At a Kennan Institute talk on 12 April 2010, Robert Orttung, President, Resource Security Institute and former Title VIII-Supported Short-Term Scholar, Kennan Institute analyzed the state of Russia's democracy through the lens of its federal and regional elections.

Freedom House scores over the last ten years have reflected a decline in the strength of democratic institutions and electoral processes in Russia. Indeed, the international community deemed the most recent presidential elections neither free nor fair, and Russia blocked the OSCE from performing any sort of monitoring during both the 2007 Duma elections and the 2008 presidential elections. Orttung noted that since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian government has used each electoral cycle as an opportunity to reform election laws so that the outcome is easier to affect. [See PowerPoint below for more information.]

At the regional level, Orttung described the period in Russian history when direct elections were held for governors as an "anomaly." The elections produced a wide range of individuals who filled the post, including powerful regional leaders, reformers, communists, and businessmen. On some occasions, these officials provided balance to federal power and were held accountable to the electorate which voted them in. However, this system ended in 2004 when then President Putin turned the governorship into an appointed position determined by the Kremlin. Not surprisingly, governors have been more focused on pleasing Moscow than their constituents, and a Levada poll shows that 57 percent of Russians are displeased with this arrangement and want to bring back direct gubernatorial elections.

Orttung outlined several analytical explanations for characterizing the Russian system of government: Russia as a hybrid regime, part democratic and part authoritarian; Russia as a non-democracy with no opposition; Russia as an authoritarian state that rules by repression and elite unity, and others. [See PowerPoint below for more information.] Orttung himself subscribed to the authoritarian regime explanation, adding that public relations is also a main feature of this sort of government. Although no effective action is taken, politicians frequently tout their support for popular government initiatives such as fighting corruption and modernizing the country.

Among a variety of factors that might loosen the Kremlin's grip over politics in the future, Orttung noted a further economic downturn or continued conflict in the Caucasus. "This is an unstable point for the elite – it can't address the problems people are complaining about; yet it is afraid to introduce substantive political reforms," he said.

By Larissa Eltsefon
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute