Russian Protests: Yeltsin, Putin and Democracy…

In Moscow, protesters are demanding new elections after fraudulent presidential and parliamentary elections, alongside the electorate feeling cheated by the Granita style pact between Putin, who was recently inaugurated for a third term presidency, and former president, now prime minister, Medvedev.

But what about Russia and its history: politically, economically and socially? How does this relate to current events? After the fall of the Soviet Union, Westernised Russian Chicago Boys under Yeltsin’s guidance plundered the country into desperation and devastation. Russia, according to democracy rating agencies such as Freedom House (close to USA foreign policy), was considered a ‘democracy’ in the 1990s- despite fraudulent elections, inequality and a rampant decrease in living standards, as the collapse of the Union was considered a victory for liberal democracy alongside being ‘the end of history’.

Only when the harm and reality of what Yeltsin and his advisers had done throughout the 1990s became apparent did the West then start blaming the Russian system, rather than capitalism per se. It was said to be the Russian Soviet Style structures that undermined any chance of capitalism and a free market. Gorbachev was considered by many to be a pariah after many blamed him for the Soviet Union’s collapse, whilst also longing for a Soviet Union era of stability but with more freedom and equality; something Gorbachev was moving towards before he was ousted by Yeltsin – after standing on a tank and joining forces with two other Soviet Republics – and his free marketers.

I recently completed an essay for my Masters regarding democratisation and Russia; I controversially argued that Russia has not transitioned into a democracy, whether assessed minimally (so through free and fair elections) or more substantially. Drawing on Freedom House’s definition of democracy, which is a substantial definition, I illustrated that whilst Freedom House rated Russia as an electoral democracy (‘partly free’) in the 1990s, using their criteria this analysis is inconsistent especially with their recent (2009) downgrading of Russia, no longer rating them as a democracy. Most argue that Russia transitioned to a democracy through Yeltsin’s dual transitional approach to democratisation – through economic and democratic reforms – however, I argue this did not happen, as the economic reforms undermined and prevented democratic development. In fact, democracy was seen as a hinder to economic reform.

Gorbachev attempted to bring in democratic reforms through uskorenie (acceleration), glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). For instance, 1988 electoral changes, alongside a 1990 amendment ushered in a multi-party system and electoral competition. These electoral changes were halted through the 1993 Constitutional Crisis, as Yeltsin battled with Congress in his bid to ensure prominent presidential powers for himself. Decree no.1400 is a notable misuse of Yeltsin’s power, dissolving the Constitution and parliament, surrounding parliament with troops to set it on fire, as people/protesters were injured, killed and arrested – illustrating the clear dis-juncture between democracy and Yeltsin’s economic programme, as the source of the conflict was parliament’s repelling of Yeltsin’s decree powers to deal with the economic crisis because of the destruction and sadism endemic within the proposals. The West, however, supported Yeltsin.

Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine analysis is a well known and very comprehensive report of what happened to Russia in the 1990s, after the public were still in a state of shock after the collapse of the Union. This allowed Yeltsin to push through his radical reforms quickly and painfully. In 1998, the economy collapsed with real incomes shrinking quickly and living standards at unprecedented lows; there was 74 million, compared to 2 million in 1989, living in poverty, alongside mass unemployment, rapidly increasing substance abuse with the population levels drastically decreasing. The UN Human Development Plan called this “a human crisis of monumental proportions”.

Importantly, Putin ushered in a successful period of growth and success. After the Yeltsin era, many argue, persuasively, that Putin’s success and ability to become more authoritarian was due to the instability and insecure nature of Yeltsin’s tenure. Gorbachev was bringing in slow but progressive change – Yeltsin brought in chaos. The public “were ready to settle for a mild dose of authoritarianism providing further stability and steady economic growth, rather than opting for a Yeltsin-type liberal order that had aroused their expectations but largely excluded them from the hoped-for benefits” (Desai 2005:91). Furthermore, the absence of a civil society in the 1990s, the civil society many in the West now champion against Putin, was key in enabling the West to hammer through its privatisation, liberalisation of prices and free trade policies that plundered the country into mayhem. World Value Surveys illustrate the distrust and detrimental effects Yeltsin’s reforms had on people’s opinion of democracy in Russia.

Whilst these protests are focused on demanding new elections, electoral corruption is nothing new in Russia. Yeltsin utilised 33 times more funding than allowed in the 1996 election, significantly biased media coverage alongside a corruption riddled ‘loans for shares’ scheme to win the 1996 election, after debating whether to cancel it due to the unpopularity of his economic reforms. Putin replaced Yeltsin in 1999, arguably unconstitutionally, providing Yeltsin with legal immunity. Putin is criticised for cracking down on internationally funded NGOs in Russia. However, as authors have illustrated through the creation of the Civic Chamber, Putin has increased state funding to NGOs, after the abysmal record of NGO support from ‘democratic’ Yeltsin, with anti-government NGOs such as the Moscow Helsinki Group even receiving funding. Nevertheless, this was central, if not the driving reason, for why Freedom House downgraded Russia’s democratic rating.

As many authors have also argued, the protests against Putin are originating largely from the big cities such as Moscow – as shown by this recent protest – the areas where more middle class, intellectuals are forming/existent and who are now demanding liberal rights after Putin brought in more economic security. Many outside Moscow see Putin as key for stability – arguably a product from the Yeltsin times. Even with the League of Voters’ projections, a civil society group formed after the fraudulent elections, Putin would have still become president even without electoral fraud.

This isn’t to deny that Putin does undemocratic, unnerving things – Russia’s continual support for Syria is one of these – however, it does highlight the authoritarian tendencies of Russia now are related to the West’s imposition of capitalist neoliberal reforms in the 1990s, where people became scared about the meaning of liberal democracy, and democratic values – nostalgic for Soviet Russia and more stable forms of living. Putin provided that, and only now are we beginning to see real cracks forming as the people who achieved stability now want more. His authoritarian ways therefore gained support, as people yearned for stability alongside rebuilding Russia as a great super power.

To ignore the context would be to ignore the damaging effects this capitalist system causes. For Freedom House to rate Yeltsin’s regime as a democracy, just because it was enacting neoliberal reforms, links to the problems of the current European obsession with neoliberal economics. We need to keep highlighting these inconsistencies and understand the context and influences placed upon different countries and regimes.


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