The Fork in the Road in 2008
No. 2 2008 April/June

The history of a
country, like the life of an individual, goes through long periods
when there are very few or no chances at all to overhaul the
foundations of its existence. Such periods alternate with shorter
phases when an accidental combination of circumstances offers
opportunities for making a choice that would predestine the
nation’s development for dozens of years in the future. Mikhail
Gorbachev’s perestroika was a time when Russia’s future depended
heavily on haphazard and personal factors. 1991 was a year
especially rich in alternatives. It was the year of Boris Yeltsin’s
election as Russian President, the abortive coup attempt, the
failure to sign a new Union Treaty and the signing of the Belavezha
Accords, which formally dissolved the Soviet Union. I strongly
believe that the year 1991 offered practically no chances for a
return to Soviet power and socialism or for a rapid rise of a
genuine democracy in Russia. Yet there were a huge number of
options ranging from maintaining the Union in some form or another
for many years to come to a Yugoslav-type bloody war between Union
republics, and from an almost democratic system dominated by a
single party to a military dictatorship. The Belavezha Accords
slashed the array of choices abruptly.

An unpredictable situation “rich in
alternatives” (even though less in scope) has emerged once again in
Russia in 2008.


The Belavezha Accords were a pivotal
point in Russian history as they marked the inception of the
current Russian political system of ‘imitational democracy.’ They
rounded off the shaky period of Russia/Union – Yeltsin/Gorbachev
dual power and transferred full authority to Boris Yeltsin, the
leader of the democratic anti-Communist movement, who had become
president of Russia (still as part of the Soviet Union) earlier in
1991. Russian society was not prepared either culturally or
psychologically for genuine democracy and this created an
opportunity for turning the declared democracy into a form that was
authoritarian in content. The use of the Belavezha Accords as a
tool for Yeltsin’s ascent to power made any other option for the
country’s development highly improbable.

As a matter of fact, Yeltsin dissolved
the Soviet Union without any popular mandate for it (only Ukrainian
President Leonid Kravchuk had a mandate after a referendum).
Moreover, the dissecting of the Soviet Union stood in outright
contradiction to the results of the March 1991 all-Union referendum
regarding the destiny of the Union State. This meant that the
opposition got a trump card for accusing Yeltsin and his democratic
associates of an ill-conceived policy and, on top of that, of
destroying the country and of national betrayal. So for Yeltsin,
keeping power (or ceding it in a way that would guarantee handing
down power to a successor he would appoint) and the warding-off of
the political opposition became a “categorical imperative.” The
case in hand now was not Yeltsin’s willingness to translate his
political course into life or to indulge in power, but putting his
personal freedom and even life at stake.

Yeltsin’s team was unable to discard
the principles of democracy it had proclaimed – and it was equally
unable to follow these principles either. There were no
alternatives to building a Third-World-type imitational democracy.
Furthermore, as the creation of a system of that kind implies
incessant encroachments on the principles of democracy, i.e.
unlawful and unconstitutional acts, every new step makes it more
problematic to abandon this course. While it would be still
possible – although very difficult – to imagine that after the
Belavezha Accords Yeltsin could have ceded power to an opponent
rather than to an appointed successor, the forceful destruction of
the national parliament in the fall of 1993 made this prospect
completely unimaginable.

Winners cannot go back on their
victories, they can only move forward toward a further
consolidation of power. The specific mass mentality among Russians
makes this approach a convenient and handy one. Russian society
does not have a very strong ability for self-organization and is
apprehensive about freedom; and so at the initial stage an
imitational democratic system – embodied in the personal power of a
president to whom there is no alternative – suited the country
perfectly. Russia’s political maturing was eventually subjected to
a tough logic that stems from the very nature of the imitational
system and admits that there is a limited choice of options. From
that moment on, little depended on Yeltsin or his


A detailed analysis of all aspects of
the logic of imitational democracy would take too much space,
therefore I will only provide a brief summary here.

Expansion of the sphere of
The need to maintain a non-alternative
system of presidential power presumes a persistent widening of
control over political life and the elimination of threats on “the
approaches that are even further away to find.”

First and foremost, the establishment
of the system of a non-alternative presidency means that there will
be a conflict with other branches of power leading to their
subordination, or an actual elimination of the distinctions between
them. This happened in 1993, when Yeltsin forcefully disbanded the
parliament (amid very weak resistance in society) and ensured the
adoption of a Constitution that thoroughly suited his rule. A
president cannot do without a Constitution in today’s world,
although any Constitution can be inconvenient for his or her
personal rule.

