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Is Russia a True Democracy?

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Hague and Harrop (2013) argue that liberal democracy is a system with a representative and limited government that operates within an accepted framework for political competition between different political parties. Regular elections are based on universal suffrage and are free and fair where individual rights are respected (Hague and Harrop, 2013). Based on this definition, this essay will argue that Russia has the potential to become a true democracy, but in recent years it has become an illiberal democracy or a competitive authoritarian regime. Levitsky and Way (2010) suggest competitive authoritarian regimes, or illiberal democracies, were competitive in the sense that they use competitive institutions to gain power. However, they use electoral manipulation and abuse state resources in favour of the incumbent regime (Levitsky and Way, 2010). This essay will explore how Russia has reached this stage from the formation of the 1993 constitution under Boris Yeltsin’s rule and how Vladimir Putin has transformed Russia into an illiberal democracy.

Under Yeltsin’s rule (1991-99), Russia adopted a new constitution following a referendum in 1993 (Darlington, 1995). This is the constitution that Russia still uses to this day, though it has been amended since. Under this constitution, Russia has a bicameral legislature with a Federal Assembly, a Constitutional Court and a Duma, the latter being the lower chamber of their legislature (Hague and Harrop, 2013). The president is subject to impeachment to a great degree under the Russian constitution, as the president needs a two-thirds majority in both parliamentary chambers plus confirmation by the courts, to ensure laws are passed (Hague and Harrop, 2013). Donaldson (2004) suggests that this was a time when Russia was strengthening its parliamentary and legal system. This constitution ensures that laws take precedence over presidential decrees, and the Duma played a significant part during the 1990s of resisting Yeltsin’s reforms (Hague and Harrop, 2013). Hague and Harrop (2013) praise Yeltsin’s rule as a time when Russia achieved substantial decentralisation of power. Hague and Harrop (2013) suggest that even under the changes to the Russian constitution Putin has brought in since the end of Yeltsin’s rule, Russia still has a more effective system of rule of law when compared to authoritarian China. Smith (2010) praises the 1993 constitution for ensuring that substantial legal reforms and new laws were passed to improve the legal system in Russia. The 1990s seemed like a decade where Russia could achieve true democracy because they established a constitution that allows the government to operate within a framework of limited government like in a liberal democracy.

Following the election of Putin in 2000 to the present day, the situation in Russia has changed dramatically. Firstly, Putin successfully centralised power by acquiring the appointments of regional governments throughout Russia and he created, in 2000, seven extra-constitutional federal okrugs (districts) to oversee lower level units (Hague and Harrop, 2013). Though the 1993 Russian constitution has received praise for moving Russia towards a parliamentary and legal system, the constitution has an inherent flaw of allowing the president too much power as a guarantor of the constitution (Hague and Harrop, 2013). This flaw allows the president to be able to override legislation through decrees and dismiss ministers (Hague and Harrop, 2013). The purpose behind this centralisation was to ensure that these branches of the federal government remain loyal to Moscow and allowed the state to reduce dissent (Hague and Harrop, 2013). It seemed like Russia was now losing its potential to become a true democracy as Putin was beginning the process of strengthening the president’s power over Russia. This has led to Russia becoming a competitive authoritarian regime. This was only the beginning of things to come. Ross’ (2010) suggestion that Russia is a ‘unitary state masquerading as a federation’ (p.170) seems a more accurate way to describe Russia under Putin.

Despite the work that Yeltsin made in the 1990s to ensure that the Russian constitution remained decentralised, Sharlet (2005) argues that there is now a gap between individual rights on paper and their realisation in practice since Putin came to power. Respect for individual rights are fundamental for a true democracy to exist, and this lack of respect for individual rights shows how much further away from a true democracy Russia has become under Putin to become a competitive authoritarian state. Throughout Putin’s time, the public have increasingly lost faith in the legal system and legal adjustments against the state have become increasingly difficult to enforce, particularly in the case of Russia’s richest oil oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Sharlet, 2005). Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003 for fraud, and again in 2010 for money laundering (Donaldosn, 2015). His trials received international condemnation for being politically motivated and for its lack of due process (Donaldson, 2015).

Yet another distinguishing factor that contributes towards the growth of a competitive authoritarian regime in Russia under Putin is the lack of separation between the public and private sphere. Hague and Harrop (2013) argue that it is quite common in Russia for gangsters to participate in ‘free-for-all deals with the state’ and that ‘individual financiers pull the strings to fill their own pockets’ (p. 167). Putin even stated himself that he wants to decrease the degree of pluralism in Russia and how he wants ‘civil society to be adjunct to a strong state’ (Evans, 2005: p.112). For this reason, few promotional groups in Russia possess a mass membership (Evans, 2005). Despite this, Russia still has the potential to become a true democracy in allowing the promotion of business interests to the state and increase the amount of pluralism in Russia. As Peregudov (2011) argues, a network of business organisations has been established, and it is up and running. Yet, as Peregudov (2011) also highlights, the problem with this system is that it has received very little interest from Putin. It is little wonder that promotional groups in Russia do not possess a mass membership as they feel they have little influence under Putin, which demonstrates a further lack of true democracy in Russia.

