The Passion of the Putin

by Nathan Hamm on 9/14/2004 · 16 comments

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I won’t dance around it with niceties one bit from the get-go. I’m perplexed by the tone of the criticism Putin’s proposed political reforms. Maybe I’m nuts, but I’m not nearly as worried. [I am a little rusty on the recall of details on Russian electoral politics, but I’ll give this a shot. So, if they come up, please correct me if I’m wrong.]

I respectfully disagree with Joe Gandelman (via Instapundit) and those who so vehemently share his concerns about political reforms (and only that in this post, Chechnya tactics are a different discussion, though how this move will or will not impact Chechnya is in play here). I can’t help but get the impression that pundits are focusing more on Russian laws than they are on what those laws, towards or away from democracy, mean for the Russian people.

One of Joe’s concerns is that deputies to the Duma will be “Drawn from party lists rather than elected.” For those not in the know, here’s my description of Duma elections from my thesis (I’ll try to get a link up later):

Voters in Russian parliamentary elections receive two ballots. The first ballot is the same throughout Russia and asks the voter to vote for a single party. The second ballot asks voters to vote for a single candidate and varies depending on where the voter lives. Half of the Duma’s seats are allocated proportionally from the outcome on the first ballot, and the other half of the seats are awarded to winners of regional races. To win proportional representation seats, a party must receive more than 5% of the national vote.

Granted, that was for the 1999 election, but it’s not drastically different today. Putin’s proposal is to move entirely to a proportional representation system, which I see as entirely value-neutral (unless you’re a die-hard federalist, and, if you as an American feel strongly about Russian federalism, please tell me why). In fact, I can see an enormous positive in the elimination of single member districts (SMDs)–it becomes much harder to buy a Duma seat. In the past, there was also a trick of sorts available to parties. They could run their popular members in SMDs and double run these same candidates on the list, allowing them to “pass down” their seats to junior members of the party or guarantee that they would get a seat (provided the threshold was passed) even if they couldn’t cut it in an SMD race.

Personally, I never thought the Russian parliament made much sense anyway. The upper house is all but irrelevant in the grand scheme of things (even before Putin came into office). I always felt that a two-house system with one made up of SMD geographical representation and one made up of proportional party lists was a little better, but that’s just me.

Joe is also worried about the weakening of regional authority. I have to tell you that I am on the fence. If I recall correctly, there is not all that much to take away after Putin’s earlier reforms.

On a theoretical and coolly analytical level, I have to say that I have a hard time getting too worried about further deterioration of democracy in Russia. In fact, I dispute Joe’s assertion that Russia ever did make a “seemingly-miraculous conversion to democracy.” Certainly, rights have been curtailed (and it’s debatable how many of those meant much, as in, were able to be asserted, to Russians) Russians themselves don’t seem too terribly worried about centralization of powers, and I side with them for two reasons.

The first is that I don’t think they’re misjudging the political situation in Russia. Corruption and abuse of power are enormous problems. Regional power was terribly abused in the past, and it makes perfect sense to trade the tyrant next door for the one thousands of miles away. The preference for strong central authority could be read as some innate Russian characteristic, but with Putin at the helm, it is also perfectly rational. He has not been tolerant of the corruption under his predecessor. Whether or not that’s made material difference in the lives of the average Russian is a valid question, but it is a social improvement nonetheless.

The second reason I agree is that I don’t think Putin is an abusive monster. I by no means think he’s a saint, but he certainly comes off as a pragmatist if nothing else. That doesn’t mean I think every step he’s made is correct, but I do think that the general direction of Russia is improving. I wish I could find the data (I may have it around), but I recall a 1999 opinion poll saying that Russians would have preferred a Chinese path towards a market economy rather than the one they got. I honestly think that would have worked better for them (I’m a proponent of the East Asian path to democracy for poor countries while recognizing that given Russia’s elites, it might not be the best course). Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I believe that those in the Kremlin recognize that achieving economic health and growth is much easier if there is a strong center. It’s not the only way, but it’s probably the fastest. And, hey, if they create a middle class, I’m sure it will start to demand a stronger voice in politics and be able to fund institutions promoting its political interests across the country. Kind of a win-win in the long-term.

Let me reiterate the parenthetical point above. Political rights might as well be meaningless if you can’t use them. To me, the Russian desire for a strong leader to fight the corrupt doesn’t strike me all that different as, say, Ralph Nader’s crusades against wealthy corporations or that old Tipper Gore campaign to protect kids from dirty lyrics.

That’s not to say that consolidating power is working perfectly, and it is certainly fraught with enormous dangers (via David Adesnik).

I have to ask Joe and others who share his views about these reforms what changed? Between one month ago and now, what is it that apparently has increased your worries about Putin and the meaning of power-consolidation? Has he changed? Are these reforms bad on their own merit? Would devolution of power help? Is this about all of Russia to you guys or just Chechnya?

