The future of Russian democracy under the leadership of
Vladamir Putin. Looks specifically at the economy, the political
atmosphere, and the military.
Written: November 2000
By: Emily Clough
The world waits with both apprehension and excitement to see what legacy Vladamir Putin, the
President of Russia as of May 2000 with a 53% vote, will leave behind him. Will he, as some believe,
rule with an iron fist, perhaps returning Russia to its dark days of repression under communism? The
arrest of media giant, Vladimir V. Gusinsky, who criticized Putin on Russian television, and the
intensification of the Chechen war both seem to lend credence to this fearful and apprehensive view.
On the other hand, will Putin attempt to democratize Russia, liberating it from its totalitarian past and
perhaps giving Putin a grand reputation in world politics? As states Lilia Shevtsova in her book
Yeltsin's Russia - Myths and Realityi, it appears that both optimists and pessimists can find evidence to
support their views on the progress of democracy in Russia and future of the world's former
superpower. The future of Russia is clearly in the hands of Putin. Inheriting the structure of Yeltsin's
super-presidency, Putin has the power to change society as he sees fit. There are three main areas of
reform that will determine Russia's future:
Though the Russian economy has been in dire straights since the collapse of communism, there
are some definite signs of financial resurgence that fuel an optimistic outlook for the future. The signs
are present that Russia is building a solid economic base that will establish credibility and stability:
inflation is under control, the ruble is stabilizing, taxes are being collected and domestic companies are
improving in management and production. In pure statistics, the foreign currency reserves are growing
by $1 billion a month and the economy, by official records, rose 2.3% in 1999. The Economist points
out that optimism for Russia's recovery comes not only from the improvement of the enterprises but
also from the employees within these companiesii. Young, educated, and open-minded Russians are
entering the workforce, replacing the old guard of conservatives who dominated both politics and
business in the communist era. High market prices for export oil are earning much needed income for
the Russian economy, increasing foreign currency reserves and stimulating production. The 1998
financial crisis, though it devalued the ruble by 75%, served as a wake-up call for managers to pay
attention to the details of properly running a business, proving the risks of poor management and
production and the rewards of exportation and efficiency. More importantly, the devaluation served to
lessen the massive burden of foreign debt that is choking any growth Russia manages to make.
In order for Russia to participate and compete in the global economy, Putin must reform the
market structure, escaping from the "the no-man's-land between the state-controlled economy and the
free market"iii. Many scholars believe that Putin is well on his way to implementing a full market
structure, with his experiences in East Germany and Leningrad making him a true believer in the
market economy. Boris Fydorov, former Russian Finance Minister, is very optimistic that the
economic transition is headed "clearly in the right direction" to a "normal market economy and
democracy,"iv seeing the transition completed in the next 5 to 10 years. Fydorov believes that "despite
all these scandals and ugly things [i.e. the Loans for Shares program and the widespread corruption],
there is different type of life where people have their own houses and flats, where a lot of businesses
basically thrive." The Russian economy has the potential to begin the 21st century with a stable
economy and optimism for further growth.
However, as with many aspects of modern Russia, there are equal amounts of both positive and
negative factors. Fydorov, as other scholars, places hope for the economy on the increased oil prices
that are earning foreign capital that serves in turn to increase capital for investment and to service the
foreign debt. Though the increase is a positive occurrence in itself, the fact that Russia is not in control
of the oil prices means that their prime source of export income is not stable or reliable. Skepticism is
placed on other positive economic factors, such as the mining of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea, putting
question on whether the Putin is rebuilding the ailing economy for the good of Russia or simply
looking to increase his own power by making some fast cash.v
The Political Atmosphere:
"Every week Putin seems to be leg tackling another of Russia's powerful but possibly corrupt
oligarchs. So far, he has spared some barons, but he has many of them running scared. What's
motivating the crackdown?" vi
This is the essential question surrounding Putin: what is his motivation? Taking the arrest of
media tycoon Vladimir V. Gusinsky as an example, Putin's actions can be read in more than one way.
