Putin’s Choice as Russia’s Choice
No. 4 2004 October/December
Vitaly Tretyakov

Vitaly Tretyakov is Editor-in-chief of «Politichesky Class» magazine


many other recent innovations, the radical political reform
concerning parliamentary and governor elections, proposed by
Vladimir Putin, has not left any politically conscious person in
Russia and abroad indifferent.


The depth
of political changes this reform will bring – if implemented – to
Russian society and Russia’s state system is comparable to that
brought about by Boris Yeltsin’s disbandment of the Congress of
People’s Deputies (former parliament) and the adoption of a new
Constitution in 1993. Thus far, those two events have been the
fundamental political landmarks in Russia’s modern (post-Soviet)


critics and advocates of this reform agree that the country’s life
will radically change after the president’s proposals are realized.
But whether this will be a change for the better or for the worse
remains the crux of the debate.




Put in
brief, my view of the political reform proposed by Vladimir Putin
is as follows.


1. It is
definitely a step back from the ideal model of

2. It is
clearly a forced step that has been motivated by the fear of losing
something more than democracy in Russia – namely, losing Russia

3. The
efficiency of this step is neither predetermined nor guaranteed.
First and foremost, it is essential that Russia remains a viable
nation-state, and next that democracy in the country is

4. The
inefficiency of a purely democratic scenario (if there exists pure
democracy at all) for meeting the challenges faced by Russia today
has been convincingly proven in practice.


Now I’ll
go into more detail, although also rather sketchily, since the
issue is too multifaceted.

First and
foremost, we should set aside Western experience.

One can
often hear a seemingly very convincing argument that the United
States has also lived through disastrous acts of terror on
September 11, 2001, but it has not repealed governors’ elections,
while preventing repetition of similar or even smaller acts of

this comparison is absolutely incorrect. Let me specify the main
gross mistakes.

The United
States and Russia are incommensurable in their history – both in
their political history and particularly in their democratic

The United
States’ geographical (and therefore geopolitical) position is
absolutely unique and much more favorable than that of Russia. The
American landmass, although comparable in size with that of Russia,
sits between two oceans and borders only two countries – one of
them, Canada, is loyal to the U.S., while the other, Mexico, is
dramatically weaker and not very ambitious. Furthermore, the U.S.
lays thousands of kilometers away from all historical theaters of
military operations.


Taken as a
whole, these factors make the United States a natural fortress
which hardly requires extra defense. Still, the Americans have been
steadily reinforcing and improving their defenses. Moreover, they
have moved the defense line thousands of kilometers away from their
immediate frontiers. In military and geostrategic terms only the
location of the Moon could be more favorable than that of the
United States. The U.S. cannot be defeated militarily, and this is
80 percent due to its location on the globe, rather than to its


situation is totally different with Russia (even though it has
never suffered a military defeat): now the matter at hand is
guerilla or network warfare, something which Russia is objectively
more vulnerable to than the U.S. International terrorism could only
deal a blow to the United States from the outside, while it has
already secured positions in the North Caucasus of Russia; it has
secured a bridgehead there, although it is not one that it totally
controls. One can only hazard a guess as to what sort of
transformations the democratic political system in the U.S. would
undergo if international terrorism, even if in disperse forms, had
gained a foothold in Florida or Texas.


In Europe,
that is, the territory outside Russia, there is no country similar
in terms of geographic, historical, or other parameters. This makes
any comparison to Russia impossible. The European Union has just
taken shape as a proto-state and analogous to Russia. Presently, it
is impossible to predict accurately what ordeals await it and its
democratic institutions in the future.


To sum up,
the U.S., as a democracy, has a much longer record than Russia,
while the European Union, as a continental super-state, is much
younger than Russia. Therefore, it is impossible to compare
reactions in those countries to the threat of terrorism by drawing
direct analogies.

If it is
necessary to draw a comparison with another country, I


reforms proposed by Putin can be seen as Russia’s shift from a
Western development scenario (or rather one proposed by the West,
as the West itself has traveled a somewhat different path from the
one that it has offered to Russia, while it has been developing
many times slower) to a Chinese one: less democracy and more
market, with the main emphasis on preventing the country’s
disintegration and collapse.


I always
find it funny to hear ironic comments on the idea of Russia’s
having its own path from those who, as a rule, go to work in posh
cars with flashing lights on the roof. This is uncharacteristic of
the majority of their fellow citizens, not to mention their
colleagues in the West.


