Russian Regression?

The Russian parliamentary election, in which maximum leader Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party (which seems to stand mainly for “we’re in power and handing out favors, so keep us in power”) got 37.1 percent of the vote – which could translate into a working majority with coalition parties in the Duma and maybe even a two–thirds majority to amend the constitution so Putin can run for a third term – has caused a certain amount of discomfort in the West. Much of the discomfort is probably warranted, but most of those who have expressed it seem to have trouble diagnosing the real problem.

Bruce George, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe fretted about “regression in the democratization of this country,” mainly because the “extensive use of the state apparatus and the media … to the benefit of United Russia created an unfair environment for the other parties and candidates.” Michael McFaul, billed as a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was quoted by AP saying, “Whether we should continue to call it democracy I don’t know. I am less and less confident that one should.”

Press secretary Scott McClellan at the White House said similar concerns were shared by the U.S. government. Mark Urnov, chairman of the Expertise Foundation, a think tank in Moscow, as AP reported it, “said the elections marked a shift away from open democracy and a move toward a Soviet-style system. ‘I don’t rule out that in this atmosphere, ideas about strengthening power may arise,’ he said on Echo of Moscow radio.”


Most of these concerns are well-taken. It does seem as if Vladimir Putin is consolidating his power and seeking to extend it beyond what the present Russian constitution would permit him. The arrest in early November of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a relatively youthful robber baron who managed to amass a fortune in the billions and sought to turn some of his money toward reforming the current corrupt political system, maybe even running for office himself, can be interpreted as a preemptive strike against possible political opposition with enough money to make a difference. Khodorkovsky had donated money all around, the communists, the ultra-nationalist and the liberal (in the European understanding) reformers.

Although it doesn’t seem to have been much of a factor in United Russia support in this election, the arrest was a populist move that didn’t hurt Putin with the general public. Aside from some concern in the business community, how many people can resist a touch of Schadenfreude at the idea of a billionaire going to the pokey? And the arrest staunched the flow of at least some money to parties in opposition to Putin. How much that had to do with the pitiful showing of other parties – the Communists slipped to 12.7 percent, which put them ahead of the nationalist Liberal Democrats (11.6) and Homeland (9.1) parties, and way ahead of the market-oriented Yabloko (4.3 percent) and Union of Right Forces (4), which missed the 5 percent mark to have actual representatives in the Duma) – I don’t know yet.

What seems to have been a bigger factor in the victory of the ruling party was the phenomenon Bruce George noted – the use of government money and power to influence the elections. The election, as Ted Carpenter of the Cato Institute put it to me, suggested that “Boss Tweed-style democracy” – essentially using the people’s money to buy their votes – is alive and well in Russia.

The problem with that kind of governance is not so much that it isn’t democratic – democracy as understood by a political scientist, after all, is basically a way of setting up a system whereby the people participate in choosing who will rule over them, not a description of the kind of governance that ensues. What most Western observers tend to do is to conflate the term “democracy” with civil and decent governance. In fact, however, what they’re often referring to are institutions and habits of thought that tend to moderate, even to put the brakes on pure democracy or raw democracy.


In the United States, for example, the Bill of Rights was not designed to be subject to majority rule. It delineates certain individual rights the founders (or to a great extent those who were concerned that the proposed constitution gave the central government too much power over individual citizens and were inclined to oppose ratification) believed were precisely not to be put up to a vote. No matter how large the majority in favor, the government is not supposed to abridge freedom of speech, religion, assembly, the right to a trial by jury, due process and all the others.

Most of America’s founders, in fact, would have told you they opposed democracy, at least as they understood the term. They wanted a representative republic, with three branches of government purposely designed to be sometimes at odds with one another, a Senate not elected by popular vote, and a judiciary independent of political pressures (all of this as an ideal construct; most were worldly enough to understand that it wouldn’t always work as they had designed it). Most of these institutions were created precisely to curb the democratic impulse – to prevent temporary majorities from having their absolute way, and to stave off the “tyranny of the majority.”

What Russia lacks, then, is not so much democracy as such – the election came off, although turnout was down, perhaps reflecting a certain burgeoning cynicism – but the intermediating institutions that keep democracy from being two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner.

Having emerged only a dozen years or so ago from communist totalitarianism, it lacks a truly independent judiciary. It lacks certain habits of thought that prevent politicians from assuming autocratic power. It lacks experience with keeping politicians under control. While it has a theoretical respect for private property, it has little experience with the institution or the idea. Since most of the “privatization” of the 1990s was a corrupt process whereby those with political connections got most of the attractive properties, it doesn’t yet have a truly independent business sector dependent more on pleasing consumers than on pleasing the state. It has few independent organizations (though some are developing) that can shield citizens from direct contact with the business end of government or allow them to express their non-political or apolitical but still often profoundly social sides.

In short, Russia lacks what we call a civil society. A civil society is not an inevitable development in a democracy; in fact it is rather rare. And its function in society is to blur democracy, to stem the majoritarian impulse, to provide ways other than having political influence, PR, or being part of the majority to find both personal fulfillment and a way of making a living.

Russia may develop more of a civil society and some of the institutions, both voluntary and governmental, that tend to make government bearable by limiting its scope and power in practice. It has a rich history and culture to draw on, although the political culture is relatively impoverished by the fact that it went from an autocratic czarist system to a totalitarian communist system with only a few months of reasonably well-intentioned quasi-democratic governance between them. The generation that knew not Brezhnev, as it matures, may develop intermediating institutions if Putin’s autocratic tendencies can be held in check to some extent. But it’s an open question.

Meantime, it would be helpful to distinguish between democracy and what we might call freedom or personal independence. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive (though there’s wisdom in the old saw that a democracy can last only until the majority figures out it can vote itself a living from the public purse) but they certainly don’t necessarily go together.

On balance, freedom is probably more important to a system in which it is possible to work and strive to live a good life without inheriting the means or having them bestowed on one through the act of systematic looting that is democratic governance. So it would be helpful to avoid the trap of using the catchword “democracy” when what one really means is a civil and decent society that in some respects involves controls and limitations on pure democracy. One hopes that democracy will be decent, but having elections by no means assures this happy outcome.


I have learned a little more about the prospects for conscription since last week’s column. It turns out that the House tried to add $2 million to what had been a $26 million Selective Service System, but the Senate wouldn’t go along with it. So the system is not likely to get a budget increase for the next fiscal year.

However, all the stuff about performance indicators I described last week – moving from plans for mobilization on paper to a relatively “live” demonstration project – is accurate enough. The notice about draft boards potentially being needed soon really did appear on the website, only to be taken down without explanation.

A letter to the Orange County Register offers a semi-hopeful note, suggesting that we’re trying to fight a war on a budget and there just isn’t money enough for recruiting and training a bunch of draftees. That’s probably an accurate assessment to some extent, but it might understate the desire to believe that they way to achieve more warfighting capability on the cheap would be through conscription – after all (some might bring themselves to believe), you could pay draftees less than you have to pay volunteers.

This wishful thinking ignores the cost of training draftees and the costs involved in rapid turnover – in a more technologically-oriented military, you could find yourselves losing draftees very soon after they’d been trained to a level of minimal competence and you’d have to start over. On balance – I haven’t looked into the comparative figures for a number of years – it is probably more likely that a conscript army might well be more expensive, if you take all costs into account, than a volunteer military. But certain politicians might well believe that it would be cheaper. If the threat of a draft becomes more concrete than it is now, it would behoove opponents of conscription to study this carefully and get the results widely publicized.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).