If Boris Yeltsin were still alive, he would have celebrated his eightieth birthday on Tuesday. Although his record in the job was chequered, to say the least, the current Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, paid tribute to his predecessor in Yekaterinburg.
A monument to Yeltsin was unveiled in the city where he lived and where, as a communist functionary during the 1970s and 1980s, he built up his political power base. Medvedev chose the occasion to announce an expansion of the human rights council, ordering it to investigate the cases of Yukos bosses Sergei Magitsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
It was an interesting piece of symbolism - both historically and in the context of Russia‘s current system of government. It implied that Yeltsin was the father of democracy and human rights in Russia and it rather suggested that his successors haven’t been as faithful to that legacy as they might have been.
Clearly, there are problems with that interpretation. It can be argued that Mikhail Gorbachev should take at least as much credit for Russia’s transition to democracy. Indeed many claim that Gorbachev was the true architect of freedom, while Yeltsin cynically manipulated it to grab power.
As for the former president as a guarantor of democracy - it was Yeltsin who started the process of emasculating the Duma and other institutions. He allowed oligarchy and factionalism to overwhelm party politics and pluralism in the first place. And he took on Chechen nationalism in a mismanaged, brutal war, more or less on a whim.
In short, Yeltsin put in place all the features of Russian government which, when Vladimir Putin hammered them into some semblance of order, western observers portrayed as “regressions” from democracy.
Distilled to its essentials, the popular, potted history of post-Soviet Russia runs as follows: the country experienced a brief flowering of democracy during Yeltsin’s time in power, accompanied by massive corruption and a chaotic economy. When Putin became President he imposed order and brought prosperity, but clamped down on political freedoms and human rights.
I exaggerate of course. Even a casual observer knows that this is a gross simplification and can point to a degeneration of democracy during the later years of Yeltsin's presidency. Broadly though, a lot of media analysis and some academic work comprise variations on a theme. There are exceptions.
Recently I’ve been reading Richard Sakwa’s book about the Medvedev succession, The Crisis of Russian Democracy. It‘s more circumspect than the title suggests. The author launches a persuasive argument that modern Russian history cannot be understood simply as a descent back into authoritarian government.
He suggests a new model for understanding the current regime in Russia, which he calls ‘the dual state‘. His theory is that the state derives its legitimacy from democratic institutions and adherence to the constitution, but Russia is not a western style liberal democracy because an unelected ‘administrative regime’ subverts the constitutional order. These are the various factions - bureaucrats, oligarchs and siloviki which dominate western analyses of Russia.
Sakwa’s thesis is not that the constitutional state is a convenient front for shadowy forces. He believes the two tendencies have reached an uneasy stalemate. The administrative element prevents genuine pluralism from flourishing, while constitutionalism prevents the imposition of full-scale authoritarianism.
I intend to review the book in full soon. Sakwa hangs some penetrating insights upon his model. In particular his theories about the submersion of pluralism within the administrative system and the adaptability of clan politics, which have never developed in Russia to the extent that they have in Ukraine, to competitive party politics.
For the time being, I’ll stick to Yeltsin. The book is relevant because it supports the point that there are significant continuities between Russian politics under Yeltsin and Russian politics under Putin and beyond. The liberal, democratic element is still there and it‘s still important. Medvedev alluded to it when he made his announcement on human rights.
As he signed the presidential decree, he also remarked, “I am doing this right now. The way Yeltsin really liked to do things”. It’s a telling comment and it hints at a consolidation of power in one institution which long preceded Putin. The democratic element didn't die with Yeltsin and the authoritarian tendency wasn't invented by Putin.