It would
only be possible to establish democracy in Russia overnight if
someone manages to strip all of the country’s officials (except the
president and Cabinet members) of their business cars with flashing
lights. And this is precisely what the infantile Russian democracy
has failed to do. Russia’s first president Boris Yeltsin came to
power with the one and only slogan of combating privileges enjoyed
by the upper crust of the Soviet nomenklatura. However, during his
rule the number of the ruling class’s privileges only increased.
The only privilege he actually dropped was the availability of
cheap gourmet food ‘rations.’




Vladimir Putin was elected for his first term of office as
president and immediately after, I noted many times that for Putin
as a politician the greatest value and the categorical imperative
was retaining Russia as such, while democracy was a second-ranked
priority. Naturally, it is certainly important to have democracy in
Russia. However, establishing and strengthening it, while moving
closer to Brussels’ or Washington’s standards, becomes senseless if
it is impossible to keep Russia together as a nation.


Who will
build what (democracy or despotism) on former Russian territory
should Russia, or the Russian people, disappear? This question –
perhaps in purely theoretical terms – also worries Putin. But in
practice, as the head of state, as the nation’s leader elected by
the people (even if at the ruling clan’s suggestion), he should
primarily be concerned about safeguarding Russia – perhaps even at
the expense of other things.


Whether or
not the Eastern and Western leaders understand it, the issue of
preserving Russia – Russia as such, not just its integrity – has
been the most acute and topical one during the past 15 years (only
occasionally was the issue somewhat less pressing during that
period). After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia
emerged with totally unnatural, unprotected and militarily
vulnerable borders.


Who set
Chechnya on fire and how (out of stupidity or, on the contrary,
with intent and cunning) is a different topic, but any unbiased
individual, and especially a Russian, clearly understands that
Chechnya has become a bridgehead for the further splintering and
devastation of the nation. It does not matter whether there are
terrorists, Islamists, Pan-Turkists or even some Russians behind
that; Russian society and the Russian authorities found themselves
in the position where they had to resist, even if they had few
chances to win.


How the
Russian authorities have proceeded along these lines – wisely or
foolishly, democratically or artlessly, stealing from their own
people or unselfishly – is important, but it is not crucial on the
global and historic scale.


True, the
Russians have destroyed Grozny (which, by the way, was built by the
Russians), but it was also the same people who set Moscow on fire
before it was left to Napoleon. And it would have been burnt again
had they been forced to leave it to Hitler. The Russians do not
possess Cartesian minds; they cannot surrender their capital
without a battle, leaving it untouched to the enemy (like Paris
was, for example) and then describe themselves as winners. They
either have to lose or win. This is not because the Russians are
better than other nations, but because Russian history has made
them this way.


Russian history has an end, as well. It may even be more correct to
say that it definitely will have an ending. But not now! This is
the categorical imperative of the Russian state, the Russian nation
and the Russian authorities, co-existing in an atmosphere that is
far from peace and calm.


speaking, Vladimir Putin is absolutely right when he says that
today a total war of annihilation has been declared on Russia. (The
heinous terrorist act in Beslan is the most apocalyptic, but far
from the only confirmation.) The deep national security crisis,
aggravated by a profound political crisis – which is the very core
of the Beslan holocaust – necessarily demands that Putin,
regardless if he is a strong or weak president, should immediately
take emergency measures to deal with both.




criticism of the Putin-proposed reform is absolutely justified,
even if the Kremlin has been officially reluctant to accept it. The
political essence of this reform is the revocation of governors’
elections, while replacing the mixed election system with a
proportionate system (by party lists).

the repeal of governors’ elections will have the following


– moving
outside the constitutional framework – in spirit, if not in

– the
country’s transformation from a federation into a unitary

– limiting
democratic election procedures, while moving from direct democracy
(at the regional level) to plebiscite democracy, that is, the least
democratic form of democracy.