Some (mainly in the West) see Putin as a reformer, as a progressive democrat looking to cleanse Russia
of corruption and lead it into the next century, with Gusinsky being used as an example to keep the
other oligarchs in line. Others see Putin as a self-serving tyrant, looking to cleanse Russian society in
the style of Stalin, purging all those who hinder his personal success (and the portrayal of Putin as a
puppet in Gusinsky's TV station was definitely not favorable to Putin, thus Gusinsky had to be
silenced). Others do not see Gusinsky's arrest as a positive move to wipe out corruption but as a sign of
the overwhelming power of the oligarchy and Putin's inability to remove it. Though Gusinsky was
arrested, he was soon released, and, as must be pointed out, Gusinsky was an enemy of Putin's. Putin
seems willing to attack the oligarchs not supportive of his regime, but entirely unwilling to act against
his supporters, Yeltsin's "family" or the most powerful oligarchs. Some scholars believe that Putin
does not intend to remove the oligarchs but that he may be "willing to live with the oligarchs and use
them as instruments of economic control, provided they quit meddling in politics." vii
It is interesting to note the discrepancies amongst scholars on the current situation of Russian
society. Some scholars, like Aron, believe that the "press is free from government censorship. The
opposition, no matter how radical, can publish and campaign for office. Free and fiercely competitive
multi-candidate elections are the norm at both the local and national levels. There was not the slightest
infringement of human rights or political liberties, curtailment of the press or harassment of the
opposition."viii The above statement seem questionable as other scholars believe that officials do with
journalists, environmentalists, trade unionists and other nuisances more or less as they please, whether
it is at their own whim or at the request of a higher official. This doubt and uncertainty as to what is
really happening in Russian society is a testament to Putin's personality and politics: he intentionally
creates a two track road so that people can interpret his actions as they wish. Putin's "ambiguities allow
him plenty of leeway to jab and step back, as in the Gusinsky affair, while keeping his opponents off
The political future for Russia looks positive providing that the state can gain some controls
over corruption and crime. A strong rule of law and adherence to the constitution will be essential for
Russia to progress both as a nation and as a democracy. The lack of a rule of law has allowed the
Mafia and gangs to gain a massive influence in many areas of the Russian economy and industry. The
problem of crime and corruption has become so bad that, in a strange twist from usual economic
problems, companies now have to think twice before earning a profit. The more successful and
profitable an industry is, the more the appealing it is for the Mafia who will likely take control of that
industry. For the government as well, the aspect of following a constitution that proves a major
obstacle. As it stands, Putin has inherited the so-called electoral monarchy (created by Yeltsin), a
system that places large amounts of power in the hands of the President. Robert Daniels notes, with
much insight, that:
Putin's extraordinary authority as President derives from three compelling forces, none
of them a product of the Constitution. One is the institution of the secret police, which
set him on his way and now provides him with both personnel and techniques for
exerting his power. Another is the Family and the financial oligarchy, which elevated
him in the expectation that he would protect their interests. The third factor is the inertia
of Russia's political culture; authoritarian and nationalistic in its deepest instincts, it has
enabled Putin to aspire to total control of the country.x
Unfortunately, none of these three aspects are features of a legitimate democracy, and none of them
emphasize rights over power. In the article The Autumn of the Oligarchs, John Lloyd states that this
disregard for correct and democratic political procedure is deeply ingrained in Russian society. He
says that the "economy, artificially buoyed by high oil prices, remains stubbornly unreformed; his
[Putin's] army remains stuck in a murderous guerrilla war in Chechnya; and Russia is falling behind
daily in the global struggle for economic advantage and modernization. As he wrestles with these
problems, the questions of how to deepen democracy or to assure freedom for his tormentors take
second place."xi Although the "Kremlin has reestablished its control and looks ready to lead in the 21st
century"xii according to the Economist, a major question still remains: will Putin's strong government
go about the task of developing a democracy or will they reestablish an authoritarian state?
It is difficult to find a critic who believes that Putin is true believer in democracy. The common
perception is that "democratic institutions are the means. If the means are effective, then he will use
them. If they're sometimes not effective, then he will screw them up."xiii The former Finance Minister
Fydorov believes that Putin is "clearly not an ideological reformer, democrat or anything like that"xiv
and Shevtsova in a sarcastic manner adds, "Have you seen any signs that he is a democrat?"
