Testing the Failure of Liberalism in Today’s Russia

The concept of liberalism in Russia played an important role during the 1990s ‘shock therapy’ – that drove the transition from USSR through a series of liberal reforms – and with the presence of many figures and parties (i.e. Yabloko) within the political scenario, claiming to represent a pro-capitalist, market oriented, democratic, international cooperation and liberty oriented set of values. The transition from the Soviet political, social and economic model to open society seemed to be the natural evolution enounced by Samuel Huntngton as the ‘fourth wave’ of democratization.

Nevertheless, Russian political system and society did not entirely tend to a Western model of liberal democracy and they have not completed the transition from Soviet system by fully improving an open market regime, rule of law, respect of fundamental individual freedoms, political alternation and counter-powers, and dropping the traditional imperial shape. Once we exclude the determinism between economic development and democracy, we have to understand what could be the other reasons that led Russia – that was ready to implement a ‘liberal revolution’ at the end of 80s – to remain an ‘imperfect democracy’ or an ‘elective authoritarianism’.

After seventy years of communist monopoly, the perestroika reforms introduced the multiparty principle defining a scenario that would be generally reflected during the whole 90s when, in the Russian Federation, there were more than 100 registered parties proposing the typical cleavage left-right spectrum. However, this fragmentation did not lead to a bipolar system and the political scenario had been monopolized by the second president of the Russian federation, Vladimir Putin. In fact, since 2000 a more restrictive legislation on political parties’ registration was introduced and the number of political organizations quickly decreased while the influence of the president increased.

In this formally multiparty system that currently counts 77 registered parties Yedinaya Rossiya (UR – United Russia) is dominant, holding 342 of the 450 seats in the State Duma, 140 on 170 seats of the Federal Council, 71 on 85 governors and 2840 on 3787 seats in the regional assemblies. UR represents a post-ideological “catch all parties” that tries to reflect the people’s sensitivity. It is focused on a coalition – led by a charismatic leader (the president Putin) – that coopts/affiliates powerful figures, oligarchs and potential rivals, enforcing a ‘transformist’ pattern of government that is effectively denying the principles of democratic alternation and ‘check and balance’.

This ‘inclusive’ pattern is then based on the loyalty of its affiliates – also with the support of a huge (and naturally conservative) bureaucratic machine – while pressure on dissents remains high and opposition remains fragmented in a heterogeneous constellation of small parties. Thanks to an intensive use of pro-governmental media, Putin was able to reabsorb the protests that were challenging the regime’s legitimacy and to divide the opposition by resorting to some strong feelings in Russian citizens: nationalism and revanchism. The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 provided a general enthusiasm in all Russians and a wide trust to government and its international policies, dividing oppositions and diverting political attention from much more serious internal problems that needed reforms.

Despite electoral dynamics are not always clear, rule of law is still improving, corruption is still diffused, individual freedom are often compressed and the opposition contests the president, it is hard to believe that Russia is not an electoral democracy. The actual regime has been ruling for more than seventeen years with a wide popular support and it was re-confirmed in any election: in 2000, Vladimir Putin won presidential elections with 53,4% of votes; in 2004, he was reconfirmed with 71,9% of ballots; in 2008, his closer allies Dmitry Medvedev got 71,2% and in 2012, he was finally re-elected for the third time with a consent of 63,6% of electors. As we have already reminded, Russian population has generally supported the president; and, after the Crimean affair in 2014, it seemed that his threshold of consent was over 80% in the last months of 2014. Substantially, Russian people has chosen by itself its authoritarian ‘czar’ that – at least apparently – reflects and meets the needs of the population that effectively shows a general apathy in terms of political participation and prefers to trust the leader at any cost. So, if we exclude economic, political and cultural reasons to explain the failure of the ‘liberal revolution’ in Russia, we can focus on another systemic element that is rooted in the Russian society since Soviet times and explains the weak people’s participation in the political debate.

Indeed, this ‘political apathy’ takes its origins during Brezhnevism with the introduction of a wide welfare state while USSR was losing the characteristics of the terror-based totalitarianism characterizing the Stalinian regime. This new peaceful system, based on oil exportation, was largely inefficient but it was creating a huge consensus among the Soviet population, detecting a typical case of ‘rentier state’ that was redistributing, directly or indirectly, the benefits of raw material extraction to the population. Since the 60s, Russia became a ‘petrostate’ that did not effectively succeed in diversifying its economy and in escaping the resource course and its risks. This pattern – that offer people’s consensus to governments and permits a redistribution of oil/gas exportations benefits to the population – can be added with a second element that we would define the ‘indirect rentier state condition’: the low taxation regime.

Nowadays, in Russia flat rate taxation is fixed around 13% of citizens’ incomes; and this mechanism feeds a tradition of a population that has never perceived to pay for the public good – which is instead funded by oil revenues – with money coming from their pockets. Fundamentally, in Russia the principles of ‘no taxation without representation’ does not exist, because that public funding is financed with a wealth that people have never seen or do not perceive as their own finances. For example, in the aftermath of the Ukrainian crisis, there was not a public debate about the costs of annexing Crimea (that was estimated to cost more than 100 billion dollars), the Sochi Olympic Games (50bln $) or the recent and expensive campaign to modernize the army and the nuclear arsenal (560bln $); while the Far East regions were remaining in a status of infrastructural underdevelopment and the social standards remained under Western standards. Nevertheless, the ruble crisis, the crack of oil prices and the sanctions imposed to the Russian regime showed the endemic fragilities of Russian system, its risks and the possible consequences of restrictive/austerity measures to the population, undermining the consent to the regime that is based on the ‘consensus for wealth’ axiom.

Hence, besides the control on media, the marginalization of opposition, the memory of the turbolent 90s and the return to a neo-conservative political narrative, we can interpret the failure of the ‘liberal revolution’ in Russia focusing on this endemic element that affects a population that do not participate to the political development and decision making and that effectively do not debate the costs and consequences of politics, agreeing on a ‘consensual authoritarianism’ that assures benefits and restraining – at least psychologically – any prospect of change.

Photo Credits: Olga Maltseva/AFP



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