In this
sense, the reform is a step back in democratic development if this
development is viewed not from a historical perspective, but from a
chapter in a political-science textbook. But I agree with Putin
that first and foremost he must safeguard the country and the
nation. Thereafter it will be possible to retain democracy in


questions arise concerning the expediency and adequacy of Putin’s
proposals to objectives faced by the country and the nation,


1. Will
the proposed measures permit Russia to maintain its viability – an
imperative task for any president?

2. Is it
possible, while keeping the country and the nation viable, to
retain democracy at the same time?

3. Is it
possible, while addressing the first two problems, to avoid further
eroding the already scandalously low living standards of the bulk
of the population?


why should we need a country where poverty becomes the norm? Why do
we need democracy if more than half of the population does not care
– fair enough – about the architectural finesse of European
freedoms and human rights, has little to eat and receives no
protection against rampant crime, not to mention


national security crisis in Russia, which the public and the
authorities have come to identify only after the Beslan tragedy,
has been aggravated by an acute and long-evolving political crisis
which officials prefer to describe as a ‘governability


Those two
crises tend to redouble each other – the more terrorist attacks the
less governability, the less governability the more opportunities
there are for terrorist activities.


question is: Is the political reform proposed by the president
optimal for moving Russia out of both crises, without destroying
key democratic institutions?




The type
of democracy Russia has is unfortunate, it is pseudo-democracy, and
not democracy in the classical or modern meaning of the

Why has
Russia failed to build a more or less normal democracy?


Most of
the contemporary developed democracies are organized as
representative democracies (the population votes, and presidents
and parliamentarians elected by the people rule on their behalf) or
elitist democracies. That is, those elected popularly are described
as people’s representatives only owing to the formal source which
has vested power in them, but not to their composition or origin.
In other words, they are actually representatives of the

processes in Russia (and the West) are run by representatives of
elites. They are the key actors in Russian politics. Yet many
Russian political analysts see the cause of the misfortunes of our
democracy as directly connected to the poor qualities of the
Russian elites.


I have
already written before about who in particular had become the key
actors in Russian politics in the 1990s. They were the federal and
regional authorities, oligarchs (the largest business groups), the
Russian Communist Party (CPRF) and organized crime. The
rank-and-file were given access to political processes exclusively
during election time and only according to the terms of the
propaganda campaign that was waged by the Russian mass media
(primarily television) and owned by the authorities (federal or
regional) or oligarchs.


The main
goals the key actors in Russian politics sought to attain in the
1990s included: a) keeping or seizing power; b) seizing and keeping
property; c) debarring from power the most powerful political party
which enjoyed the support of a relative majority of the population
– the Communist Party. Ninety percent of the time and effort was
assigned to finding a solution to these problems, while a mere 10
percent was devoted to national problems.


political system was organized in line with those interests – it
was democratic to the point which permitted the authorities to stay
in power and acquire assets, and undemocratic to prevent the
Communists from coming to power or rivals from getting control of
assets. The pluralism of specific actors that competed for power
and property imparted a democratic appearance to this system.
Party-like entities that floated on the surface of the political
processes were soon financially enslaved by oligarchs or the




A shift
from a mixed election system (combining one-mandate constituencies
and party lists), which was chosen with the primary goal of
guaranteeing that the CPRF not receive an absolute majority in the
State Duma, to elections exclusively organized by party lists is
not a step away from democracy – in theory, as well as in practice.
An absolute majority of deputies elected in one-mandate
constituencies during the elections to the four Dumas had been
nominated by parties, authorities or oligarchs. At this point, they
joined relevant party factions immediately after their Duma seats
had been secured.


deputies elected in one-mandate constituencies showed somewhat more
care to appeals by particular voters. But, in fact, that was not
necessary, since there has never been any real mechanism for
recalling parliament members. A shift to elections exclusively by
party lists will not change the situation, but it may encourage the
creation of new national parties which would bond together the
country from bottom to top without official braces. This is a more
than noble goal.


But a
question remains: Is the emergence of new national parties possible
in Russia in general? Is this not a utopian goal?




The heads
of the Russian Federation’s entities (governors) have posed no less
a problem for the federal authorities than oligarchs and organized

rescinding direct governors’ elections is a departure from the
classical and modern models of democracy. Yet, it is equally true
that virtually none of the democratically elected regional
governors, presidents or heads of administrations has ruled in
their territories democratically. Moreover, in many regions they
have actually established despotic or authoritarian regimes –
compared with them, the federal authorities may appear as the ideal
of democracy. Regional leaders and their teams have become the main
decelerators of democratic processes, as well as of the
rejuvenation of elites in Russia.


none of the governors allowed the development of democracy at the
municipal level, let alone at the local government level. But all
of them took part, directly or indirectly, personally or via their
relatives and acquaintances, in the division of property in their
regions. At the same time, they prevented their rivals, and to a
greater degree, the population, from those assets. Nearly all
regional heads formed regional legislatures they could control and
suppressed local media outlets. For a long period they actually
controlled all regional law enforcement agencies and special
services, including those of the Interior Ministry and the Federal
Security Service, and, naturally, the judiciary.


