Since President Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, Russian politics has been the stage for the apparent paradox that Putin’s impressive authoritarian consolidation of power has coincided with a remarkable degree of charismatic, even “democratic” popularity. His popular support has increased and been maintained at impressive levels (70 percent) in direct correspondence to the stifling of liberal practices, values and politicians.A series of opinion polls suggest that Putin’s popularity with the Russian demos is related to his ability to forge a new post-Soviet political identity drawing on disparate strands of the czarist authoritarian tradition, Soviet legacies of great power status abroad and social security at home, and even Stalinist elements emphasizing order and, subliminally, ethnic Russian consensus.11.
Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want”, Foreign Affairs (May/June 2004). In brief, a populist foundation for Putin’s rule has persisted even as Russia’s liberal prospects, so much trumpeted at home and abroad in the early 1990s, have essentially withered away. How are we to account for the emergence of a Russian “illiberal democracy”? Liberalism and Democracy
When Americans use the term “democracy”, they almost universally mean “liberal democracy.” Even when observers point out the distinction between liberalism and democracy, as Fareed Zakaria usefully did a few years ago, most still assume that the two are mutually reinforcing and historically coterminous.22.
Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton, 2003). But this is simply not so.
Bernard Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism: Classical Political Economy, the Empire of Free Trade and Imperialism 1750–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1970). Liberalism’s political and cultural influence peaked on the eve of the World War, when Winston Churchill was a Liberal MP and Mussolini a Socialist—not the Reagan-Thatcher years, as Soviet liberals later imagined. It is in this light that we should understand the embrace by Soviet Russian liberals and democrats of economic liberalism as the antidote to six decades of central planning. This embrace, back in the days of perestroika, was yet another instance of the Russian intelligentsia mimicking an imaginary West out of a kind of status envy, thereby both reflecting and reinforcing their isolation from the masses in their own society. There can be little doubt but that, had the Soviet Union collapsed in 1971 instead of 1991, Russia’s reformers would have adopted Keynesian instead of Friedmanite economic policies, simply because Keynesianism was then the prevailing economic orthodoxy in the West. As it happens, Russian liberals are even more out of synch with the West today than they were 15 years ago. Public support for classically liberal policies and parties is quite limited in the contemporary Western world, even if its historical legacy retains a strong imprint in European and North American political institutions. Support for genuine economic liberalism amounts to perhaps a fifth of the electorate in Britain itself, less than a tenth in Germany and virtually none at all in France. Meanwhile, nearly every government in post-communist east-central Europe that pursued even moderately liberal economic reforms was repudiated at the polls within four years of taking power. Even in the United States, the empire of “Anglo-Saxon” liberal evil according to French bien-pensants, the genuinely liberal instinct is but a remnant: The Democratic Party base is preponderantly hostile to the free exchange of goods and services among consenting adults, while much of the Republican Party base is essentially hostile to the free exchange of favors among consenting adults. The essential point here is that not only does liberalism precede modern democracy, philosophically as well as historically, but liberalism tends to recede as democracy progresses. Democracy provides the vehicle for the majority to express its preferences, whereas liberalism is primarily concerned with ways and means for the freely derived and non-injurious preferences of individuals not to be constrained by others, whether by the state or by democratic majorities themselves. Historically, democracy has developed only after the establishment of liberal institutions—that is, market economics, the rule of law and the constrained authority of the state. Democracy emerges as the ultimate consequence in a series of organic, institutional dependencies: Political pluralism requires the economic and social pluralism driven by market economics; market economics functions best when holders of capital are confident in their capacity to project costs and risks over time, a confidence mightily enhanced by rule-of-law effects; and the rule of law requires a state that can establish legal requirements and then formulate, codify, implement and enforce the law. Yet while democratic consequences hinge on liberal antecedents, the advance of modern democracy has been coextensive with the decline of classical liberalism. Liberal capitalism developed nowhere under conditions of reasonably full democratic electoral franchise, nor could it have: Political majorities could never have been mobilized to support the kinds of social and economic upheavals—Schumpeter’s episodes of “creative destruction”—that are central to the genesis of a market system. (Note that the historic English Reform Bill of 1832 doubled the size of the electorate—to less than 3 percent of the adult population.) Once the urban, industrial masses emerged as a political force in their own right, they either demanded major constraints on the workings of liberal economics (as with Leon Blum’s Popular Front in France, from 1936 to 1939) or were co-opted by able conservatives via the agency of the state (as with Bismarck’s introduction of social security in the late 1880s). If liberalism, both economic and political, is necessary for the rise of democracy but the institutionalized spread of democracy militates against liberalism, how are we to interpret what is going on today in Russia? The Russian Case
