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Political regime in Russia after the Cold War

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3.4. Political regime in Russia after the Cold War

3.4. 1. The end of the Cold War

In this section the author will provide some insight into political regime in Russia, in particular, how Russia’s political regime changed and evolved after the end of the Cold War. A political regime can be defined as “the formal and informal structure and nature of political power in a country, including the method of determining office holders and the relations between the office holders and the society at large. These relations could or could not involve accountability of office holders to the demos and likewise could involve various freedoms granted to society or, conversely, none at all”.330 Thereby, state’s political regime can be determined by a variety of parameters, including such aspects as human rights, free speech, the independence of media, the state of political parties, movements and associations and the real separation of power, among other things.331

The end of the Cold War not only indicated the triumph of capitalism over communism, but also brought changes to Russia’s political regime. The liberalization process that started in the early 1990s could help to improve bilateral relations between the United States and Russia, since it is easier to foster cooperation between countries with similar political regimes, especially taking into account that issues such as regime legitimacy or human rights violations would not become an additional stumbling stone in bilateral relations. Nevertheless, in course of time it became clear that Russia diverged from the democratic path, thus, by comparing changes in U.S.-Russia relations and Russia’s political regime the author will be able to determine whether Russia’s move toward a more authoritarian regime could become an impediment to partnership relations between the two countries. The political regime in Russia is a broad and complicated issue, nevertheless in this section the author will attempt to cover main trends in the development of Russia’s political regime, including evaluation of data provided by a non-governmental organization Freedom House, which measures the state of political rights and civil liberties in the country.

3.4.2. The Level of Democracy and Freedom in Russia

The breakdown of the USSR resulted in the emergence of fifteen independent states, including Russia, which led Western decision-makers to believe that the country will start a process of liberalization and establish democratic institutions. Nevertheless, the transition from authoritarian to democratic political system did not proceed smoothly. Presidential elections of 1991 resulted in Boris Yeltsin’s winning, however a new constitution had not been adopted until June, 1993, which is why the country continued its operation based on the Soviet document that left “an unclear relationship between the newly-created position of the President, on the one hand, and the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies, on the other”.332 After elections of 1991, Yeltsin pursued implementation of his economic reforms, however he faced strong opposition from the Parliament, especially from Communist Party members, which became a prominent obstacle to Yeltsin-initiated reforms, since “under the 1978 constitution, the parliament was the supreme organ of power in Russia”.333

Yeltsin sought to enhance his executive powers, however in order to avoid providing the President with more power the Parliament rejected Yeltsin’s proposal on a plebiscite to decide how power would be divided between the two branches.334 Moreover, Yeltsin and the Parliament failed to agree on the text of a new constitution, which resulted in Parliament’s rejection of a proposed draft.335 Thus, Yeltsin “illegally dissolved the Supreme Soviet, in violation of the Russian Constitution; legislators responded by seeking to replace Yeltsin with his vice President, Alexander Rutskoy”.336 Yeltsin resorted to radical means by “ordering the military to shell and forcibly seize the Russian Parliament building in October 1993”.337 Yeltsin’s actions were unconstitutional and violent, which resulted in the death of 150 people and about 400 more were injured.338 Actions of the President were obviously in contradiction with democratic principles, nevertheless Western policy makers, including Bill Clinton, did not express harsh reaction, but on the contrary accepted it as a necessary step to remove the opposition obstructing Yeltsin’s reforms.339

As previously mentioned, the constitutional crisis resulted in the dissolution of the legislature and forcible seizure of the premises. Parliamentary elections were organized in December, 1993 and brought victory to Yeltsin’s opponents, in particular, communists and nationalists.340 However, Yeltsin managed to achieve adoption of a new constitution, which was accepted “at national voting on December 12, 1993”.341 In order to evaluate political regime in Russia it is necessary to pay detailed attention to the new constitution, since it is the basic legal document that determines state’s structure.

The first section of the constitution states that “Russia is a democratic federal law-bound State with a republican form of government”.342 Thus, the country has chosen to pursue democratic development, which has been confirmed in the constitution. The constitution also claims that “the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people”343 and that “man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value”344 that is protected by the state.345 The ways the people can exercise their power are also stipulated, namely, “through the bodies of state power and local self-government”346 and directly through referendum and free elections.347 At the same time, the constitution recognizes ideological and political diversity in Russia that sharply contrasts with the Soviet Union, where the only official ideology was Marxism-Leninism and political power was completely monopolized by the Communist Party.

