Those are tough questions. But the Russian and American authors of a new book from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace say their goal was -- no less -- "to give a comprehensive answer to the fundamental questions about the nature of Russian politics."
Stanford University's Michael McFaul, a leading scholar on democratization and Russian politics, co-authored the 400-page book with Andrei Ryabov and Nikolai Petrov, analysts at Carnegie's Moscow Center. McFaul told a forum in Washington yesterday that the book's main conclusion is summed up in its title. "The choice of the title was debated for a very, very long time," he said. "It's 'Between Dictatorship and Democracy.' This is actually where the regime is. It's between these two things. And it's not moving in a dynamic way, one way or the other."
But was Russia ever a democracy? Yes, say the authors. "A basic hypothesis of this book," they write, "is that Russia underwent a transition from communist rule to some form of democratic rule in the 1990s. Democratization did occur."
Still, Russia has never been a liberal democracy similar to those in Western Europe or North America. Since 1993, the authors say Russia has had a limited electoral democracy whose more liberal aspects have undergone erosion since Putin took over the Kremlin on 1 January 2000.
Sweeping changes under Putin have given Moscow greater powers over the regions, brought to heel an "oligarch" class of industrialists who got rich off privatization, and greatly diminished the ability of the media to report independently and objectively. At the same time, the powers of the federal bureaucracy and the intelligence services -- from which the president himself hails -- have increased under Putin, recently re-elected to a new four-year term.
Yet, although the trend is in the "autocratic direction," as McFaul said, the changes came without changing the constitution. "Managed democracy" is the term Putin's advisers use to describe the system. Moreover, the authors point out that while some Western governments and human rights experts lament the changes, they were supported or tolerated by most Russians. Still, compared to Soviet or tsarist times, Putin's Russia is vastly more democratic.
The Stanford professor said it's unfair to compare Russian democracy to the United States or France, and that similar examples of the current Russian system can be seen in nations like Mexico, Senegal, or Malaysia. All three countries had de facto one-party rule for decades while maintaining the trappings of electoral democracy. "In other words, these are the kinds of systems we should be comparing Russia to today -- not some idealized notion of liberal democracy in the West," McFaul said. "Nor should we compare it to autocratic regimes like Uzbekistan and other, more nastier ones in the region."
Leon Aron is a Russian-born scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Reviewing the new book, Aron said it's hard to draw any definitive conclusions about exactly where Russia is headed under Putin. Speaking alongside McFaul, Aron said the Kremlin appears today to enjoy widespread popular support. He said that may suggest the Russian government is supported by a national consensus that was forged from bitter ideological debates throughout the 1990s on every aspect of national policy.
If that's the case, Aron speculated that Putin's government could be a "vector of strategic reorientation" that amounts to a selective, conservative restoration that could continue for several years, if not decades, as in other revolutions.
Or perhaps it's different. Perhaps, Aron said in an argument similar to McFaul's, Russia is headed toward a system akin to that in Japan, where people enjoy basic freedoms and prosperity in a democratic regime that on a national level is dominated by the same ruling party. "And so, what if this combination of a national political culture and post-Soviet modernity produces after a century and a half of ardent anticipation -- from [Fedor] Dostoevski to [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn -- some sort of a modern variation of 'sobornost' [unity in multiplicity], in which one party acts as a guardian and embodiment of a consensus and in which most of the policymaking is left, and I should say happily left by most people, to that same one-party elite?" Aron asked.
For now, the authors say that, despite Putin's antiliberal reforms, they are giving him the benefit of the doubt.
But where Putin, and Russia, go from here is unclear. A key question -- and one of the more worrisome, McFaul said -- is whether Putin will stay on past the official end of his term in 2008. The authors write that "if those in power never lose, then Russia will no longer be an electoral democracy." If Putin is still around in five years, the authors may have to change the title of their book -- if not write a new one altogether.