figures coming to power in the Russian regions – unless they were
imposed on them by the federal center using its administrative
resources – were direct creatures of federal or regional oligarchic
groups or even criminal organizations. In some regions, where there
was a relative balance between rivals of that kind, the democratic
election mechanism occasionally brought to the regional posts
totally inadequate figures.


the electorate and using administrative resources (including
coercive tactics) has become the rule, rather than the exception,
during the regional election campaigns.


none of the heads of the regions has been willing to leave his
post. Furthermore, they simply cannot do such a thing because,
first of all, many of them just have had no time (or have been
unable) to repay with assets their liabilities to groups that
financed their election and, second, leaving the post would almost
automatically bring about numerous criminal lawsuits over property


Under such
conditions, staying in power at any cost has become the meaning of
life for many regional leaders. And should they lose their chance
to retain their post, they simply promote people from their own
clans or relatives to be their successors.


If the
Kremlin denied them support, many of them would resort to blackmail
with potential ethnic and interethnic outbreaks in their regions.
And quite often the Kremlin was forced to surrender to their
demands since the regional leaders really had the resources to set
off something terrible.


speaking, the democratically elected heads of the Russian
Federation’s regions have not been conduits of democracy; they
nipped in the bud any manifestation of opposition, privatized the
bulk of regional assets and rerouted financial flows from the
federal center in favor of their clients (and often


It cannot
be denied, however, that at certain moments the regional leaders
defused regional or ethnic separatism (even if in exchange for
property or non-disclosure of their wrongdoings), which helped
prevent Russia’s disintegration in the early 1990s and during the
first military campaign in Chechnya.

regional leaders have been one of the biggest political problems in
modern Russia. This explains why Putin has decided to resort to the
most radical measures and strip them of their legitimacy based on
direct suffrage. A publicly unpronounced motive (although St.
Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko leaked a word) is: We know
well enough how this expression of the will is fixed up.


problem is also directly related to the campaign against terrorism,
especially in the North Caucasus. Furthermore, it is closely
related to organized crime which has gained too strong a foothold
at a regional power level. Finally, there remains the perennial
problem of corruption.


So, the
top priorities of the Kremlin have been to suppress despotism,
unaccountability of the regional power before the electorate, as
well as the activities of the regional business clans targeted
against the federal center.


the following factors remain unclear. What will guarantee that the
new appointees will be more democratic than the elected governors?
What forces (besides Moscow) will the new regional governors rely
on in their regions if no one provides them with new regional
elites, while the old ones will continue to be guided by their
former bosses’ instructions? Has a mechanism for the formation of
the new regional elites been elaborated? At whom will popular
protests be directed in case of major breakdowns or economic
problems in the regions – at Moscow alone? Finally, if it is true
that making regional leaders less legitimate can block spontaneous
manifestations of separatism under normal conditions, how can this
work in a force majeure situation, for example, if the country’s
president elected by popular vote suddenly leaves his post? The
country’s prime minister taking over the president’s duties under
the Constitution will not be equally legitimate in the eyes of the
regional parliaments. What if the regional legislations expel
Moscow’s protégés and elect other regional leaders in
such a case?




Many tend
to believe that a unitary state would be more preferable for Russia
under the current conditions, including its so-called ethnic
regions. But is this point of view popular in the ethnic regions,
and are there many people who would dare publicly state their
support for a unitary state? It will be very hard to make Russia
look like a federation if its regional leaders are actually
appointed by Moscow. Can it be that the heads of territories and
regions appointed in line with the new system will be less
legitimate than the presidents of some constituent republics of
Russia, if the population in those republics refuses to pass over
to the new system? This would make the federation dangerously


As I have
mentioned above, the system proposed by Vladimir Putin is rather
similar to a plebiscite democracy, which happens to be the most
undemocratic form of democracy. This presents a problem, because
the West (where few will venture deep into detail, excluding,
perhaps, a several dozen impartial analysts) and many analysts in
Russia view this move as a departure from the ‘genuine democracy’
of the previous stage.


speaking, a plebiscite democracy means that a particular society
vests its interests in a charismatic (this is a must) head of state
who has been elected directly by a nationwide vote. This move will
provide very broad powers that go beyond the framework of
democratic conventionalities, simply because the society has become
overburdened with unresolved problems and bureaucratic
arbitrariness which, as the population realizes, cannot be stopped
by any democratic procedures because bureaucracy (or oligarchs, or
criminals) uses those procedures against the people.


realization of the whole positive program of such a charismatic
leader requires a very long period of time – in our case, this will
go far beyond 2008. Besides, the public will want visible and
frequently displayed proofs that such rule brings positive


returning from plebiscite democracy to ‘normal’ democracy is always
very difficult to do and rarely occurs without excesses.