The constitution also ensures “the equality of rights and freedoms of man and citizen”348 and any discrimination is prohibited.349 Besides, the constitution bans censorship, ensures “the freedom of ideas and speech”,350 the right to associations and “the right to […] hold rallies, meeting and demonstration”,351 among other things. Economic freedoms such as property rights “and the freedom of economic activity”352 are also guaranteed by the law. Therefore, the Russian constitution guarantees basic human rights and freedoms that are inherent to any liberal democratic country. The constitution also envisages that the state power is not concentrated in the hands of one faction, rather, it is “exercised on the basis of its division into legislative, executive and judicial power”.353 Thus, the state power is “exercised by the President of the Russian Federation, the Federal Assembly (the Council of the Federation and the State Duma), the Government of the Russian Federation, and the courts of the Russian Federation”.354

However, it is crucial to pay attention to checks and balances between these branches and experts emphasize that the new constitution “created a president-dominant system which emasculated the legislature, legitimized the precedent of legislating by degree, and created the institutional framework for the centralization of power by the Kremlin”.355 Indeed, the constitution grants the President formal legislative power by stating that “the President of the Russian Federation shall issue decrees and orders”356 that are “obligatory to fulfillment in the whole territory of the Russian Federation”.357 Besides, the president “has the power to appoint, pending parliamentary confirmation, and dismiss the prime minister”.358

Another critique of the constitution is that it did not arise from a compromise and deliberation, but was rather imposed by the victor of the constitutional struggle, which allowed to eliminate many checks and balances.359 Moreover, the previously mentioned Yeltsin’s decision to remove his opponents by force demonstrated his reliance on the “power ministries”.360 Thus, the new constitution that made the President a dominant figure in Russia’s political system and the strengthening of the power ministries’ role created conditions that later enabled Putin to establish an authoritarian rule.361 Nevertheless, comparing to the Soviet political system, the new constitution decentralized power significantly and created institutions that would operate as a balance to the executive branch.362

The evaluation of the Russian constitution adopted in 1993 clearly shows that Russia has made a progress in terms of democratic development, since the constitution includes all basic elements, for example, human rights or the separation of power, that are inherent to any liberal democratic country. However, the adoption of a new constitution that established democratic institutions and ensured respect for human rights does not necessarily mean that these principles are applied in practice, especially taking into account the fact that the constitution considerably strengthened the power of the president. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that certain elements required for a future democracy were developed in the 1990s, for example, “an independent-minded media, active civil society groups, and a politically diverse legislature”.363

Indeed, in the 1990s media gained unprecedented freedom, and even though many influential newspapers and television channels were owned by oligarchs who maintained “cozy” ties with Yeltsin, they still provided objective information and criticism of the governing elite.364 Another positive trend was an overall conclusion that “the 1995 parliamentary elections and the 1995-1997 gubernatorial elections generally followed democratic norms.”365 Thus, for example, the OSCE decided that “Russia’s parliamentary elections was a multi-party, multi-candidate contest”366 that could be evaluated as free and fair,367 which in turn let Communists to gain a majority of seats.368

At the same time, examining Russia’s political regime in the 1990s, one must remember Yeltsin’s decisions that became not just an impediment to democratic consolidation in Russia but made a serious damage to it. One of these decisions was to start “a war against the tiny breakaway republic of Chechnya”,369 which led to thousands of deaths among civilians and military personnel,370 not to mention destroyed infrastructure and increased violence in the region. The 1996 presidential elections uncovered other significant flaws in Russia’s democratic development.371 It became clear that Yeltsin, who by 1996 had become extremely unpopular due to adverse economic situation and massive impoverishment, corruption, war in Chechnya and increased criminal activity, could be defeated by the Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.372 Many foreign observers were satisfied just by the fact that multiple candidates participated and that no violence occurred during those presidential elections, however they turned a blind eye to another important aspect, the election campaign, which proved to be highly undemocratic and uncompetitive.373

The Kremlin not only exceeded allowed campaign spending, disregarded transparency rules, provided financial support to regional authorities and even voters or allegedly falsified some votes, but seriously damaged Russia’s future democracy by maintaining strong ties with the new oligarchs.374 Thus, “top oligarchs and media moguls openly assisted Yeltsin’s campaign by turning all of their resources toward his reelection, providing Yeltsin with consistently positive television coverage and blatantly demonizing his opponents”.375 Especially disturbing was the so-called “loans-for-shares” deal that enabled a narrow group of people to acquire highly valuable state-owned assets for a relatively negligible amount of money that were so necessary for Yeltsin’s presidential campaign.376