The delivery of a Constitution that
slashed the powers of the legislative branch was the first
important step. Other measures naturally came in its wake. Since
even a weak parliament is a threat if it falls into the hands of
the opposition, it was necessary to gain control over the entire
election process so that it would produce a priori acceptable
results. This implies the “accountability” of regional and local
agencies of power, which must guarantee the desired results of
voting. The system of political parties, too, must be accountable.
The latter thesis admits the existence of a fictitious and listless
opposition, and of a pet party that echoes the presidential
power-wielding camp and which becomes the dominant party.
Presidential control spreads over to the mass media, and the
judiciary turns into a de facto liege of the executive branch.
Privatization is used as a tool for creating owners dependent on
presidential power and who are interested in preserving that power.
Oligarchs desiring independent political roles are nipped in the

Yeltsin resolved major problems that
emerged in the course of the evolution and strengthening of this
non-alternative presidential power, and yet his successor Vladimir
Putin inherited some of them. These problems logically follow one
another. Had Yeltsin not been ill, had he not faced a tough choice
between dying as president or giving up power, and had he continued
ruling, he himself would have had to resolve the problems that
Putin faced later. The evolution of other post-Soviet countries,
like Belarus and Kazakhstan, testifies to the natural logic of
these processes. They all had to cope with the same types of
problems and had to do so in much the same way and order. The
differences in the models of post-Soviet development largely stem
from objective factors, such as specific national cultures or
available resources, while subjective factors play a relatively
small role.

Yeltsin and Putin had very different
personalities, yet they were building the same system. Kazakh
President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Belarusian President Alexander
Lukashenko have little in common, yet the Belarusian and Kazakh
systems have much in common. It is true that both Yeltsin’s and
Putin’s personal traits could determine the style of resolving the
tasks they faced, but not the essence of the tasks. For instance,
Yeltsin’s impulsive and rough manner influenced his choice of the
bloody form in which he suppressed the disobedient Supreme Soviet
(parliament) in 1993. Other CIS presidents, who disbanded their
parliaments, did so without bloodshed. Still, Yeltsin could do
nothing else than dissolve parliament. The practice of drawing
contrasts between Yeltsin and Putin, so popular with Russian
liberals, grows out of a misunderstanding that the difference
between the Yeltsin and Putin eras is essentially the difference
between various stages of the system’s development (like the
Leninist and Stalinist stages of the Soviet government) and the
personal traits of the two leaders had but a minor role in this.
(Their personal differences are linked to the laws of the system,
too, and it was quite natural for Yeltsin to choose a person with
qualities different from his own to resolve the tasks of the next
phase of development.)

Social/economic development and its
In the post-Soviet social and economic development,
natural logic also prevailed over subjective and personal factors.
There was a natural logic in a privatization that boiled down to
the de facto handing out of lumps of state property. This created a
class of owners dependent on the powers that be. There was a
natural logic in the use of semi-lawful methods of control over the
owners, when the ones who were politically loyal got more
incentives while the disloyal ones were driven into bankruptcy. And
it was naturally logical to grab control over the most profitable
key branches of the economy.

The cyclic nature of Russia’s economic
development also reveals internal logic. The transition from
socialism to a market-based economy could not but entail a downhill
industrial recession and plummeting living standards, and this was
the case with all post-Communist nations. In all of these
countries, economic recession was eventually followed by economic
growth. It was based on how individuals and all of society adapted
to new forms of economic life and on how new skills and habits
developed. In Russia, this process was made easier by the presence
of huge oil and gas resources and a jump in world energy prices –
an accidental factor that is not part of the logic of

In this context, contrasting the
“democratic” Yeltsin and the “authoritarian KGB” Putin is incorrect
in the same way that associating the ruinous economy of the early
1990s with Yeltsin and the ensuing economic growth is with Putin.
Had Yeltsin been alive and healthy now or had he nominated, say,
former railway chief Nikolai Aksyonenko instead of Putin as his
successor, economic growth would have begun all the same. The
people would have either admired Yeltsin’s wisdom or would have
compared Aksyonenko’s wise policies to Yeltsin’s vicious

Evolution of foreign policy.
One more fallacy related to the personification of natural stages
in the country’s development is the conviction that under Yeltsin
the West forced Russia to its knees and that Putin made the country
stand up again.

In reality, although there is a
difference in Russia’s relations with the West under Yeltsin and
Putin, it is much less significant than it is generally believed.
During Putin’s presidency, Russia began standing up against the
West on diverse issues and in various regions, above all in the
territory of the former Soviet Union where this opposition has
often resembled a local Cold War. But here, too, the changes are
only slightly related to the personalities of the first Russian
president and his successor.