It is
obvious that the Russian Constitution is imperfect and rough around
the edges in many respects. It was tailored for the political needs
of 1993 and is already largely at odds with political realities in
the country. Yet, it does exist, despite all those flaws, and no
political force or figure has actually raised the issue of amending
it. But the issue may be put on the agenda now. Besides,
constituent republics of the Russian Federation have Constitutions
of their own.


There is a
plan, but it has not been made public in full. A brief analysis of
the many acute questions arising from the political reform plan
outlined by Vladimir Putin shows the following:


– the
president saddles himself with too great responsibility. This may
be motivated certainly not by ambition, but by the gravity of the
challenges facing the country;

– few
people consider those challenges as seriously as the

– only
part of the political reform plan has been made public, and no
sufficient measures have been outlined that would offset abandoned
democratic procedures, at least such an obvious point as the repeal
of the direct election of regional leaders. Furthermore, it has not
been explained as to where a new elite could emerge so quickly so
as to be guided by the president’s new directives throughout the
country, rather than during the vote in the State Duma


Compensatory measures. These should be rather numerous, and I
am convinced that the president should make public a full

From a
larger list of recommendations, it seems that the following
measures should be considered:


– giving
back to the State Duma part of the functions it was stripped of,
most importantly in the political sphere;

– shifting
to the direct election of Federation Council members in the

– the
de-bureaucratization of elections to regional legislatures, and
ending the persecution of non-extremist opposition forces and
politicians in the regions;

– doing
everything possible to promote the development of local

– moving
the judiciary system out of actual administrative control by
regional leaders;

institutionalizing the Putin-proposed Public Chamber whose
functions have yet to be defined; its status should not downgrade
the status of the State Duma and the Federation Council and,
naturally, it should not be a body offering seats to members of all
possible councils, ready to approve anything;

– halting
the depoliticization of federal TV channels, which has reached a
dangerous point.




For the
main questions set in this article I would provide the following
brief and clear answers.

1. Will
the measures proposed by the president ensure the country’s
stability in the face of the threat posed by international
terrorism and a profound political crisis? – Yes, if they are
supplemented with a range of other measures and properly elaborated
while taking into account all of doubts and ambiguities.

2. Is it
possible to maintain democracy in the country, while, at the same
time, preserving the country and nation? – Yes, with the
reservation that democracy has to be built anew and from a
grassroots level.

3. Is it
possible, while addressing the first two problems, to avoid
aggravating the already scandalously low living standards of the
population? – Yes, and it is not only possible, it is a must
because poverty, viewed as a direct result of the reforms of the
1990s, has turned most of the population against reform and the
reformers – and against democracy.

4. Is it
possible to choose a different, more democratic path than the one
proposed by President Putin for attaining the same results? – The
answer is: I don’t know, since there are many doubts in this
respect and many things are not clear. There is clarity about one
thing only: we can no longer follow the path chosen in the 1990s,
nor is it possible to slightly modify that path. As for the rest,
national public discussions involving the expert community are

5. Will
the chosen scenario yield the desired results – in reality, not in
theory? – This is the most challenging question, and one for which
I have no definite answer. However, it is safe to say that Putin is
risking a lot personally if the outcome turns out to be negative,
not to mention the country as a whole.




A new
Caucasian policy must be very precise and effective this time
around. Incidentally, this development has long been blocked,
particularly by the North Caucasian regional elites. The time limit
for Russia’s lack of initiative in the region has been used up.
Vladimir Putin himself admitted as much, using somewhat different
words, during his September 13 address.


I have not
focused here on Russia’s new course of foreign relations under the
current conditions in the country. I stick to my old view that a
whole range of domestic problems cannot be resolved without the
re-integration of a substantial share of the post-Soviet space on
the basis of a new model. This re-integration must be resolute and


finally, Vladimir Putin did not say something very important in his
September 13 address – something that he is going to say or do in
the near future. I personally believe that this gap should be
filled. It will then become possible to give an accurate answer to
the question in the subtitle of this article, which certainly
worries very many people: Does Russia have democracy or is it
already an authoritarian state?