Misperception and Reality

Has there been "rollback" of democracy in Russia under Putin?

February 16, 2016

In totalitarian countries . .

The government tortures, kills and suppresses unions and the press.

Whereas in authoritarian countries . .

These functions are left to the private sector.

Jules Feiffer cartoon on statement by former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jean Kirkpatrick


In order to judge whether there has been a “rollback of democracy” in Russia, we need to be clear about what is meant by the democratic state of affairs believed to exist before democracy was “rolled back.”  We also need to consider what is meant by “rollback,” and what counts as evidence that rollback of democracy has taken place.  Such questions may appear irrelevant, or merely philosophical to say the least.  Everyone knows what democracy is, don’t they?  Everyone knows which countries are models of democracies, for example, Canada, the United States, and the democracies of Western Europe.  When people think about those regimes under which there has supposedly been a rollback of democracy, these are the models they have in mind.  So, why worry about questions of definition?


Soviet propagandists used to argue that American democracy is phony.  Americans may believe that they have choice, so they argued, yet in fact they only got to choose between Rockefeller millionaires and Kennedy millionaires. They get a choice only between factions of the capitalist ruling class.  Flawed as this argument may be, it makes a valid point: The choices offered at election time are almost always very limited and, to a large extent, not very significant to most citizens. 


We need not rely on Soviet propaganda to find support for such a view.  Much political science literature points to the highly-problematic nature of the concept of democracy.  John Dunn asserts that there is little evidence that democracy exists anywhere.  "We are all democrats today," he writes, “Mr. Callahan and Madam Mao, Mr. Brezhnev and President Amin, Mr. Trudeau and even Mr. Vorster." ... Democratic theory is the moral Esperanto of the present nation-state system, the language in which all Nations are truly United, the public cant of the modern world.  And yet, Dunn continues, democracy is "a dubious currency indeed.  – and one which only a complete imbecile would be likely to take quite at its face value, quite literally."  There is so little concrete evidence of ... democracy as a social fact, ... "so little social and historical reality actually to talk about, there might prove to be rather little to say. Democratic reality is pretty thin on the ground." (1979: 1-2).


Karl Popper, author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, writes that nowhere do “The People” actually rule themselves.  Everywhere, he writes, they are ruled by elites and bureaucrats, "our civil servants or uncivil masters ... whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to make accountable for their actions" (1988, 20).


Robert Dahl, one of the most distinguished theorists of democracy in the United States, came to the conclusion that “democracy” is not an appropriate word to characterize the regime in the United States.  In his classic study, Who Governs, Dahl and his associates sought to determine who actually governs in the City of New Haven, Connecticut.  They found that actually nobody rules, and that elected officials, like the Mayor, are not even among the most important wielders of power.  Dahl characterized the regime in the United States as a “Polyarchy–a system of pluralistic competition among various power groups in society. 


Even if we are satisfied that democracy actually exits in some meaningful form in the US and other established democracies, it is notoriously difficult to define.  One long-recognized and widely-discussed reason is the essential-contestedness of the concept.  There is fundamental disagreement as to the very meaning of democracy.  A good example of such disagreement is provided by the tension between the traditions of representative democracy and participatory democracy.  Most people are content with the principle of representative democracy.  Obviously, not everyone has the time, knowledge, interest, and skill to participate much in self-government, so we elect people to represent us.  From time to time, we pass judgment on their performance by means of elections.  And yet, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseu, Englishmen are slaves, except for once every five years when they elect their representatives. According to the highly influential tradition of participatory democracy, when citizens are not actually governing themselves, there is no democracy.  Such disagreement affects even the kinds of pragmatic definitions used by political scientists who study what they assume to be democratic regimes. (Gallie, 1956; Kekes, 1977; Swanton, 1985). 


What about rollback?  What about breakdown?  What are they about? Are all rollbacks and all breakdowns of democracy alike enough to represent relevant categories?  Is, for example, a coup d’état in a well-functioning democracy anything like a breakdown of democracy resulting from deep rifts and conflicts in society? 


The metaphors of “rollback” and “breakdown” are misleading.  Democracy is not something that can be either created or rolled back, nor is it like a machine that breaks down, or a house of cards that collapses.  Governments may implement oppressive measures, yet if strong civil society exists, it will eventually push back, energized by oppression.  If civil society does not push back, the society in question probably was not really democratic in the first place. Some societies are more conducive than others to authoritarian rule, where tradition or public sympathy supports authoritarian rule. In such societies, authoritarian rule may be entirely compatible with democracy.  Oppressive regimes can survive in the long run only if they are supported by society, or at least if there is not sufficient support for resistance. 


Has there been a rollback of democracy in Russia?  Was Boris Yeltsin more of a democrat than Mikhail Gorbachev or Vladimir Putin?  In 1993, Yeltsin illegally dissolved the Supreme Soviet, and shelled the Russian White House, resulting in the deaths of 187 people. He unconstitutionally scrapped the existing constitution, and temporarily banned political opposition.  Two years after coming to power on a wave of democratic support, he abandoned his democratic political base, and came to rely on the support of oligarchs who financed his victorious Presidential campaign in 1996.  Dmitry Medvedev recently confirmed that, as long rumored, the 1996 Presidential Election was falsified, allowing a highly unpopular Yeltsin to win reelection by a substantial margin.  Is the state of democracy worse today under Putin, who has consistently enjoyed high approval ratings, than it was back then?