"Everything else--democratic institutions, personal liberties, personal freedoms, individuality, human
rights--everything else is after the state," says Albats, a political analyst, adding that "if this notion of
creating a strong Russian state demands that Putin crush democratic institutions, he won't think twice
before doing that."xv As can be seen in the preceding statements, a majority of the top critics and
scholars of Russian politics agree that Putin's commitment to democracy is weak and that, if pushed, he
will resort back to the authoritarian means as have been used in much of Russian history.
Though the outlook for Russian democracy is pessimistic, no one knows what the future will
hold. It is clear that Putin has a vision for the future of Russia, but whether he will get it by democracy
or authoritarian means is left open.
A foremost question in the minds both Russians and outsiders is the state of the military in
Russia. This question has two aspects, the current situation of the war in Chechnya and the
remilitarization of society. The Chechen war is recognized by many as the failure of Russia. Lilian
Shevtsova, a top political analyst, believes that
Chechnya is Russia's tragedy. It is a tragedy because in 1996, 70 percent of the Russian
people were against the war. Today, in 2000, 70 percent support the war. How we have
changed during these years! How angry and limited we have become. How afraid we are
of the future. And again we want to build a country based on force. We want to be
feared--not loved, but feared. This is what I call the syndrome of the past, a return to the
past. Maybe it is temporary. But for every return to the past, we pay a price. Now we are
paying with blood.xvi
The Economist agrees with Shevtsova's analysis, stating that the "handling of Chechnya remains
abhorrent" and "their methods obscenely disproportionate."xvii It is interesting to note the difference
between the Russian view of the Chechen war and the view of the rest of the world. As Shevtsova
states, "the war in Chechnya created Putin,"xviii earning mass popularity both for himself and for the
war effort. Putin, in an interview in late 1999, remained firm in his commitment to stop the rebels,
stating with authority "the bandits will be destroyed. Whoever takes up arms will be destroyed. And
we're prepared to do business with all the rest."xix His ability to lead and to make vital decisions
impressed the people of Russia, confirming Putin's stance as a strong leader willing to fight for mother
Russia. Although Putin's desire to quench the uprising of separatists is clear, he has attempted to show
that he is not looking to cleanse Russia of all Chechens. Putin states in the same 1999 interview that
Russia" must rebuild the economy and the social services [of Chechnya]; show the people that normal
life is possible. We must pull the young generation out of the environment of violence in which it is
living. We must put a program of education in place ...We must work. We must not abandon Chechnya
as we did before."xx This statement, as with all of Putin's political decrees, must be confirmed with
action before his intentions are to be believed.
Abroad, the Chechen war brought nothing but complications as international community
remains on alert for a possible repeat of the Yugoslavian situation in which Serbians attempted to rid
Kosovo of ethnic Albanians. The question of intervention and of human rights abuses has been
intermingled with the notion of state sovereignty and world politics, leaving many nations with their
hands tied behind their backs. To intervene is to undermine Russian sovereignty, but to remain inactive
is to allow war and its potential human rights abuses.
Overall, the Chechen war is not a good thing for Russia. Shevtsova believes that "instead of
curing our complexes, restoring our honor, instead of helping us become valuable, accomplished
citizens, Chechnya will bring even more bitterness, fears, disappointment, a new inferiority
complex."xxi The drain of resources to the military effort and the instability war produces both
domestically and internationally must be overcome if Russia is to gain economic and political strength.
The second half of the military issue in Russia involves the increased of influence the military is
gaining in political and economic affairs. Although statistics show that the military has been reduced
dramatically since the end of communismxxii, increased funding and presence is a worrisome
development in terms of establishing democracy and economic recovery. Presently, the future of the
military in Russia is unknown: the evidence points in no clear direction as to whether the military will
continue its post-communist decline or whether it will prolong the recent trend of remilitarization.
Where is Russia left as it enters the 21st century and what does the future hold? To say the
least, Putin is inheriting a troubled Russia. The economy has shrunk almost every year since the end of
communism leading to a financial crisis is 1998. Infrastructure systems like hospitals, roads, schools
and railways are decaying quickly, leaving a lack of essential services for those outside the major
metropolitan centers. The living standard of the average Russian has dropped since communism ended,
leaving the Russian people "badly fed, badly dressed, badly housed, [and] badly treated"xxiii according
to the Economist. The suicide rate in Russia has risen 60% since 1989 and the life expectancy of a
Russian man has fallen to 58 years, a drop of 4 years since 1980.