In contemporary Russia, too, democracy does not support liberalism—not only because of characteristics peculiar to Russia, but for broader reasons. What is odd and noteworthy in the Russian case is not that democracy does not align with liberalism, but that its democracy—such as it is—did not arise organically: It was imported whole cloth from the West at a time of “Soviet” national collapse. Even in western Europe and North America, where liberal and democratic principles and institutions evolved organically, there were frequent and violent convulsions as liberal principles and democratic interests (not to mention the often contradictory logic of mass economics and mass politics) collided with each other. How much more convulsive, and less likely, is a liberal denouement for post-communist Russia when the attempt to advance liberal principles has coincided with both mass political enfranchisement and mass socioeconomic disenfranchisement—all in the wake of the institutional and moral debris of the Soviet collapse? Already by the fall of 1993, hopes for liberalism had fallen victim to the tensions inherent in Russia’s transformative experiment, and the nature of the regime, as well as the composition of the government, ended up being determined not by the ballot but by the bullet, when the Yeltsin Kremlin attacked the Duma itself. Even elsewhere in post-communist Europe, and with more favorable democratic preconditions (for example in Poland, Hungary and Lithuania), the first “liberal” reform governments had by 1993 also fallen to “neo-communists” calling for the priority of social security over economic liberty.But unlike the east-central Europeans, Russia suffered from two further and crucial disadvantages from the perspective of democratic as well as liberal theory. First, there was no chance in the 1990s for Russia to be absorbed into either the European Union or NATO, which elsewhere acted as external shock absorbers of the asperities of transition. Indeed, in the Russian context, NATO expansion helped to bury the political prospects of Russia’s liberals. And second, unlike east-central Europe’s “neo-communists”, who broke with the Stalinist past and embraced the European social-democratic tradition, Gennady Zyuganov’s Russian Communists had not. While social democracy is unfavorable to genuinely liberal policies, it is highly favorable for liberal politics: free political institutions in which the ruling party accepts the principle of alternation in office. Note that in Russia executive power has yet to change hands as a result of electoral agency. Indeed, the obvious Soviet nostalgia of Zyuganov’s Communists allowed Yeltsin to demonize them as neo-Stalinists in 1996, thereby assuring his re-election; today, the Communist Party’s essentially reactionary character effectively disqualifies it as a plausible candidate to govern a 21st-century Russia. The failure of Russian Communists to develop into a viable opposition party, very ironically, has harmed liberal politics in Russia, undermining the possibility of growth for liberal ideas and institutions. The attempt to transfer liberal values without examining their institutional and social concomitants has ended up discrediting liberalism in Russia. Well intentioned as they were, Jeffrey Sachs, Anders Åslund, Yegor Gaidar and now Andrei Illarionov have all produced counterproductive consequences. Their failure has coincided with the growth of anti-Americanism, and may well be the cause for a good deal of it. The result is that Russia’s anti-liberal reaction is focused on the United States, making Russian elites natural fellow travelers in this respect with their much better practiced French counterparts. Russia in Europe
While troubling for Russia’s liberal prospects, this anti-liberal reaction matters less for Russia’s democratic prospects, at least in principle. This is because Russian opinion has typically been closer to the European social democratic consensus on the proper relationships among state, society and individual than either is to the prevailing free-market consensus in the United States. By large majorities Russians have always opposed the terror state, even while endorsing the need for a powerful state to enforce peace abroad and security at home. They opposed the collectivization of agriculture and the nationalization of the service economy, even while endorsing the role of the government in running the industrialized sector of the economy. Today they endorse freedom of the press, even while embracing censorship of incitement to racial, religious or ethnic hatred. And they endorse the idea of social inequalities corresponding to achievement, even while accepting the role of the state as employer and social protector of last resort. These views, while certainly more statist and collectivist than in western Europe, correspond much more closely to the Continental tradition of social democracy, with its focus on stability and regulation as means of reconciling social tensions, than to the American tradition of free-market liberal democracy, with its focus on flux and competition as the means of reconciling social tensions.This is not surprising. The decentralized