More on Putin and Democracy


If you type the words “Putin, democracy” in Google search, dozens of articles appear on the screen, all saying one thing. The consequence of such complacent consensus of opinion is a generalized ignorance of where exactly Russia is headed now. Read on…


                                                   More on Putin and Democracy


                                                     by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



If you type the words “Putin, democracy” in Google search, dozens of articles appear on the screen, all saying one thing: that Vladimir Putin has pushed back the freedoms of the 1990s, …..that he is an authoritarian and Russian democracy is a sham.


It is not my intent in this brief essay to deal with each of the constantly repeated points in the indictment of what is called the Putin regime.  They are all disputable, but I leave that task for another place, another time. What I propose to examine here is the consequence of such complacent consensus of opinion, namely a generalized ignorance of where exactly Russia is headed now.


Indeed, hardly any attention is given to just what is underway today within the executive power, within the legislative power and in the relations between the two. Russia’s institutional balance is ignored and we are offered only commentaries on people.


At the same time, by creating a straw man, Tsar Putin, the opposition has blinded itself to the man’s real strengths and weaknesses and is thus unable to find leverage against him on the political field.  He remains for them forever the medium rank KGB officer and they miss the point of his extraordinary ability to learn and to adapt his policies to a changing Russia. Unlike Putin, they willfully ignore the very real divisions in post-Soviet society which approached but never quite developed into a civil war. They do not admit that their adversary has thought long and hard about democratic institutions, which he says repeatedly he is seeking to consolidate; and so they overlook any inconsistencies in his logic. 


In his 17 October interview with three senior media executives, Vladimir Putin provided us all with fresh material on his political views.  I propose to focus attention here on two issues which he addressed. But before looking at Putin’s remarks, let us take a step back and put Russia’s constitutional questions in historical perspective.

An elected legislature within the framework of a constitutionally limited monarchy (read: executive power) was the long-standing aspiration of Russian liberals which they wrested from a reluctant tsar following the country’s shameful defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and revolutionary disturbances which followed. 

The First State Duma of 1906 became a forum for the still unsatisfied claims of opposition movements. It was dissolved, but the Second Duma was no better. The parliamentarians were intractable, and in 1907 a coup d’état altered the electoral laws to ensure a quieter ride for the Tsar’s government in its dealings with a tamer legislature.  With real power held beyond the reach of the people’s representatives, pre-1917 Russia never witnessed the formation of modern political parties.

When we ‘fast forward’ to the 1990s and the resuscitated State Duma of the post-Soviet Russian Federation, we find that political life picked up pretty much where it had left off in 1906: with clamorous democratic political movements but no parties worthy of the name, with an ungovernable legislature which made presidential rule by decree a necessity under Boris Yeltsin.   

During his years in power, Putin has de facto taken this political system a long way towards a parliamentary democracy.  The party of power, United Russia which he helped to form and controls, has commanded a majority in the State Duma, so that the business of making laws has followed its normal course, with the participation of the elected representatives of the people.

In the transcript of the 17th October interview (which took place on the anniversary date of the Manifesto which gave Russia its freedoms under Nicholas II), we read that the logic of Dmitri Medvedev’s being named to head the electoral lists of United Russia is that when he takes over as Prime Minister in 2012 he will be at the helm of the majority party in parliament.  Putin states plainly that the cabinet of ministers or ‘government’ is fully empowered to act as the country’s executive and run the affairs of state. Even though the ultimate source of its authority is the president, who appoints and dismisses ministers, he says this cabinet can only be effective if it enjoys a majority in the Duma.


This is the logical institutional evolution which has followed from the PM’s post having been occupied by the country’s de facto senior politician these past three years. Odd as it may be, pundits have concentrated only on Vladimir Putin’s biding time in the wings till he could legally return to the presidency. They have considered this as a tactical move, when, judging by Putin’s words, it may well have been a strategic move. It would appear the country is heading towards the British-style cabinet with the center of political gravity in the legislature.

At the same time, there is another feature of democratic institutions about which Putin’s statements in the interview can legitimately raise concerns, namely his understanding of political parties, which shifts this way and that.  

 Putin explicitly cites the experience of Ukraine with a great many parties in parliament and a government unable to rule effectively as an example of where excessively liberal rules of participation in elections work against the very institutions of democracy. He tells us that the multi-party system is one of those areas where it would be foolhardy to follow Western practices uncritically. He also points admiringly to the way the United States manages to narrow the alternation in power to just two parties, yet give a popular impetus to the process through primaries. 

But his remarks on how United Russia is renewing itself and the future Duma membership suggest undue respect for Soviet traditions, namely cooptation of people from all walks of life. He mentions specifically the inclusion in the party’s electoral lists of persons put forward by NGOs, youth, women’s, professional organizations and trade unions. This may have been appropriate in an assembly which convened for only a brief session and was used to rubber stamp draft laws placed before it by the executive power. But it will not suffice for a free-standing and permanent law-making body.

We see no mention in Vladimir Putin’s discourse of professional politicians put forward by a grass-roots party organization.

When the PM urged the introduction of genuine primaries in all of Russia’s political parties back in August, he was backing the very opposite of cooptation. Yet the proposal was received with great skepticism in the media. I suggest that Russia’s political elites, both those in the party of power and those in the opposition, direct more attention to precisely this shortcoming in the system.  


© Gilbert Doctorow, 2011


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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12,is available in paperback from and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.