The proclamation of a new independent,
democratic and market-oriented Russia in 1991 could not but produce
euphoria in relations with the West, and this thesis does not even
need to be proved. But the subsequent evolution of the Russian
state could not but entail a worsening of Russian-Western relations
and a revival of elements of the Cold War. As the Russian system
continued to develop, it kept distancing itself from the Western
model. While at the initial stage some may have considered the
discrepancy between Russia and the West as the aftermath of the
“underdevelopment” of Russian society, eventually it became obvious
that it had nothing to do with “underdevelopment,” but lay in a
different vector chosen for the Russian political system’s
evolution. Russia’s course essentially precludes a possibility of
the country’s full-fledged integration into Western institutions,
which cannot invite a hearty response with the West. Moscow, on its
part, shows natural discontent with Russia’s low rankings in the
West, as well as with sermonizing by the United States and

Given this situation, the discord in
Russian-Western relations can only keep growing and Russia’s
willingness to stand up to the West looks only natural. Add to this
Russia’s “Great Power” disposition and traditional active
geopolitical role, its legacy of a great power (nuclear weapons and
a permanent seat on the UN Security Council), less financial
dependence on the West as a result of the end of the transformation
crisis and high energy prices, and the accumulation of huge
financial reserves, and you will see that Putin’s personality plays
but a small role in how Russia’s foreign policy has changed. The
re-emergence of the Cold War in Russian-Western relations – albeit
in a milder and non-ideological form – after the period of euphoria
was as natural as the emergence of imitational democracy after 1991
and the economic rise that followed the economic recession during
the transition period. Foreign policy just proved to fall in line
with the overall natural course of post-Soviet

The above analysis explains that the
events in 1991 carried the germ of today’s Russia. In 2008, Putin
broke the internal logic of the country’s evolution when he decided
to step aside after his second term (as the Constitution requires)
and to become prime minister under his successor Dmitry


In a genuine democracy, the
Constitution is stable and state power regularly shifts from person
to person and from party to party. In an imitational democracy, the
power of a certain person (or a quasi-dynasty in which each ruler
appoints a successor) does not change, while the Constitution can
be changed based on a calculation of the here and now. This game
does not have permanent rules, but it does have permanent winners
capable of changing the rules. A number of post-Soviet presidents –
Nursultan Nazarbayev, Islam Karimov, Imomali Rakhmon, Alexander
Lukashenko and Askar Akayev – have on many occasions changed new
Constitutions or “fixed” old ones with amendments that are always
targeted at consolidating presidential power, lifting restrictions
on presidential terms, etc. Kazakhstan, for example, has lived
under three different Constitutions during Nazarbayev’s rule, and
amendments to them were passed on more than ten occasions.
Kazakhstan’s basic law is being violated all the time. Yeltsin
ruled under two Constitutions, the second of which he custom-made
for himself to get maximum levers of power. This allowed him to
make radical changes in the system of governance without formally
encroaching on the law. Yet the Constitution limited the president
to two terms, since the end of those two terms was very far away
when the Constitution was approved. Being in poor health, Yeltsin
did not try to revise this restriction and resigned even before his
second term expired. Putin is young, energetic and extremely
popular, and he enjoys a much greater control over society than his
predecessor did. A constitutional amendment enabling him to stay in
office would have posed no problem for him, yet he vowed to follow
the Constitution and leave office – something that obviously goes
against the wishes of bureaucracy and the people. This is the first
time in post-Soviet and all of Russian history when a ruler has
voluntarily given up power.

There is no use in discussing the
reasons for Putin’s move as another man’s mind is a closed book. It
is the aftereffects and not the motives of this decision that are
of the most concern for us.

In the first place, Putin’s decision
marks a step toward the modernization of Russian mentality that was
fashioned by centuries of Tsarist autocracy, which suggested that
“once a Tsar, always a Tsar.” Second, it implies divesting supreme
power of the sacral and personified properties. Third, it sets a
precedent whereby a ruler submits himself to “a piece of paper” –
the Constitution. His action raises the significance of law and
makes it practically impossible for future presidents to extend
their powers beyond two terms. Term restrictions for the highest
office of power are something that Russian history has never seen
before. More than that, the powers of the new president will from
now on be limited by the presence of an active predecessor, who is
in good health and who will take away with him part of the awe that
he inspired in his fellow citizens while at the helm of government.
Putin’s decision leads Russia away from the path typical of other
imitational democracies, such as Kazakhstan and Belarus.

On the other hand, the system becomes
less certain and less stable as it lacks full power and even shows
signs of the emergence of a real division of powers. Putin’s
decision to become prime minister under President Dmitry Medvedev –
seemingly meant to help the latter at the start, but which de facto
weakens his “undivided” authority and even creates elements of dual
power – only magnifies this instability.

