Russia's Democratic Dilemmas
In a recent seminar at the Kennan Institute, Harley Balzer, Associate Professor of Government, Georgetown University, discussed the prospects for Russian democracy. Balzer began by noting that, "authoritarian political systems rarely evolve into democratic systems, unless they have enormous pressure from either the outside or the inside." "In the post-9/11 world," he continued, "there has been a shift back to Cold War pattern of the United States and other countries being perfectly willing to accept authoritarian regimes that support our international policy." This means that if Russia is going to become more democratic, "it has to be the result of internal social and political pressure," and in his estimation, three major dilemmas; the Russian economy, Putin's politics, and dismal demographics limit the potential for this internal pressure.
Balzer explained that recent improvement in Russia's economy is based primarily on the devaluation of the ruble and higher prices for energy exports, while there is weakness in the development of the real economy and small business sectors. In Balzer's opinion, Russia's economy is typical of countries that are rich in natural resources, where "the energy sector dominates and in some cases drives out the real economy." He noted that finished goods account for less than ten percent of exports, and small and medium businesses continue to be restricted by rent-seeking bureaucrats and the criminal world. Balzer further stated that in Russia's resource-based economy most of the professionals, people like university professors, teachers, and medical workers, are not earning enough to play the social and political leadership roles that they assumed in Russia before 1917.
Balzer described Russia's political system as "managed pluralism." He explained that while many cite political stability as evidence of reform, the development of political openings and the pressures that would force the ruling elite to divest itself of control remain weak. According to Balzer, Putin is attempting to create a form of "soft authoritarianism suitable to the 21st century global age," more specifically "a system in which diversity is entertained, but kept within acceptable limits." Balzer noted that the national law on religion, Putin's views on political parties, and the treatment of the national media fit this pattern of control. Balzer stated that it appears that Russian policies are headed in the wrong direction for democratic consolidation in areas such as electoral and party finance codes, voter registration, information transparency and decentralization of political authority.
Finally, Balzer explained how the demographic situation in Russia—a shrinking and ageing population, a looming HIV/AIDS crisis, and the inevitability of immigration--creates a situation in which it is extremely difficult to liberalize. The political implications of the demographic situation include a greater possibility for right-wing extremism, differential policies in Russian regions, and greater social tensions that will encourage the Kremlin to "continue its policy of managed pluralism."
Balzer concluded that while the points raised in his remarks do not forecast imminent economic collapse or a crisis for democracy in Russia, serious questions remain about the medium and long-term economic outlook, the development of social, intellectual and human capital, and the potential for democratic consolidation.