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Putin and the Russian Tradition: Illiberal but Democratic?

"Our misunderstanding of Russia, and of our relations with it, is sufficiently serious to damage our contemporary national interest," argued Hugh Ragsdale, independent scholar, at a 9 May 2006 seminar at the Kennan Institute. Ragsdale, together with panelists Paul Stephan, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. professor of law, University of Virginia; Allen Lynch, professor, Department of Politics, University of Virginia; and Jack Matlock, Sol Linowitz professor of international relations, Hamilton College, and former U.S. ambassador to the USSR discussed recent characterizations in the United States of Russia as an undemocratic country. While the speakers acknowledged that President Vladimir Putin had instituted a number of illiberal policies, they argued that he is a democratically elected leader and that his policies reflect the real wishes of the majority of the Russian people. Criticizing Putin hurts the U.S. national interest and is unlikely to influence Russia, they contended.

Ragsdale stated that Russia is not nearly so undemocratic as it is illiberal. Russia's current government, according to Ragsdale, corresponds to the preferences of many Russians for authoritarianism and populism over liberalism: "In my opinion, Russians conceive of democracy as having four traits: authoritarian, orderly, egalitarian, and popular. Not liberal."

While Putin's government does not conform to the American ideal of liberal democracy, Russian policies do not threaten U.S. interests. Instead, in Ragsdale's view, Putin is a potential U.S. ally who has been alienated by aggressive American policies, such as support for the colored revolutions in three post-Soviet states and NATO expansion, and by harsh and unduly public criticism of Russian domestic and foreign policy.

Allen Lynch contended that Russian sentiments today were forged in the previous decade: "Today, for the majority of Russians, the 1990s are associated with misery at home and humiliation abroad." During this period, according to Lynch, the United States became too closely involved in the process of political and economic reform in Russia, and in doing so engendered a major wave of popular anti-American sentiment that has exacerbated the strains in U.S.-Russian relations that exist today. Yet, Lynch noted, Russian-American relations have historically been good. This is because U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Soviet relations have rarely been predicated on Russia's democratic credentials. Relations between the two states have tended to be strong when the two are somewhat distanced from one another and focused on pragmatic, shared interests, such as during World War II and in the immediate period following the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

"Why should this pattern of dealing with Russia in terms of the intersection of interstate interests—as distinct from the projection of alleged American values—not persist into the 21st century?" asked Lynch. "Is a strong Russia, even if authoritarian at home, and operating on the principles of power politics abroad, incompatible with the transaction of American interests with that country?"

Paul Stephan agreed that there is a distinction between democracy and liberalism in Russia: "Russia enjoys robust democratic institutions at least as vigorous as Japan, Korea, Italy, France, and Germany. The problem is the weakness of her civil institutions, including in particular the legal system and the lack of social trust." American policymakers and experts developed and promoted economic reform programs in the 1990s that were ambitious, but "lacked a fundamental insight, which was that they presupposed the liberal institutions existed on the ground or could be spontaneously erected." Because of this ill-fated intervention, many Russians came to believe that American intentions toward Russia are malevolent and that the goal of U.S. assistance was to weaken Russia. In this context, Stephan said, "U.S. support is a deficit."

Jack Matlock argued that many commentators in academia, government and journalism in the United States tend to hold Russia to ideal standards of democracy and liberalism that no other country is expected to meet. The political and economic systems of the USSR were deeply flawed, he said, and it is unrealistic to expect Russia to have become a mature, liberal democracy in 15 years. "American actions seem hypocritical," Matlock explained. "When we begin to talk about democracy, we seem to make it clear that what we have in mind is simply serving American interests," he said. A more productive approach, he argued, would be for U.S. officials to bring up concerns about democracy and human rights in private meetings with Russian officials. Matlock took issue with the notion that Russians are intrinsically illiberal. He contended that in supporting the Putin administration, Russians are responding to very real stress and threats. Americans can have similar responses when they feel threatened, as demonstrated by the passage of the Patriot Act. "Russians have the government they want and approve of, much more so than in the 1990s, and infinitely more so than the Soviet regime," Matlock emphasized. "They don't look at just freedom; they also look at economic well-being and stability."


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more