Russian Democracy

4 December 2003

Russian Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

First, the results of the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December: United Russia, the ‘party of power’ that supports President Vladimir Putin, wins a large majority. Second, the results of the Russian presidential election next March: Putin wins by a landslide. Third, a question: can Russia be a democracy?

Putin himself is ambivalent on the question. “I’ve been hearing allegations (about the rollback of democracy) for four years now, since I became president of the Russian Federation,” he said in October. “If by democracy one means the dissolution of the state, then we do not need such democracy….I don’t think that there are people in the world who want democracy that would lead to chaos.”

The message is underlined by United Russia’s election posters, which show a mosaic of the faces of fifty Russian heroes arranged to form a map of Russia — and include the faces of Lenin, Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police. The message is not that Russia needs Communism back, but that it needs to be led by a strong man who gives orders and is obeyed — like Putin, for example.

There was a frantic flurry of speculation last month when Putin’s government arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Russia’s richest man and CEO of the Yukos oil company, the world’s fourth largest. It was particularly noted that if the fallen oligarch is convicted of the charges he faces, involving tax evasion, embezzlement and other corporate misdeeds, then the state will confiscate his assets, including the 40 percent of Yukos’s shares that he owns personally..

Does this mean that Putin is setting out to reverse the privatisation of state-owned industry that occurred after the end of the old Soviet Union in 1991? And have ordinary Russians grown so cynical about politics that they are effectively abandoning democracy from below even before it can be stolen from above?

Putin has no desire to recreate the old socialist economy, and he knows that actions like the persecution of Khodorkovsky are hugely damaging to Russia’s attractiveness to foreign investors. However, he may not be able to stop important allies who missed out on the first wave of privatisations from bringing down the first-wave oligarchs, confiscating their assets, and re-privatising them into their own pockets. Besides, Khodorkovsky had shown an interest in politics, giving money to opposition political parties, which was forbidden to the oligarchs by Putin.

The attitude of the Russian people is a harder question. They persistently show levels of support for Putin of between 70 and 80 percent even as he manipulates them and tramples on their rights. Do they care about democracy, or is it just not a Russian thing?

The problem is that they have been fooled and betrayed so often. The ‘privatisation’ of state assets was carried out in 1992 by giving each adult Russian a voucher for 10,000 roubles to buy shares in the firms that employed them — “What we need is millions of property owners, not a handful of millionaires,” said Yeltsin — but the assets were massively and deliberately undervalued. Gazprom, Russia’s biggest energy industry, for example, was valued at only $250 million, while its stock market value by 1997 was $40 billion.

No sooner had the shares been distributed than an entirely avoidable great inflation destroyed the value of the rouble (and everybody’s savings). Then along came the favoured friends of the Yeltsin ‘family’, clever young Communist apparatchiks retooled as thrusting capitalist entrepreneurs, and bought up all the innocent workers’ shares at bargain-basement prices. That is where Russia’s massively rich oligarchs come from, and why they and their system are hated.

The oligarchs financed Yeltsin’s re-election in 1996, and when he made his deal with Vladimir Putin in 1999 (Putin got the presidency in return for a promise not to prosecute Yeltsin and his cronies for corruption), they initially went along with that too. Putin, a relative unknown, had to start a second war with Chechnya in order to wrap himself in the flag and win the 2000 election. But once he was safely in office he turned on the oligarchs who represented the only serious potential threat to his power.

Putin has now driven a number of the oligarchs into exile, and he knows very well that jailing Khodorkovsky can only add to his popularity. He has silenced or shut down every independent television network, and made great progress towards bringing the print media under control. He has made some economic reforms like a flat-rate 13 percent income tax and corporate tax cuts, and the economy is now growing fast as oil exports soar and prices hold firm — but a third of Russia’s people are still desperately poor, the population is falling by a million a year, and GDP has still not crawled back up to late Soviet levels twelve years after the fall of Communism.

So why will around three-quarters of Russians vote for this cynical manipulator with few real achievements to his credit? Because the Russian people have become deeply cynical about ‘democracy’ as they have experienced it, and respond to anyone who at least seems ‘strong’. It is a pattern alarmingly reminiscent of what happened to the Argentine voting public over a longer period of time, and left them so cynical that democracy in Argentina may be crippled for a generation. If the same thing has happened in Russia, it will be an even greater tragedy.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and . (“The message…example”; and “The oligarchs…power”)

NOTE: if using the article AFTER the election on 7 Dec., use the following lead paragraph instead:

United Russia, the ‘party of power’ that supports President Vladimir Putin, won a large majority in the Russian parliamentary elections on 7 December, just as everybody knew it would. The results of the Russian presidential election next March are equally foreseeable: Putin wins by a landslide. In fact, current Russian elections are almost as predictable as the old Soviet ones. So the question arises: can Russia ever be a real democracy?