Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) enthusiastically accepts an imperial crown made of crystal and given to him as a gift by the workers of Karat-Plus furniture making company in Saratov, Russia. August 26, 1997. (Image: Alexandr Chumichev/TASS)
Russia’s current problems reflect the fact that in the 1990s, Russians sought freedom and not democracy and thus proved unable to escape from the autocracy that has long been their lot, Aleksandr Tsipko says. As a result, they risk not having democracy or freedom unless they make some fundamental changes.
In an essay in Nezavisimaya gazeta today, the senior scholar at Moscow’s Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences and a longtime observer of Russian political life argues that Russia’s failure to pursue democracy with its division of powers means that “in an era of the Internet,” Russians have a regime just as autocratic as it was under the tsars and the Soviets after the death of Stalin.
Russians did acquire incomparably more rights and freedoms in the 1990s than they had had earlier, but they failed to see that without the institutionalization of democracy with a system of checks and balances, the autocratic impulse of rulers and ruled would overwhelm all of these gains.
Unlike the countries in Eastern Europe who created a contemporary political system “based on the division of powers,” Russia did not, and as a result, it has proved unable to meet “the main task of the decommunization of Russia … which would defend [it] from the restoration of Russian autocracy,” Tsipko says.
Russians thus showed themselves to lack “the civilizational preconditions” for that, he continues, suggesting that “certainly the patriot-Eurasians are right who say to us today that Russian political culture is related to the political culture of our brothers, the Kazakhs and the Uzbeks,” rather than to that of the West.
The absence of a division of powers and thus of a defense against autocracy also means that “in Russia there are no politicians and no genuine parliamentarianism because the parliament doesn’t have any serioius authority.” It can’t even appoint the prime minister as in most parliamentary systems.
“In early 1994,” Tsipko recalls, “Lilia Shevtsova and Igor Klyamkin wrote a serioius academic study ‘From Tsar Boris I to Tsar Boris II’ where it was shown that with the adoption of the 1993 constitution we put an end to the democratic revolution of 1991 and revived for Russia its traditional autocratic system.”
It is important to take into consideration that the system of power in Russia was “entirely and completely autocratic already under Yeltsin,” although many, including Tsipko himself, did not then recognize “all the risks and dangers thus implanted in the political system.” Instead, most thought that it was necessary to use the autocratic power of the president to push reform.
“In the 1990s,” the Russian commentator continues, “no one wanted democracy.” Instead, everyone wanted more freedom, completely failing to recognize that without democracy with its checks and balances and divided power, any new freedoms would inevitably come to be put at risk.
That is all the more so, he continues, because Russians have been conditioned to love their leader as their “all,” an attitude that precludes democracy. Indeed, Tsipko argues, “the people loves him not for any particular personal qualities but simply because his total power is visible, not subject to checks, and does not elicit any doubts.”
Many people acknowledge that the Russian people as a whole weren’t ready for democracy in 1991, Tsipko says, but “the truth about which no one wants to speak today is that in fact in Russia after 1991, it wasn’t only the simple people but also the post-Soviet intelligentsia who weren’t ready for it.” They only wanted power to be used in a different way.
Without a system of checks and balances, he suggests, Russians “are condemned to a lower dying out and degradation. The next perestroika, like any democratic revolution will be marked by chaos with an inevitable and already final disintegration of the country.”
But of course, Tsipko argues, “the tragedy is that given our authoritarian habits a democratic change of power is impossible. In Russia up to now chances in power have occurred only via revolutions.” And the situation in foreign affairs is just as bad: the autocratic foreign policy of the Kremlin now is isolating Russia from the world and for a long time to come.
Obviously, something can and should be done. 1991 showed that it is possible to aspire to something better. But the authorities are behaving in ways that make a radical rising more likely than a democratic revolution because they are taking steps that not only impoverish but infuriate the people.
Tsipko suggests that in his view, the Kremlin’s policy of counter-sanctions is the present-day equivalent of the scorched earth policy of the Red Army in the winter of 1941-1942. That policy did little harm to the German invader, but it did enormous harm to the Russian people who found themselves without food or shelter as a result.
“I very much fear,” Tsipko says, “that the continuation of the tactic of anti-sanctions will lead to the appearance of disappointment among the population, something the current powers that be don’t need.” Because if the masses because dissatisfied, they will ultimately rise, and what will come will not be a democratic revolution but something worse.
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