It is not just business interests that are penalised under Putin’s Russia. It is also opposition parties that receive barely any attention from the media and are put at a disadvantage by the state. As Hague and Harrop (2013) suggest, in a liberal democracy, there has to be a framework for competition between different political parties. Yet in recent years, this has not happened under Putin, which shows that true democracy is not prevailing. As McFaul (2005) argues, in Russia there is an absence of independence within the media as oligarchic ranks and regional elites reduced the freedom of manoeuvre for opposition parties and political candidates. A 2004 survey showed that eighty-two per cent of Russians watched television and twenty-two per cent read newspapers, which demonstrates the scope to which Putin can reach out to people (Oates, 2005). The significant problem with Russia’s media is that there are one-hundred laws governing media conduct and many journalists fear that whatever they publish, will ultimately lead to their deaths (Hague and Harrop, 2013). This proved to be the case when journalist Anna Piltkovskaya was murdered under suspicious circumstances in 2006 (Donaldson, 2015). The 2012 presidential elections, where Putin was re-elected, despite already serving two terms, demonstrated the fundamental weaknesses behind the Russian constitution (Donaldson, 2015). Putin received considerable protest after the count was manipulated to ensure Putin was re-elected (Hague and Harrop, 2013). This is what Levitsky and Way (2010) describe as ‘electoral manipulation in a competitive authoritarian regime’ (p. 3). This move has brought Russia closer to becoming a competitive authoritarian regime. Putin reacted to the growth in protest to his rule in 2012 from feminist punk band, the Pussy Riot, by imprisoning them and he restricted the amount of protests people are allowed to hold in Russia (Hague and Harrop, 2013).

It is little wonder that people have little faith in political parties in Russia. As Huggins (2002) argues, crucial to a true democracy is that there is no limit to political participation. Russia has the worst levels of political participation amongst European nations with only one per cent of people in Russia members of political parties (Hague and Harrop, 2013). The 2011 parliamentary elections and 2012 presidential elections saw higher numbers of young people voting than in previous elections (Hague and Harrop, 2013). As White (2007) suggests, political parties seem to ‘come and go’ in Russia and this creates ‘a lack of party identification’ when compared to most parliamentary democracies (p. 27). The United Russia Party, founded by Putin in 2001, has dominated the Duma and the Federation Council since and won forty-nine per cent of the vote in the 2011 parliamentary elections (Donaldson, 2015). Levitsky and Way (2010) suggest that in competitive authoritarian regimes, the state abuses its power. The Kremlin used threats and bribes to ensure that this party was supported by Russia’s most powerful companies and regional governors (Hague and Harrop, 2013). This incident demonstrated that Russia possesses the characteristic features of a competitive authoritarian regime.

In 2008, Putin stood down as president so that Dimitry Medvedev could take over as president (Donaldson, 2015). In a cynical move, the constitution was extended so that the president could serve for six years and decided to become president again in March 2012 (Donaldson, 2015). Vladimir Rhyzkov, a Kremlin opponent and former Duma deputy who lost his seat in 2007, said of the extension terms of 2008: ‘This is very negative. Today, the president controls parliament, senate, the regions, and the bureaucracy’ (Donaldson, 2015). Hague and Harrop (2013) argue that Russia cannot achieve what is close to a liberal democracy because real change cannot occur until Putin resigns. As Donaldson (2015) argues, Russia has become ‘influenced by the power and personality of one man; Putin.’ As Levitsky and Way (2010) argue, rulers tend to make the results in a competitive authoritarian regime. Twigg (2005) praises the improvements in policy-making made by Putin in 2005 that replaced the era of Soviet privileges (free or subsidised housing, transportation, medicine for students and patients) with cash payments. Despite this, policy-making in post-communist Russia remains subject to the requirements of the political elite and industrialists who pose a threat to the president find regulations invoked against them (Hague and Harrop, 2013). For example, in 2006, Putin provided his allies from state-owned oil companies with a greater share of the Sakhalin-2 oil field by rewriting the contract with Royal Dutch Shell (Hague and Harrop, 2013: p. 359). Therefore, true democracy does not exist in Russia. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, summed up his views of the current situation in Russia in 2011: ‘We have everything- a president, a prime minister, courts and a parliament- but it’s more of an imitation’ (Donaldson, 2015). The culmination of these events has inevitably led Putin to distract attention from home by trying to restore ‘prestige and glory’ to the Russian nation through occupying Ukraine and the Baltic states to expand Russia’s territory (Donaldson, 2015).

Therefore, true democracy will not exist under Russia whilst Putin is still in charge. Russia has moved towards a competitive authoritarian regime instead. The potential for Russia to become a true democracy certainly existed under Yeltsin with the construction of the 1993 constitution which laid out the powers of the Duma, the Constitutional Court, the Federal Council and the president. The Duma played a leading part in blocking many of Yeltsin’s reforms and Russia moved towards establishing an effective parliamentary and legal system at this time. However, since the arrival of Putin, the state has centralised power to a large extent. The problem with the 1993 constitution was that it allowed the president too much power as both head of state and guarantor of the constitution. Putin has abused this clause by acquiring appointments for regional governments. Putin has ensured that the media plays a significant part in guaranteeing his re-election through electoral manipulation and giving less air time to his opponents. It may not be until 2024 that the potential for true democracy to exist in Russia re-emerges.


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