsin’s regime with the Provisional Government in 1917 and the continuance of an urge for liberal democratic reform.

This is a fallacy. Yeltsin actually began to roll back the liberalising reforms Gorbachev had instigated after the fall of the Union in 1991. The executive and legislative functions acquired by the Supreme Soviet under Gorbachev were not retained. Rather Yeltsin manoeuvred to be free of scrutiny from representative bodies and preferred to rule by presidential decree. These machinations culminated of course in the constitutional crisis of 1993 with Yeltsin strengthening his autocratic hand.

It is inaccurate and disingenuous to portray Yeltsin as a democratic reformer. Yeltsin presided over a liberalising of the market, not a strengthening of democratic traditions, institutions or the building of strong civil society. Gorbachev was in fact a much more profound proponent of democratic freedoms after the journey he had completed by 1991.

Vladimir Putin has presided over a much more coherent and efficient ordering of Russian society than Yeltsin managed, but he is merely following a centralising instinct which his predecessor shared. It was Yeltsin’s brusque treatment of representative reforms Gorbachev had instigated and his contempt for the Congress of People’s Deputies and its upper chamber the Supreme Soviet which began the degradation of liberal reforms in Russia.

Gorbachev identified this trend as early as December 1991 when 3 of the 15 republican presidents disregarded democratic and constitutional procedure to preside over the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States and the destruction of the Union. His derisive term was instructive of Gorbachev’s own political and liberalising journey – he referred to them as “neo-Bolsheviks”.

Cynical observers might see in the treatment of respective Russian leaders and western evaluation of their reforming instincts less desire to see the democratic will of Russian people protected or enhanced and more interest in unfettered access to Russian markets and resources.

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