In the political sphere, corruption and crime are the norm as the oligarchs remain above the law
and state officials still largely control the media. The near lawlessness of Russian society has paved the
way not only for corruption in politics, but also for an increasing criminal sector. The Mafia and gangs
are taking advantage of the unstable political and economic situation to increase their presence in
finance, manufacturing and production, gaining power in those markets with the most potential. The
war against the Chechen separatists and the remilitarization of society are somewhat popular inside
Russia but are concerns for the outside world that remain unconvinced of the necessity of Russian
violence and military growth.
Despite these concerns, there is still much hope that Russia will develop into a strong and, in at
least some sense, democratic nation. The economy is in a position to continue the recent growth and if
oil prices stay high, Russia can look forward to increasing amounts of foreign capital. As the economy
stabilizes, foreign investment should increase, though Russia must be wary of placing too much of its
economy in the hands of foreigners. In its steps to recovery, the government must maintain and
increase tax collections, hold expenditures down, sustain increases in rate and volume of foreign
investment, develop a secure and fixed financial structure and restructure debts or obtain debt reliefxxiv.
Though Putin has not completed a proper political reform, he has taken some important steps in
the right direction. Elected in a free and fair election, he has not suspended the constitution, postponed
elections nor implemented emergency rule, all signs of an authoritarian transition. Much optimism is
placed in the new generation of Russians who are growing up without the oppressive influence of
communism. Today, young people learn foreign languages, travel abroad, and study for careers. This
upcoming workforce is interested in doing business, in creating a strong economy, in promoting
science and research and in allowing free intellectual thought. This new generation of Russians wants
to create a state to be proud of.
Now, Putin is in the tremendous position of being able to radically reform Russia in a short time
frame. He has the chance to personally carry out constitutional reforms and rid Russia of the elected
monarchy. He has the chance to limit the power of the oligarchy, to free Russia from the political
power structure that creates favoritism, corruption, oligarchs, and crime. Whether he will do this or not
is hard to tell as the optimistic signs are counterbalanced with pessimistic ones. Leon Aron aptly sums
up the current Russian situation: Russia's experiment with self-rule, political liberty and the free
market is like the "progress of a long and disorderly wagon train trekking across a vast and swampy
plain, stopping, zigzagging, occasionally almost drowning in mud, yet stubbornly plowing forward."xxv
i Shevtsova, Lilian. Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality.
ii "Chaos at the Door." Economist; Mar 3, 2000.
iii Aron, Leon . "Is Russia Really ‘Lost’?" The Standard Weekly. 1999.
iv Fydorov, Boris. "Return of the Czar." Frontline. PBS. Mar 9, 2000.
v Quinn-Judge, Paul. "The Acid-Bath Solution." Time; Jul 3, 2000.
vii Daniels, Robert V. "Putting Putin to the Test." The New Leader; Sep/Oct 2000.
ix Daniels, Robert V. "Putting Putin to the test." The New Leader; Sep/Oct 2000.
xi Lloyd, John. "Autumn of the Oligarchs." New York Times Magazine; Oct 8, 2000.
xii "Putin Gets a Grip." Economist; Aug 5, 2000.
xiii Lilian Shevtsova. "Return of the Czar." Frontline. PBS. Mar 9, 2000.
xv Albats, Yevgenia. "Return of the Czar." Frontline. PBS. Mar 9, 2000.
xvii “'Democracy' in Russia." Economist; Nov 23, 2000.
xix Putin, Vladamir. "Return of the Czar." Frontline. PBS. Mar 9, 2000.
xxii "Return of the Czar." Frontline. PBS. Mar 9, 2000. Between January 1992 and January 1998, the Russian armed forces
shrank in manpower from 4 million to 1.2 million. In 1991, Russia had 10,000 deployable strategic nuclear weapons. That
number was reduced to 6,000 after START I went into effect in December 1994.
xxiii "Chaos at the door." Economist: Mar 30, 2000.
xxiv Millar, James A. "Can Putin Jump-Start Russia's Stalled Economy?" Current History; Oct 2000.