market economy in the United States preceded the establishment of the modern bureaucratic state. Moreover, by successfully seceding from Britain, where mercantilist traditions remained significant, the 13 North American colonies from the beginnings of independent statehood embarked on a distinctive path of development in which the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” prevailed over “peace, order and good government.” While American democracy and, to an only slightly lesser extent, its market system preceded the state, democracy developed against the state in continental Europe, as well as against the kind of heavily bounded market structures the state had encouraged, originally for reasons of what today we would call “national security.” Moreover, the radical degree of insecurity experienced by all Europeans in the first half of the 20th century forged a continent-wide consensus in the second half on a deeply interventionist welfare state aimed at security and thus stability, above all against the resurgence of fascist tendencies—a phenomenon with no counterpart in recent American experience or political values. In consequence of these historical experiences, Americans and Europeans tend to have diametrically opposed notions of the proper role of the state in the economy and society. In Europe, the chief domestic function of the state is to regulate society toward its proper ends, which are defined by some kind of classe politique. In the United States, the chief domestic function of the state is to prevent any monopoly power that could thwart the informed and freely derived preferences of the population, which in effect now assumes a consumerist identity. It is the maintenance of the framework conditions for genuine competition—a word that evokes cringing in Europe—that legitimizes the state in the eyes of most Americans. So in western Europe the state is responsible for registering voters; in the United States, by contrast, individuals themselves are responsible for establishing their own voting credentials. In Europe the state disposes upwards of 50 percent of the respective country’s GDP (in France as much as 54 percent in recent years), versus about 30 percent in the United States (and with a Federal tax base currently less than 20 percent of U.S. GDP). Even in socially tolerant countries like Denmark, the state maintains a list of officially permissible names that parents may call their children; violators are subject to civil fines for disobedience. In America such presumption is simply unthinkable. And in 2006, 175 years after Tocqueville was impressed by the dense and vital networks of private associational life in the United States, European society continues to play virtually no role in such spheres as charity, education and culture, which are universally seen as the proper and exclusive domain of the state—in contrast to the United States, where private donations dwarf governmental support in all these spheres. Not surprisingly, Russian society finds attractive western Europe’s social democratic consensus, with its presumption in favor of the state, while the Russian state can find much to admire in democratic Europe’s still impressive remnant of étatisme. The Russian rejection of liberalism must therefore be distinguished from Russian society’s attachment to a Russian variant of social democracy, as well as from the Russian state’s envy of the effective regulatory reach of, say, the Danish state. The analytical problem for the observer, and the tragedy for Russian society, is that there is today almost no correspondence between the values of Russia’s majority and the actual workings of Russia’s predatory state. While President Putin retains significant popular support in Russia (he has been the beneficiary of high or rising oil prices throughout his entire time in office), this should not obscure the utter collapse of confidence in the workings of the government, or of the state itself. Putin’s Russia is a kind of charismatic, plebiscitary “democracy” in which the state can neutralize sources of opposition and structure the electoral system to insulate executive power from popular or institutionalized accountability. What the state can’t do is actually govern democratically. True democracy, in the modern (as opposed to the Aristotelian) sense, entails not merely a passing correspondence between the views of the majority and the leader—much the same could be said of Hitler’s Germany between 1936 and 1939, after all. It requires working democratic institutions that reflect liberal principles (for example, the rule of law and minority rights) and working democratic values (for example, toleration of diverse views and fair access to media). The liberal tradition thus remains of vital importance for the possibilities of genuine democratic evolution in Russia, even if, philosophically and historically, liberalism and democracy have been in frequent tension with each other. The historian Stephen Kotkin has put it well: [L]iberalism is more fundamental to successful state building than democracy. . . . A liberal order involves a powerful parliament controlling the purse and issuing a steady stream of well-written laws, an authoritative judiciary to interpret and rule on parliament’s laws, and generally consistent implementation of laws and rules by a highly professional civil service, all of which allows for the influence of civic organizations to be felt. To put the matter another way, liberalism entails not [so much] freedom from government but constant, rigorous officiating of the . . . very public authority responsible for regulation.4
Is Russia’s Illiberal Democracy Viable?