Personally, I’m pessimistic that these reforms will make much difference in the Chechen war.

I’m on the fence about their meaning for Russia as a whole though and would be interested to see that debate taken up rather than the standard trotting out of the spokesmen that I’m seeing in press accounts (please, please, please ignore Yabloko if you could…).

[This doesn’t appear to be quite what I intended to write, but I’ll go ahead with it anyway. It’s damned late, a sign I actually cared about the topic, so I may have said some wacky things. This should, at the very least, demonstrate how I think formal democracy (as in the government on paper) is not such a great thing to hope for in certain parts of the world.]

UPDATE: It occurred to me to wonder why people lament the removal of the supposed democratic elements of Yeltsin’s rule. I’ll try to pull the info out of my thesis sometime today, but the 1996 and 1999 (not to mention Yeltsin’s behavior in 1993) elections give good reason to question whether or not Russia was at any point meaningfully democratic. There were many negative elements that went hand-in-glove with the form of Russia’s democracy under Yeltsin’s rule that probably wouldn’t be avoided were Russia to move back toward democracy now.

Don’t look at the reforms so much as a response to Beslan, but as part of Putin’s over-arching (and not so sinister) reform strategy. Sure the timing sucks, but there is a connection of sorts. I have noticed that mid-level Russian officials in the military and government have an amazing skill for mucking things up and working against national policy. How giving them a freer hand helps Russia is a mystery to me.


From Southern Watch:

Russia has problems with its republics, and these problems stem from the Federalist structure within the geographic realms of the old Soviet Union, at least where attainable (multiple republics separated themselves from the CIS), where federalism was introduced only to ensure avoiding the entire breakup of the country. It needs to address the problems with its republics, and it might very well be that a centralized model could be better. Taking away powers from republics that do not seem capable of protecting their own people or promoting freedom, could be a good thing. The problem with that, however, is that Putin is no stranger to anti-democratic sentiments himself, and the question would be if he would be the right man to lead such a project.

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This post was written by...

– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Andy September 14, 2004 at 6:31 am

Nice analysis, Nathan. I’d definitely agree with you about managed democracy being the most appropriate path for developing countries. And, to be honest, I don’t think the power of political elites in Russia today is any greater than, say, the political and economic elites of South Korea during the 60s 70s and 80s.

But I would take issue slightly with you when you say that eliminating SMDs makes it harder to buy a seat in the Duma. To my mind, buying a seat via an SMD election is far harder – you have to buy the influence of many different power brokers, AND appeal to the local population to a large extent. Effectively, you will be making lots of small payments to lots of people. But to get on a party list requires just a few – perhaps even only one – payment to an influential member of that party. I don’t necessarily think the ‘market value’ of a Duma seat would increase by moving to PR, but I can’t see it decreasing significantly either.

Nathan Hamm September 14, 2004 at 7:27 am

Forgot that angle about buying seats. I didn’t make it clear, but I was mostly referring to something like the practice of finding a tiny SMD and snagging that seat for the immunities it offered (Berezovsky…).

Moving entirely to SMDs though would make it much harder for a party to buy its way into the Duma through media domination (precisely why the Kremlin probably didn’t go that direction).

Mitch H. September 14, 2004 at 8:28 am

Given that Americans run exclusively on single-member districting, to use your terminology, I don’t understand why you think we’d be appreciative of proportional representation. Most mainstream Americans are confused and appalled by the notion of proportional representation. I would be less alarmed if Putin was going with SMD than proportional.

Additionally, the violence that Moscow seems to be doing to Putin’s media, business, and political opponents might be more apparent than real, but we superficial outside observers must rely on appearances, and those are rather damning.

Mitch H. September 14, 2004 at 8:31 am

Oh, I should add that the blog you reference misled me, if I understand what you’re saying, that they’re going with legislators appointed by *parties*, and not by the central government. It’s a distinction between lightning and lightning bugs, and I’m a little disappointed in the other guy for phrasing it in the way that he did.

Nathan September 14, 2004 at 9:13 am

I meant to call him out on it too, I think. It was late and I felt like I kind of rambled after a point, but that’s what I was beginning to get at when talking about how deputies are elected. Thanks for reminding.

As for the SMDs, I do prefer them on point of principle and think they are better for large democracies in the long-run because they give voice to geographical and not just ideological constituencies. Russia’s upper-house very weakly accomplishes geographic representation. It more or less is the way that the US Senate used to be – a body whose composition was determined by regional governments, but not with much popular input.

As for SMDs in Russia, I feel that they now offer too many opportunities for regional kleptocracies to bleed the country dry. Centralized power and party rule offer the advantage of being more manageable, a huge plus in a country that quite honestly needs a firm grip on policy-making nationwide if it hopes to develop into a strong and functional state. My feeling on how the Duma is elected is that it’s probably not an enormous difference either way. It’s rare for such large states to go entirely to PR, but it’s a pretty standard form of parliamentary electioneering in many corners of the world.