This means that once again – the first
time since 1991– Russia has come to a fork in the road; that is, at
the opportunity to choose between different options. What are these


Imitational democracies are highly
controversial (their form stands in a dramatic contrast with their
content) and are thereby unstable and not durable enough. The more
formal and predictable elections are, the less legitimate the
government is (since only genuinely democratic elections can make
the regime legitimate). Furthermore, tightening control over
society only weakens the feedback from society to the authorities.
Such regimes are inevitably doomed – sooner or later, with some
kind of consequences. And I don’t think there are any alternatives
here – few people would imagine that a chain of presidents handing
the reins of power down to one another will last until the end of
the 21st century. But if such regimes have an inescapable end, then
there should be important alternatives regarding the form, term and
aftershocks of their collapse.

The “post-Soviet experience” shows that
liberal imitational democracies are less durable than more rigid
“democratic” regimes which completely suppress the legal
opposition. Leonid Kuchma’s regime in Ukraine was weaker than
Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus. The former tumbled, while the
latter is flourishing. Askar Akayev’s regime in Kyrgyzstan also
collapsed, while Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan is in its
prime. These facts lead us to the conclusion that the tougher you
are, the more stability you have. The problem is that this
conclusion, which most post-Soviet presidents seem to have arrived
at after a series of ‘colored revolutions,’ is valid only in part,
since a stabilization of this type implies great risks.

Imitational democratic regimes fell
quite peacefully as the result of ‘colored revolutions’ timed for
various elections. In the case of “soft” regimes, the opposition
acted as an organized legal force capable of controlling masses of
people and conducting negotiations. The parties to the political
process recognized the Constitution, claims by the opposition that
the authorities rigged the elections were easy to verify, and the
election results could even be annulled. Manifestations of
spontaneous and forcible events in such revolutions are

In case of more rigid regimes, like
those in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, this option for development can
be practically ruled out. A legal opposition is practically
non-existent, elections have fully turned into a rite and no one
has any hope in them. A regime thus prolongs its life, but its
collapse will be catastrophic. The CIS has seen only one instance
of a revolution in a country with a rigid regime – in Uzbekistan,
which involved disturbances in the city of Andijan in 2005. It was
a spontaneous explosion among masses of people who organized
protests and put forth radical slogans. However, countries outside
the CIS abound in instances of rigid regimes collapsing in disarray
(the difference in the forms of collapse of more and less rigid
regimes can be easily seen from the examples of the Somoza
dictatorship in Nicaragua and the Institutional Revolutionary Party
in Mexico).

A more significant alternative relates
to the aftermaths rather than the forms and dates of a regime’s
downfall. There are two options here – either the country changes
over to a genuine democracy after the collapse of the imitational
democratic regime or it gets another imitation, although of a
different type, after a certain period of anarchy (something that
happened in Indonesia after the fall of its first president,
Soekarno and the ascent of his successor, Suharto, or what is
evidently taking place in Kyrgyzstan now).

Naturally, the chances for changing
over to genuine democracy are greater if society has assimilated
more democratic values. A shift toward genuine democracy depends on
the general process of development or modernization. It is clear,
for instance, that in spite of the totalitarian nature of Communist
rule, people in the former Soviet republics stood much closer to
democracy on the cultural, social and psychological plane in 1991
than in 1917; they continue to assimilate democratic values under
post-Soviet imitational democratic regimes. Any imitational
democratic regime alludes to democratic values and thereby
facilitates their taking hold in the mass consciousness. There is
hardly any doubt that today’s Russia, with its experience of a
market economy, ideological pluralism and practical political
struggle, albeit restricted by the authorities, is much better
prepared for democracy than the Russia of 1991, whose experience
was confined to the Soviet government and tsarist autocracy. The
more liberal an imitational democratic regime is, the greater its
allusions to legitimacy are; and the broader the space of freedom
it leaves, the more it lubricates the adoption of democratic
freedoms. This means that it naturally rebounds to changing over to
a genuine stable democracy and avoiding anarchy, from which there
would be only one way – through a new totalitarianism.

It is worthwhile to look at the
alternatives that sprang up after Putin’s move in precisely this
light. If developments had continued in the same way as before
2008, the existing system would have broken apart and the series of
presidents handing power down to one another would have fallen
apart and there would have been a disastrous aftermath in Russia.
Of course this does not mean that Putin’s decision to abide by the
Constitution, which will most likely be reinforced by the clearly
visible “legal orientation” of his successor, will secure a
non-crisis transition to democracy in the future. The first ascent
to power of a person who is not a designated successor is a crisis
in itself. Yet in any event Putin’s decision helps minimize the
risks of an inevitable crisis and makes sure that this will be the
last crisis before Russia becomes a genuine democracy.

Naturally, the unstable situation that
Putin has created by his decision may have other outcomes, too. The
system may see a further strengthening of legitimate foundations
and experience a distancing from the mainstream trends of
imitational democracies; a “personality reaction” cannot be ruled
out either. The unfolding opportunity for the smooth development of
democracy is just an opportunity and whether it materializes or not
will depend on the steps taken by Medvedev, Putin and many