Previously described political developments definitely produced a negative impact on Russia’s incipient democracy, which can also be backed up by the Freedom House data. As shown in Table 2 (see Appendix 3), Russia has never been ranked as a liberal democracy and even during the 1990s it was classified as “Partly Free”. Besides, already in 1998 and 1999 Russia’s freedom rating deteriorated, reaching score 4 and 4.5 respectively, comparing to previous years when Russia’s freedom rating stood at 3.5. Russia’s deteriorating performance in terms of political and civil liberties could be connected to the resumption of large-scale military activities in Chechnya and massive security checks mainly targeted at Chechens and other Caucasian peoples that were launched in Moscow following violent terrorist attacks.377 It is worth mentioning that the military operation aimed at obliteration of Chechen militants significantly increased Putin’s popularity, who became prime minister in 1999.378 Freedom House also emphasizes that the media provided only one-sided coverage of the second war in Chechnya favoring government actions.379 Among other problems Freedom House mentions strict electoral rules that were used to disqualify candidates from the 1999 parliamentary elections, media bias during the election campaign, pervasive corruption and human rights abuses by police.380 Another factor that contributed to Russia’s deteriorating freedom rating was a 1997 law that introduced barriers for operation of certain religious groups, in particular, the law stipulates that in order to register churches must “prove that they have existed for at least 15 years”,381 which in turn privileges Orthodox churches and complicates functioning of other religious groups.382

The year 2000 marked a crucial turn for Russia’s future democracy. Putin, who became Yeltsin’s successor, won a landslide victory in the 2000 presidential elections.383 The elections were not without violations, since international observers referred to irregularities such as “the use of some election commission staff to distribute campaign materials”384 and “the use of federal and regional government staff members to campaign for Putin”.385 Among other issues that have contributed to Putin’s victory could be noted the shortened campaign period and exclusively positive media coverage of Putin by state-controlled networks, especially the ORT channel.386 At the same time, it must be acknowledged that Putin’s victory could not be declared as an absolute fraud, since he did enjoy a great popularity and mass support at that moment.

However, after taking the office in 2000, Putin has consistently pursued policy toward power centralization, simultaneously trying to diminish the business community’s influence and to take control over the mass media. Yet in 2000, Putin unleashed a number of tax raids targeting the most influential business groups and companies such as Lukoil, AvtoVaz, Norilsk Nikel and other, including media tycoons.387 For example, in 2000, Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of an independent media network Media-Most, was charged with fraud and as Gusinsky later confessed he was forced to sell his media empire to the state-controlled company Gazprom in exchange for withdrawal of charges.388 While Putin claimed that government actions were aimed at fighting corruption, many experts evaluated those events as an effort to silence the independent-minded media and to outlaw “inconvenient” for Kremlin oligarchs.389 Moreover, a number of attacks on journalists, mostly those reporting on corruption cases, were recorded throughout the year.390

The government went even further by exerting pressure on two Media-Most outlets, in particular, Gazprom made decision to liquidate the newspaper Segodnya and to dismiss the staff of the newspaper Itogi.391 Besides, Gazprom “took control of NTV television, part of the country’s leading independent media empire”.392 After the takeover, many NTV employees had left the television station and joined the last nationwide independent channel referred to as TV6, however, in January 2002, TV6 was also liquidated based on a Moscow court’s order.393 Consequently, as of June 2003, all the private nationwide television stations were either liquidated or taken over by state-controlled companies394 such as Gazprom.

Even though the Russian constitution provides freedom of association, in course of time the authorities tightened the rules around this matter, for instance, a 2002 law enabled the government to suspend the operation of NGOs and political parties in case their members face charges of extremism.395 It is worth mentioning, however, that the law defines extremism very broadly, thus, allowing to suppress opposition groups.396 The rules concerning the operation of NGOs have become even stricter in subsequent years, thus, a 2006 law made NGO registration and operation requirements excessively burdensome by demanding to provide detailed information on each founder and to submit annual financial reports and by allowing government authorities to monitor NGO activity.397 In 2012, a new law obliged NGOs “financed from abroad and involved in political activity to register as “foreign agents””.398 Under this law, NGOs are also obliged to provide both financial and activity reports.399 Besides, Russia’s government not only exerted pressure on NGOs, but also toughened penalties for unsanctioned protests400 in response to mass demonstrations that unfolded after the 2012 presidential elections. Thereby, sharply increased fines, arrests and police crackdowns have suppressed any unsanctioned protests, albeit the Kremlin’s supporters can demonstrate freely.401 An especially disturbing development was the creation of nationalist organizations such as “Nashi”.402 Established in 2005, “Nashi” is a youth organization based on anti-Western sentiment and extensive support for Putin, which harasses Putin’s opponents and labels them as “traitors”.403