I agree that the appearances in Russia are damning. I think that the improvements since Putin came to power are readily apparent though. It’s certainly a fair question as to whether or not certain reforms (especially in the media sector, in my view) have made a positive difference, but I don’t think they necessarily need to be taken as signs of Putin’s ill intent for Russia.

Joel (No Pundit Intended) September 14, 2004 at 10:18 am

Great analysis.

I don’t believe Putin to have ill intent for Russia either. It’s easy to get caught up in Russia from the approach of them being “just another European nation.” Russia is, indeed, an enigma and cannot be analized from that POV. Putin is not an altruist, but he certainly is not out to destroy the freedom of Russian citizens. At least there has been nothing to support that to date.

Again, great analysis!

upyernoz September 14, 2004 at 10:36 am

i think the main reason these reforms seem dubious is that putin claims to be doing this in response to the recent series of terrorist attacks, but the reforms have no apparent connection to those attacks. it smells more of opportunism than anything else. even if the changes are ultimately good ideas (and i don’t pretend to know enough about russia to judge), it’s a bad idea to propose these reforms now, or to dress them up as an anti-terrorism strategy

Nathan September 14, 2004 at 10:58 am

You are 100% correct about the timing and the reasons given for justification. I can see how some centralization of regional executive powers could make a difference in anti-terrorism strategy, but the motivation behind the electoral reforms is probably to strengthen the hand of pro-Kremlin parties. The strength of pro-Kremlin parties is always in the party-list vote (the Communists are pretty good at SMD elections).

I think that many of Russia’s security problems are exacerbated by weaknesses in the middle ranks of government and in the bureaucracies. Centralization is the most effective way to combat it but inherently unreliable because you have to trust the intentions of one person or a small group. I don’t think Putin is ideal, but he’s better than many in Russia to play that role.

praktike September 14, 2004 at 1:20 pm

Aren’t you a little concerned that Putin can just announce these things and have them happen? Isn’t that precisely an indication that he’s becoming a dictator?

Nathan September 14, 2004 at 1:31 pm

Sure I’m worried, but not as much as so many others seem to be. I honestly don’t expect Putin to try to put himself in power for life, to start granting himself new medals and titles, and to build monuments to his glory. “Superpresidential?” You bet’cha (I’ll try to dig up that paper, in which I was at the time very critical of this form of government).

My dark little admission is that I’m not wholly convinced Russian “democracy” did much good for Russians. I’m more concerned with the practical consequences of the politics than the words on paper, and I think some of Putin’s centralizing tendencies are what Russia needs.

It’s important to remember that Yeltsin enjoyed near-dictatorial powers as well (the attack on the White House in ’93 and his sacking and replacement of regional governors come to mind), but he vacillated between strength and weakness.

The case for me being more worried than I am is that a highly-centralized state puts the country at the mercies of one or a few personalities. Whoever’s next could be horrible with Putin’s power (I think that he’s only been truly odious outside of Chechnya to the rich). On the other hand, the situation could develop along the lines of East Asian dictatorships that focused on the economic development that built the middle classes who toppled said dictatorships.

Joel (No Pundt Intended) September 14, 2004 at 8:42 pm

One has to be qualified?

Seriously, I am not certain anyone has mentioned or implied the death of Russia. There is, however, genuine reason to be concerned about Russia – it is not what you would call a model of long term democracy and the President of that country has a great deal of power.

A lot of the folks who are discussing Russia have professional backgrounds in Russian area studies, speak Russian, have lived in Russia or worked there. I would not disabuse anyone of the notion that they know more about Russia than I do – especially around here.

Nathan Hamm September 14, 2004 at 9:12 pm

Go read the whole post. It’s good. Trackbacks are kind of interesting in WordPress (for all those who aren’t familiar with how they work in this system…). So the whole sentence was “but since everyone is now qualified to say a little something about the death of russia’s grand liberal democratic tradition, well, i thought i’d throw in.”

I don’t take what jb is saying to at all be a slight to the non-Russologists. It was intended for more than just this audience. That being said, Joe Gandelman flat out fumbled on some of his statements and his was the post that was breathlessly carted around the internet. The media is wildly misreporting things as well. I think they should all get called out for it so the debate can be brought back down to earth.

Joel (No Pundt Intended) September 15, 2004 at 8:23 pm


Will do.

Gandelman is a smart guy, but he makes a great leap in comparing what is acceptable to the citizens in the US and what is acceptable in Russia.

We are talking about two different psyches, two different constitutions, etc.

Even that was ok, but a condescending tone toward commentors goes a long way, so I am not participating there anymore.

I am glad I have found this blog. There are a lot of great minds here and I can learn from them 🙂

Nathan Hamm September 15, 2004 at 9:42 pm

Spot on regarding Gandelman, Joel.

Thanks for the praise! We try to please. I count to our credit that people from across the political spectrum read and comment here. Glad to have you as a reader.

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