Can Russia Ever Change?

By Ashot Egiazaryan (October 17, 2011)

Vladimir Putin’s decision to return to the Kremlin for a third term shows that, 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia remains unable to transform its political model. Russia retains a heavily centralized, highly inefficient state with weak institutions that do not represent the people. Property is still largely owned and controlled by government officials, civil society remains underdeveloped and consciousness of civic responsibility weak at best.

By historical standards, today’s authoritarian system in Russia is of the soft variety: The apparatus of repression is only used selectively and there are pockets of freedom, notably on the Internet, that the authorities choose not to control. Russians today also enjoy unprecedented freedom of travel.

Yet the much vaunted “stability” associated with Mr. Putin’s rule is threatened by a lack of civic participation. I’d estimate that roughly 20% of Russian society is progressively minded and capable of driving change. But this vital faction is largely apathetic and sees no prospect of fundamental reform. Marginalized by heavily managed state media and farcical elections, their energies are going to waste. Instead of a vigorous political debate among people with competing visions of how to run the country, there is silence.

At the same time, the ruling elite sense that Russia is set on a dangerous course. On the surface, Russia is doing fine. Oil prices are high, the country has no sovereign debt and the economy is growing at 4%, with foreign investors showing little sign of being deterred by the challenging business environment.

Boris Yeltsin, president of the Russian Federation, makes a speech from atop a tank in front of the Russian parliament building in 1991.

But Russia’s leaders have good reason to be concerned about Mr. Putin’s next six years as president. With raw materials still counting for 60% of foreign export earnings, Russia is exceptionally vulnerable to a drop in commodity prices, in particular oil prices. The legitimacy of the current leadership rests firmly on the fact that average salaries have risen by a factor of 10 over the last decade. But this feel-good factor is set to diminish as global growth slows, real incomes fail to keep pace with inflation and the costs of replacing inherited Soviet infrastructure and paying burgeoning pensions start to bite. Sooner or later, when the system stops delivering the goods, Russia’s ruling class is going to have to cope with a crisis of legitimacy.

Russia has never been as rich as today and nor has it been as corrupt. The remarkable work by civic activist Alexey Navalny to expose corrupt practices in state companies such as Rosneft and to encourage official accountability is an encouraging sign. A small but significant part of Russian society that supports his Internet-based campaign sees an opportunity to express its frustration at brazen theft by state officials.

Nevertheless, corruption is only a symptom of the broader problem: a lack of functioning institutions to connect leaders with citizens based on respect for the law. Above all, Russian citizens need a system that allows for official accountability, the enforcement of their own rights and fair adjudication of disputes. The volume of Russia-related cases being heard in the European Court of Human Rights and other foreign jurisdictions is startling evidence of Russians’ lack of trust in their current legal environment.

Countervailing power does not feature in Russia’s political history. The so-called democrats who came to power after 1991 were, for the most part, not people who had struggled against the Soviet system, but rather its privileged beneficiaries who saw their opportunity to replace the old guard when the Soviet Union fractured. Unlike in the Baltic States and Poland, for example, Russia had no alternative elites with the determination and vision to move the country toward a more successful path of development.

The situation in Russia was more like that in East Germany. There, too, a Soviet-style political system had been welded on to a historical tradition of absolutism. Yet even East Germans, intimidated for 40 years by their highly efficient security services, finally found the courage in 1989 to take to the streets and declare “We are the people.” Vladimir Putin’s formative political experience was as a KGB officer in Dresden when, as the communist system imploded, he had to persuade an angry crowd not to ransack the building where he worked.

By contrast, with the exception of a brave few, society in Russia barely moved a muscle in August 1991 when Boris Yeltsin stood astride a tank and declared the end of Soviet power.

Real modernization, rather than the cosmetic sort, requires changing the foundations of Russia’s political system and developing legitimate democratic institutions, not imitations. A transformation of this kind cannot be instigated from above. It must come from the bottom up. The question is whether Russian society will have the strength and will to seize their opportunity as Putinism runs its course.

(Mr. Egiazaryan is a member of Russia’s outgoing State Duma and is currently living in the United States out of fear for his personal safety.)