If it is liberalism that ensures effective government even more than democracy, Americans should want liberalism to thrive in Russia in order to sire a truly democratic polity. But it has become nearly impossible for Americans to speak to Russians about the relationship between liberalism and democracy. Most Russians believe the 1990s represent a catastrophic failure of liberal politics and economics, and with American sponsorship at that. Misery at home and humiliation abroad have conjoined anti-liberalism and anti-Americanism in the contemporary Russian political sensibility: Few Russians, and virtually no Russian elites, can bring themselves to listen to Americans pontificating about the Russian future.But if Americans cannot easily speak to Russians about such matters, they can at least be clear in their own minds about the actual situation in Russia—one that is best characterized as hopeless but not serious. The Russian government is currently awash in receipts from the export of oil and gas, but remains functionally very weak: The government failed a major overhaul of social subsidies in early 2005 and appears incapable of seriously administering the country. Not only is executive power deceptively weak, but the very success that Vladimir Putin has had in further centralizing formal presidential power has narrowed the institutional foundation of his government: His successful creation of a satellite parliament and judiciary and his taming of the mass media mean that there are even fewer rule-driven checks and balances on executive power than there were in the Yeltsin period (which is to say virtually none). Russian society remains organizationally diffuse and morally disengaged from public affairs, while energy rents, which have freed the government from dependence on the financial “oligarchs” of the 1990s, have abetted the hypertrophy of the presidential administration within the Russian state. From an economic perspective, what has emerged in Russia under Putin is not “state capitalism” but “presidential administration capitalism”, a patrimonial fusion of raw executive power and material wealth that further constrains the prospects for institutional transparency and competition in both the economic and political spheres. The Russian system today thus contains ghostly forms of both democracy and liberalism in the absence of the economic, social and administrative institutions, practices and values that have made them historically possible. Is this neo-patrimonial synthesis sustainable? As long as world oil prices remain at the equivalent of $50 per barrel or above—quite likely, it seems—the Russian government will not re-examine its course. Current global energy prices allow the Russian government, even as the world’s highest-cost producer of oil, to “throw money” at key domestic constituencies, even while prosecuting war in Chechnya and servicing its foreign debt without need of external assistance. If, however, oil prices were to plunge below $30 per barrel for a prolonged period, the Russian government, which now depends on energy receipts for upwards of 50 percent of the federal budget (as is true of other petro-states, like Venezuela), could face a serious crisis of performance made worse by the very narrowing of its institutional foundation that has been the hallmark of the Putin years. Were such a price decline to coincide with a major political crisis (such as difficulties in managing the succession to Putin in 2008), the current patrimonial system could collapse. Something more or less like this happened both in 1986, when a decline in world oil prices to $10 per barrel condemned Mikhail Gorbachev to reform without resources, and in 1998, when a similar decline triggered the default of the Russian government and the massive devaluation of the ruble. An alternative scenario would involve revolt by disenfranchised masses and a redistribution of property to bring the government in closer correspondence to the social democratic ethos of the Russian majority. Society would conquer the state. Russian society, however, has taken this route before and, like the Spanish after their own civil war, appears to have decided “no mas!” Either scenario is bad for Russia’s liberal and democratic prospects. So in the end there may be something to be said for Russians’ ongoing experiment in social adaptation and even economic growth in the absence of genuine political development: It appears to beat the most likely alternatives. Implications for America