Jack Matlock, the last U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union wrote in 2006 that "Putin can't backtrack on democracy, when it is clear Russia never had it" The pre-Putin, post-Soviet era, Matlock said, was "closer to chaos and anarchy" than anything resembling democracy.” ... “To most Russians, ‘democracy’ means the chaos of the late 1980s and 1990s.  If you ask a Russian if he wants "democracy," he will say absolutely not.”  In the same vein, Stephen Holmes wrote in 2001 that “Vladimir Putin may or may not be dismantling Yeltsinism. But he is not dismantling ‘democracy,’ for no such system existed in Russia before his accession to power. After a decade of multiparty elections, neither the rich nor the powerful seem to take the slightest interest in the well-being of the electorate ... That the Duma's switch from pointless opposition under Yeltsin to opportunistic servility under Putin has made little difference, one way or the other, to the average Russian voter illustrates the immateriality of democratic rites and symbols to the everyday struggle for survival.  ... Since basic rights patently serve the interests of a few without equally plainly improving the lives of the many, it is not surprising that Russia's shaky liberalism, now under siege, finds few defenders inside the country.”  One might argue seriously that the situation has improved greatly since Matlock and Holmes gave these assessments.  


If Putin had wanted to establish a genuine dictatorship, he has had sixteen years to do so. By “genuine dictatorship,” I mean something like the regimes of Pinochet in Chile, the Greek Colonels, or the Argentinian military, where tens of thousands disappeared, were tortured, and/or killed.  Are Russians really less free than they were under Yeltsin?  Are they terrified of the FSB (one of the successors to the KGB)?  Do Russians today have less influence on government than they did under Yeltsin?  It is widely believed that freedom of the press has died in Russia. To be sure, there is less media freedom today in Russian than there was when Putin came to power.  Yet Russian media are full of severe criticism of Putin and his regime. In fact, in some media it is difficult to find a sympathetic word for Putin and the regime.  How many media outlets have been shut down?  Laws have recently been passed in Russia reducing the limit of foreign ownership of media, from 50% to 20%.  But many countries with impeccable democratic credentials, for example, the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, similarly limit foreign ownership of mass media.  Are Russian prisons full of political prisoners?  Are people afraid to criticize Putin and his regime to strangers and in public?  How many demonstrators are still in prison?


To say that many Russians are critical of Putin and his regime would be an understatement.  Disgust or hatred would more accurately describe the attitudes of many-–at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and particularly among university-educated, middle-class citizens.  This is not because the regime has become more repressive, but because the public has changed.  People have lost their fear, and are getting used to the idea of a country that belongs to them, rather than the ruling elites and the чиновничство (officialdom).  They are no longer willing to accept passively the indignities to which their parents used to be accustomed.  Even the parents have drifted away from habitual passive thinking and behavior.  Many are simply tired of Putin and the system he consolidated after assuming power in 2000. 


Some time ago, a journalist asked Putin: “When will there be more democracy in Russia?” He replied: “When the people demand more democracy, there will be more democracy.” That time has slowly begun to arrive. The demonstrations that took place in Russia in 2011–13 did not result in a lasting opposition movement, but this failure of an opposition to materialize is not due to repression. It is mainly due to the fact that credible alternative leaders and programs have not yet materialized. But they will. 


Throughout history, progress towards democracy has rarely taken place at the initiative of rulers and elites.  Most significant advances of democracy have involved struggle, and there have often been periods of repression. The struggle of the rising middle classes for representation in America–the Boston Tea Party–“taxation without representation is tyranny.”  In France, the Oath of the Tennis Court, taken by the members of the Third Estate, the people’s Estate, in 1789, “not to separate ... until the Constitution of the kingdom is established.”  Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, there was the ongoing struggle to extend the vote–first to non-property-owners, then to women, then to others, like African Americans in America, who had been denied the opportunity to vote.  Ruling elites do not normally democratize without being pushed, and when they are pushed, they rarely concede more power to the people than they have to. 


Throughout history, many governments have taken measures that could be called rollbacks, but which actually pushed democratic development forward.  Had King John I of England not abused his royal powers, the aristocracy would not have been provoked to mobilize and compel the him to sign the Magna Carta. The dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell in Great Britain from 1653-1658 can certainly be called rollback from the democratic revolution that had preceded it.  Yet, as Barrington Moore argues in his classic work, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Cromwell’s dictatorship pushed democratic development forward.  It inoculated the British with a lasting distaste for tyranny.  Since Cromwell’s regime was a dictatorship, it angered the people, but since it was a mild dictatorship, people were not afraid to criticize it to each other.  This critical discussion became an important element of British democratic political culture. 


It is common in developed democracies for chief executives to try to extend their authority, ignoring established limitations.  Sometimes, they succeed, sometimes democratic forces push back.  President Theodore Roosevelt, intent on making the United States a world naval power wanted to demonstrate U.S. naval power by sending the navy around the world.  Congress refused to appropriate funds.  So, Roosevelt sent the U.S. Navy half way around the world, giving Congress no choice but to appropriate funds to bring it back.  President Franklin Roosevelt tried to increase the size of the Supreme Court (“pack it”), so he could appoint justices favorable to his New Deal programs.  All of America’s wars since World War II have been initiated by Presidents, although the Constitution specifically provides that only Congress can declare war. 


What makes a regime truly liberal and democratic is that possibilities exist for citizens to organize and oppose policies of which they disapprove.  And by “possibilities,” I do not mean only what governments allow.  

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