Since Putin’s arrival to power, Russia’s political system has systematically been distorted favoring Putin and his supporters and simultaneously destroying Russia’s young democracy.404 After the pro-Kremlin party Unity gained a substantial number of mandates in the 1999 parliamentary elections, the incumbent and his allies took decisive steps to make the next election more predictable.405 The first move was to create a legal environment that complicates the formation of political parties.406 During the 1990s a political party could participate in elections if it had more than 100 members, however in 2001 that number was increased up to 10,000 with a stipulation that the party was joined by at least 100 members from each region.407 In 2006, the total number of required party members was raised up to 50,000.408

Apparently, the new legislation created a number of substantial obstacles to creating new political parties, thus, limiting the number of potential Kremlin’s rivals.409 Besides, in 2001, a new pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, was established, which in subsequent years eliminated any power-sharing in the State Duma.410 For example, the 2003 parliamentary election brought an absolute victory to United Russia that gained over 300 mandates out of 450.411 Furthermore, prior to the 2007 parliamentary elections United Russia with the majority of seats in the parliament adopted additional legislation to increase the minimum barrier up to 7 percent instead of prior 5 percent.412 Simultaneously, political parties were prohibited from forming electoral coalitions.413 Yet another law eliminated the practice of single-seat districts, thus, preserving only proportional representation, which in turn successfully excluded smaller opposition parties from representation and minimized “the connection between voters and their representatives”.414 In 2004, Putin went even further by introducing constitutional changes that provided the president with the right to appoint governors instead of being elected by local population, which in fact gave the President an opportunity to influence the composition of the Federation Council.415

Meanwhile, Russian elections have been constantly criticized by international observers, but during the 2007 parliamentary elections the OSCE “decided not to observe the elections because it felt that its monitors did not have the freedom to work professionally”.416 The 2007 elections, in which United Russia captured 315 mandates, proved to be unfair, including obvious falsification.417 For example, turnout in Chechnya, Dagestan and Mordovia ranged between 80 and 90 percent, though the average accounts for about 64 percent, and United Russia gained abnormally high support, namely, between 81 and 99 percent.418 During the 2008 presidential race the OSCE again rejected to monitor the elections, referring to restraints imposed by the government.419 Even though the elections of 2008 resulted in the victory of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev, there were no real changes in official policy line, especially considering the fact that Putin immediately became prime minister.420 Shortly after, the Duma adopted constitutional amendments to prolong the presidential term up to six years and the Duma term up to five years,421 thus, making it easier for Putin and his associates to retain their power.

After the 2011 Duma elections, that again attracted a lot of criticism on the part of OSCE observers, mass demonstrations erupted calling “for annulment of the election results, an investigation into vote fraud, and freedom for political prisoners”.422 In order to pacify protesters, in 2012, Medvedev supported a number of liberal reforms, substantially easing party registration rules and restoring gubernatorial elections.423 Nevertheless, Russia has been criticized for constant changes in country’s electoral law, arguing that the changes are solely “cosmetic” and still benefit current incumbents.424 For example, in regard to gubernatorial elections, candidate can participate in the election campaign only if he or she manages to enlist “support of municipal deputies and heads of municipalities”.425 Consequently, the new law ensured effective exclusion of Kremlin’s opponents, taking into account the fact that municipalities are mainly controlled by United Russia. Thus, it would be imprudent to expect genuine liberalization and substantial changes in Kremlin’s policy under Medvedev’s presidency, whose main role was to help Putin to avoid constitutional violation.426 Yet in 2011, Medvedev declared that he would not participate in the upcoming presidential race, thus, providing the way for Putin’s reelection in 2012.427

As previously mentioned, Russia has never been regarded as a liberal democracy and yet during Yeltsin’s presidency Russia’s performance in terms of democratic development showed some deterioration. After Putin took over presidential powers, Russia’s political system has been further eroded by gripping full control over the mass media, changing legislation to prevent the appearance of opposition parties and to further empower the executive branch, suppressing civil society and eliminating disloyal or politically dangerous businessmen. As can be seen from Table 2 (see Appendix 3), throughout the 1990s and in the beginning of 2000s Russia’s status constantly remained as “Partly Free”, however in 2005 Freedom House ranked Russia as “Not Free” and so it remains to this day. Consequently, the policy conducted by the President Putin made Russia’s political regime more authoritarian, though during Yeltsin’s presidency Russia’s political system already faced a number of significant flaws usually ignored by Western policy makers. Yet no positive changes occurred even when the presidential post was taken by Dmitry Medvedev, since he ensured continuation of Putin’s policy line. Thus, during Medvedev’s presidency Russia’s freedom rating remained at the same level, in particular, 6 points were assigned for political rights and 5 points - for civil liberties, which in turn classified the country as “Not Free”.

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