In more than 200 years of diplomatic relations between Russia and the United States, there have been very few liberal or democratic moments in Russian politics. The bilateral relationship has ebbed and flowed over time for reasons having little to do with either country’s domestic political arrangements. Russian-American relations thus cannot be reduced, as American advocates of the “liberal democratic peace” would have it, to the relationship of each country’s domestic political order to the other’s. Indeed, for the most part, Russian-American relations have been good since the independence of the United States (even during the War for Independence, in which Catherine joined the anti-British League of Armed Neutrality), albeit also, for the most part, remote. Future historians may well come to see the Cold War as the aberration in the historical pattern of Russian-American relations.Russian-American relations have tended to break down when the two societies, as Tocqueville rightly observed, built on opposite and mutually exclusive principles, became directly and intimately involved with one another. The most dramatic instance of this was of course the Cold War itself, which followed and was in many respects the consequence of the political collapse of Europe and the disappearance of a geopolitical buffer between the Soviet Russian and American spheres of influence. The 1990s may also be seen in this way, as a consequence of the U.S. commitment to reform Russia in the American image, and the parallel and seemingly contradictory energy put into expanding NATO eastward to include not only nominally sovereign former East European satellite states but also constituent parts of the USSR itself. Two buffers were thus removed: one distinguishing American society from Russian society, and one distinguishing a Russian sphere of external interest and security from an American one. This erasure of distance in the Russian-American relationship in the 1990s thereby produced the paradox, noted earlier, of the first mass-based wave of anti-American sentiment in Russian history, something unknown even during the Cold War. By contrast, a focus on the interaction of each country’s specific interstate interests and a suppression of ideologically-based aspirations correspond to periods of reasonably good Russian-American relations. It is interesting to note in this respect that the United States has usually supported a strong Russia as an indispensable element of geopolitical order in Eurasia. Six examples come easily to mind. First, Theodore Roosevelt mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1906, ending the Russo-Japanese War, in the process shielding the Russians from the full territorial and geopolitical consequences of their devastating naval and land defeats. Roosevelt was able to use his knowledge of impending Japanese financial exhaustion to prevent an undue weakening of Russian power, which he saw as an essential counterbalance to Japanese power in Northeast Asia. (For his services, Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize and was never forgiven by the Russians.) Second, during the Allied interventions in Russia from 1917 to 1920, Woodrow Wilson consistently refused to associate the United States with the political (as distinct from the military) motives of the British, French and Japanese in Russia in 1918 and then again during the Russian Civil War. Third, the United States delayed recognition of the independence of the Baltic states until 1922—two years after Soviet Russia recognized Estonia—out of a reluctance to take steps that might imply acquiescence in the dismemberment of Russia. Indeed, at the time, American diplomats expected that at some point Russia would re-establish control over the Baltic region, a prospect they accepted phlegmatically. Fourth, Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully resisted political pressures to aid Finland after its invasion by Stalin’s Red Army (he was determined to take no action that might further consolidate the Nazi-Soviet alliance then in effect); was able to get Lend-Lease to the USSR passed by Congress before Pearl Harbor; and engineered an alliance in detail with the murderous tyrant Stalin, all out of prosaic considerations of the balance of power. Fifth, the arch anticommunist Richard Nixon negotiated a remarkable détente with Leonid Brezhnev’s reactionary communist regime, again out of balance of power considerations, while George H. W. Bush between late 1989 and 1991 did everything in his power to prevent the disintegration of the USSR. Bill Clinton, in turn, continued Bush’s work in an able diplomacy that reconstituted the Russian Federation as the single nuclear power on former Soviet soil. And sixth, the immediate and effective alliance of Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia with the United States after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, made possible the rapid defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. In that war, Russia was arguably America’s most important ally, supplying intelligence as well as general political support. (Ironically, a more “democratic” Russia might not have pursued Putin’s path. Putin had to face down a strong anti-American consensus at the apex of Russia’s national security institutions that reflected popular anxieties about U.S.-driven NATO expansion, the recent U.S.