In a recent meeting at the Kennan Institute, Dmitry Furman, Head Researcher at the Institute of Europe, Russian Academy of Sciences, stated that understanding Russia’s political history is crucial to understanding recent Russian actions in the struggle against international terrorism.

The Russian political system, Furman stated, is different from all other European systems, including those states that had been in the Soviet bloc. The difference is that all of the other states have had an opposition candidate come to power. Even Belarus and Ukraine have witnessed Aleksander Lukashenko and Leonid Kuchma, respectively, win contested elections as opposition candidates. Russia has now finished its political transition, and its political system is now stable with its own logic. Furman argued that Russian history explains this preference for stability to democracy. In its entire history, he said, Russia has never experienced a democratic transfer of power; instead, power has either been transferred from one despot to another, or it has changed hands in the form of revolution with terrible consequences for the population. The Russian mentality is that “‘tyranny is better than anarchy,’ and therefore the rotation of power is impossible,” concluded Furman.

As Soviet power unraveled in the early 1990s, Furman noted, democrats and nationalists in the formerly Soviet-dominated states outside of Russia shared the goal of ousting a system that was at once tyrannical and foreign. In Russia, democrats supported the end of Soviet power, but many Russian nationalists mourned the loss of empire. As a result, democrats in Russia were in the minority, and soon found that a minority cannot rule by democratic means. From Boris Yeltsin’s disbanding of parliament in 1993, to Yeltsin’s corrupt presidential re-election in 1996, to the designation of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, democracy in Russia transformed into an immovable system of presidential power. This system required distractions from its lack of success in providing for the Russian people, and it found them in two wars in Chechnya.

Furman explained that there are two dangers to this kind of presidential system – internal and external. Since he has assumed power, Putin has seen internal challenges to his power virtually disappear. The terrorist attack of September 11 provided him with an opportunity to ally himself with the United States in the war on terrorism and in a stroke greatly reduce the external challenge to his administration. The most visible sign of this diminishing challenge is the U.S.’s acceptance of Russia’s continuing action in Chechnya as part of the war on terror. According to Furman, Putin’s siding with France and Germany against the U.S. on the issue of Iraq has the dual effect of pleasing his trading partners in Europe and setting up a competition between the U.S. and France and Germany for influence with Russia.

In spite of the U.S.’s stated preference for democracy in Russia, according to Furman, its gentle criticism of Russia’s actions in Chechnya, both currently and in the past, demonstrate that it prefers pro-Western authoritarianism to anti-Western democracy. Such a choice represents a “lesser evil,” Furman surmised, even if it is a double standard. What is bad about such compromises, Furman argued, is that it is frequently accompanied by self-delusions and justifications. Furman cited FDR’s characterization of Stalin as a “Christian gentleman,” and noted that it compares with George W. Bush’s claim that he had “looked into [Putin’s] eyes and had gotten a sense of his soul.”

Perhaps it is worth U.S. silence on Chechnya to secure Russia’s assistance in the war on terror, but “the problem with self-delusion is that it leads compromises beyond the necessary limits,” concluded Furman.

Blair Ruble, Kennan Institute 202 691-4100