Can Russia Keep Faking Democracy?

William Partlett

Can Russia Keep Faking Democracy?

Over the last six months, the Russian protest movement has adopted a dizzying number of different identities. As peaceful mass protests have morphed into a mix of violent street clashes and Twitter-sourced, hipster sit-ins, it is clear that the opposition comprises an incredibly diverse range of people, ideas and agendas. In all of this diversity, however, the Russian opposition movement is unified by one factor: A fundamental rejection of Vladimir Putin’s system of “managed” or, more accurately, “fake” democracy.

The Ideological and Historical Roots of Fake Democracy

Russia’s “fake democracy” is an exemplar of a post-Cold War global type of political governance that Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call “competitive authoritarianism.” The roots of this system lie in the Cold War competition between the Leninist one-party state and free market liberal democracy.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Leninist one-party state emerged as an ideological challenge to liberal democracy. As well as promising a Marxist utopia, the Leninist model represented a new political strategy for modernizing and delivering economic and social goods to the “people”. In the 1920 and 1930s, this Leninist model – where a mobilized party elite directs both politics and economics – seemed to be advancing rapidly: Many saw it as a more “modern” way of governing in a world where the old, laissez-faire mechanisms of free market economics and limited government no longer worked.

With the triumph of the Soviet Union and the United States in World War II, the two leading examples of these models competed for dominance. After years of economic distortion, political repression and stagnating standards of living, however, the Leninist one-party state began to lose the war of ideas. This ideological erosion drew from diverse sources – from images of sparkling American kitchens to underground human rights movements. The rot eventually spread to Soviet Union, where the collapse of the Communist Party caused the Soviet Union to fracture into its constituent republics.

With the ideological collapse of the Leninist one-party state, liberal democracy was now widely perceived to be the best system for political and economic modernization. Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that the world had reached the “End of History” as an almost universal wish to imitate the way of life associated with the liberal capitalist democracies spread around the world.

Seeing the “writing on the Berlin wall,” political elites realized that they needed to appear “liberal” to hold on to power. But these elites refused to accept the concrete effects of liberal, pluralistic politics, including the real possibility of losing power. As a result, they developed intricate systems of “faking” liberal democratic politics in order to legitimize their rule with the appearance of liberal democracy while maintaining their monopoly on power. Levitsky and Way describe this new system as one where “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which fraud, civil liberties violations, and abuse of state and media resources so skew the playing field that the regime cannot be labeled democratic.”

Can Putin Keep Faking It?

Russia followed this path. After the fall of the Soviet Union, President Yeltsin’s administration feared that the checks and balances of liberal democracy would endanger its plans for radical, top-down economic reform. Thus, his administration created the institutions of liberal democracy – from constitutional foundation to elections – but ensured that they could be manipulated by the ruling elite in the presidential administration. Electoral fraud and media manipulation were at the very center of this strategy. Vladimir Putin ruthlessly perfected this system of “fake” democracy. For much of Mr. Putin’s time in power, this system of fake democracy appeared to be a stable form of political governance.

The Russian protest movement, however, suggests that this system – like its Leninist predecessor – might be headed for the dustbin of history. The massive December protests in Moscow were aimed at the most important part of Russian fake democracy: electoral fraud. Furthermore, the “hipsters” featured in the recent protests have demonstrated the power of internet-based social media in skirting the information monopoly that is so critical to faking democracy. And many of the protestors express a common desire to live in a “normal” country – a place without the distortions, cronyism and corruption that come with fake democracy.

Mr. Putin and his newly formed government now face a fundamentally different political landscape. They must take steps toward “real” democracy or risk undermining the regime. Although stagnation or retrenchment might be tempting given the instability in the world, time is running out to “normalize” politics in Russia. Key players in Russian politics – including Putin’s old associate Alexei Kudrin – have grasped this fact. But has Mr. Putin?