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The Status and Prospects of Democracy in Russia


Russia recently assumed the rotating presidency of the G-8, prompting a discussion in the United States about whether that country shares the civic values of the industrialized nations that are the other members of the group. VOA's Peter Fedynsky looks at the status and prospects of Russian democratic reforms.

As G-8 finance ministers met recently in Moscow to discuss oil supplies and other global economic issues, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared on American television to say "Some elements of democratization in Russia," as she put it, "seem to be going the wrong way" -- specifically a crackdown on non-governmental organizations and the temporary cutoff of natural gas to Ukraine.

"Clearly the law on non-governmental organizations is a problem,” said the secretary. “Clearly the use of energy in the way that it was used concerning Ukraine is a problem. And Russia is now the president of the G-8 process. We would hope for behavior that is befitting of the president of the G-8 process."

Secretary Rice added that Russia as a whole - her leaders and people alike - needs to fully integrate the democratic values of the original G-8 members into the country's future.

Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says wealthy industrialized nations have a major interest in Russian democracy.

"The fundamental argument as to why we should care about Russia being democratic gets back to democratic peace theory, I suppose. Democratic nations tend to be more prosperous, democratic nations tend to be less aggressive in their foreign policies towards their neighbors. Democratic nations generally tend to observe human rights conventions more thoroughly than non-democratic nations."

Mr. Kuchins says Russia's initial encounter with democracy in the 1990s was associated with chaos -- mafia hits in city streets, fraud, corruption, illegal privatization, and loss of international prestige. Since then, President Vladimir Putin has pursued what he calls sovereign democracy, which Andrew Kuchins says is long on Russian sovereignty and short on democracy as it is understood in the G-8.

Instead, Mr. Kuchins says, Mr. Putin has centralized authority by diminishing the independence of his country's media outlets and political opposition. However, Russia expert Anatol Lieven at the New America Foundation, a Washington, DC think tank, says centralization has not made the Kremlin as powerful as it once was.

"Actually, the power of the central state remains extremely weak when it comes to influencing what really happens on the ground in most areas of Russia, because the state bureaucracy is too corrupt. It's too in league with local elites, with local businessmen,” Mr. Lieven told us. “So many of the orders given from the Kremlin never actually have any effect on the ground at all."

Anatol Lieven and Andrew Kuchins agree that rising prosperity is creating a Russian middle class. However, they are at odds over the country's prospects for democratic reform.

Mr. Lieven says, "I think the Putin administration is not democratic. It is sincerely developmentalist. But I also think that there are many, many reasons to doubt that it will actually succeed in its program, [which has] to do with many things that we see around large parts of the world: corruption, lack of intelligence and dynamism in the bureaucratic elites, and a whole range of issues."

"The middle class is growing in the Russian Federation,” says Kuchins. “That's something that gives me optimism about the future, because as more people have investments in property that they want to defend, I think over time that will create a demand for more efficient, more transparent political and legal institutions in which they can do that."

Mr. Kuchins notes that the demand for a durable and sustainable Russian democracy will take time and must come from below. In the short term, Russia's membership in the G-8 could help accelerate that country's democracy.