Russia: Democratization Not Dead Yet - Expert

Even though democratization in Russia is going through a lockdown phase at present, a University of California-Los Angeles scholar says there is still reason to dream that a civil society could someday emerge there.

Daniel Treisman, a UCLA professor of political science, asserted that the Kremlin's political shifts since the Soviet collapse in 1991 have been primarily connected to "the rise and fall in the popularity of the country's leaders," which in turn has been strongly influenced by the health of the economy. For example, economic problems doomed the administrations of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. But Russia's current paramount leader, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has greatly benefited from the country's economic prosperity during much of the 21st century, a development created by the surge in global energy prices. Over the short-term, Treisman believes this energy-export-dependent prosperity will bolster Russia's authoritarian trend. But over the longer term, a future leader might feel secure enough to move a relatively prosperous Russia in a democratic direction.

Treisman outlined his views January 6 during a Washington, DC, event to mark the publication of his book, The Return: Russia's Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev. The event was sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Russia has broken with its Soviet past, but its development has not followed a path that the Western democracies might have hoped for, Treisman said. The country is emerging "not as a stable prosperous democracy comparable to Switzerland or the United States, but as a middle-income country comparable to Mexico, Argentina, Turkey, or Malaysia."

Treisman said his book aimed to avoid two popular, but flawed ways of viewing Russia. The first, which he terms "the dark view," sees Russia as a uniquely horrible place; the second, the "mystical view," presumes that "Russia cannot be understood with rational thought." Instead, he sees Russia as a "normal country" that can be best understood by comparing it with other middle-income states.

Russia has made considerable political and economic progress since 1985, even if progress has followed the Leninist maxim of "two steps forward, one step back," Treisman claimed. Both Gorbachev, Soviet leader from 1985 to 1990, and Yeltsin, Russia's first president from 1991 to 1999, expanded the range of freedoms available to Russians. Although Putin has curtailed political liberties, economic conditions have improved for some segments of Russian society since his rise to power.

Treisman attempted to dispel several assumptions about recent Russian history. First, he disputed the view that Putin's authoritarian tendencies were simply a reassertion of Russian historical traditions. He emphasized that the increased political freedoms of the 1990s meant that "clearly Russian traditions did not make authoritarian government inevitable."

Second, Treisman proffered a highly debatable thesis that Russia's demographic problems are not as severe as those in other former Soviet bloc communist countries. According to his calculations, since the end of the Soviet Union, Georgia's population has fallen by about 20 percent, and Estonia and Latvia's by 15 percent. Today, Russia's population is declining less rapidly than those in Germany and Japan.

Third, Treisman challenged the view that fluctuations in the state's energy revenue determine the nature of Russian politics. He said he found only a weak correlation between high world oil prices and Russian authoritarianism. Treisman noted that Russia's oil income per capita is much lower than in the Gulf states, where authoritarian rulers can afford to spend lavishly on social benefits for their population and dispense with democracy as well as taxes.

Putin was lucky to inherit power at a time when the tough reforms adopted under Yeltsin were starting to have positive results, world energy prices were rising and the exchange rate was very competitive, Treisman said.

In Putin's worldview, power derives from control of economic assets, the UCLA professor said. "Putin has a very cynical view of the world in which basically everything is for sale and therefore all power rests ultimately on money." Putin believes that Russia's "economic revival was a prerequisite for international power and status," and that "controlling the political arena was not possible if billionaires could turn their wealth into political weapons." For this reason, Putin placed his associates in charge of Russia's largest businesses to control their resources.

Treisman does not see Putin and incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev as competitors for power. "They are extremely closely bound together," having worked closely together for decades, and they share essentially the same goal-that is, to hold onto political power."

But Treisman does see a "division of labor" between them. "Medvedev's job is to appeal to the more sophisticated, younger, modern elites," whereas "Putin's job is to appeal to the mainstream Russians out in the provinces." Their rhetoric may sometimes differ, "but their goals and strategic vision are the same." For example, they would both like to reduce corruption "if that could be done without threatening the security and economic interests of their large group of associates," though Treisman adds that "obviously, that's a bit like squaring the circle."

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.

Russia: Democratization Not Dead Yet - Expert

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