-led war against Russia’s client Serbia, U.S. military exercises with former Soviet republics, and more besides.) Why should this pattern of dealing with Russia in terms of the intersection of interstate interests, as distinct from the projection of American values, not persist into the 21st century? The experience of the 1990s, which most Russians perceive as a “time of troubles” induced in part by American attempts to reconfigure Russian politics, economics and society in a liberal direction, frames this question in especially clear form. A large majority of Russians contrasts the Putin years favorably with those of Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as Russian president. Putin’s regime may be a neo-patrimonial façade democracy, but it is still arguably the best government Russians have had in a long time, if not ever. Consider: the significant improvement in tax collection following the establishment of the 13 percent flat tax in 2001; regular surpluses in the federal government’s budget, which can now be planned well in advance instead of, as under Yeltsin, after the fact; the establishment of ample hard currency reserves ($206 billion as of March 2006), a huge positive balance of trade ($128 billion for the year ending in February 2006), a large stabilization fund ($66 billion in May 2006), as well as independence from foreign creditors; a 65 percent increase in GDP since 1999 and a 50 percent increase in oil production since 1998; a foreign policy that is assertive of Russian interests without (so far) jeopardizing the country’s links with the G-8 world; most dramatically, a reversal of the decomposition of the state, which by late 1998 had reached the point where in vast stretches of the country the federal government was a complete legal fiction; freeing of the state from dependency on a small group of private financiers, thereby establishing the superiority of raison d’état over the material interests of those constituting or wielding access to the state; all the while maintaining popular approval ratings that are the envy of any Western leader. It is also worth pointing out that these achievements have been accomplished in the shadow of uncertainty about the nature of a successor regime, especially if held under truly democratic circumstances. Xenophobic nationalists are far more likely to do well in genuine elections than the “democrats” Washington favors, who have no chance whatsoever of winning a free election. As Anatol Lieven has written, “the more ardently we support them, the more unpopular they become. Excessive Western criticism of Putin, far from strengthening Russian democracy, angers ordinary Russians and risks driving them further toward chauvinistic nationalism.”55.
Lieven, “Why Are We Trying to Reheat the Cold War?” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2006. So, given most Russians’ understanding of the 1990s and of the Putin regime in relation to that period, American efforts to publicly subordinate Russian-American relations to Russian compliance with American criteria of proper political comportment is certain to prove counterproductive. Putin’s popular legitimacy would certainly be reinforced in the context of deteriorating Russian-American ties. In addition, the United States is not so powerful that it can simply dispense with Russian cooperation. This holds especially true for two vital areas touching upon American national security: building secure post-Cold War systems for controlling nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction as well as their associated production systems; and maximizing operational cooperation among intelligence services in the War on Terror. It is worth quoting from Richard Burt’s dissent from the Council on Foreign Relations’ March 2006 Russia report in this respect. Burt questions the notion that “authoritarian trends in Russia” should become a central problem in the U.S.-Russian relationship. . . . Indeed, making political reform a central issue in the U.S.-Russian dialogue is not only likely to be ineffective but may actually be counterproductive. . . . Unfortunately, there is simply no strong constituency in Russia for pushing ahead with democratic reforms.6
An increasingly authoritarian Russia is intent on re-emerging as a power center in Eurasia. The prospect of continuing high energy prices renders this scenario plausible. The central question for American policymakers is thus: Is a strong Russia, even if authoritarian at home and operating on principles of power politics abroad, incompatible with the transaction of American interests with that country? Writing in 1951, George Kennan held that Soviet Russia must meet three conditions for there to be a normal Russian-American relationship: It must renounce its messianic ideology, dismantle the totalitarian edifice of power, and renounce imperialism in the form of direct rule over those peoples desirous and able to govern themselves.77.
Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1951). Putin’s Russia meets those criteria. Were the United States to insist on more exacting ones, it would be embracing a policy at odds with historical precedent and its own national interests.
Richard Pipes, “Flight from Freedom: What Russians Think and Want”, Foreign Affairs (May/June 2004).
Zakaria, The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (W.W. Norton, 2003).
Bernard Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism: Classical Political Economy, the Empire of Free Trade and Imperialism 1750–1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1970).
Kotkin, Armageddon Averted (Princeton University Press, 2003).
Lieven, “Why Are We Trying to Reheat the Cold War?” Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2006.
Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do (Council on Foreign Relations, 2006), p. 72.
Kennan, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (University of Chicago Press, 1951).