Russian & Soviet Politics – Foriegn Government Research Paper (300 Level Course)
Russian politics is dominated by a structure of political elites who are remnants or byproducts of the Soviet Era. Coupled with the oligarchs and the organized crime syndicates, political elites make it extremely difficult for Russians who live in rural areas to effectively participate in Russia’s relatively new experiment with
democracy. Rural Russians have very little recourse in influencing the current state of Russian Politics. This paper will focus on the perceptions and opinions rural Russians have about their prospects for meaningful engagement in Russian politics. Included in the discussion about politics will be the level of involvement these people have with the state economy and the extent to which the state plays a beneficial role in their lives. Also examined will be the nationalistic feelings still held by many of these people with respect to how government should function and what their ideal view of governmental affairs should be. Lastly, focus will be shifted to rural issues and in what fashion they figure into political debate.
A first important point about political engagement in rural Russia is the attitude towards the government that many people hold. Russian nationalism, the attitude of Russia being a major power in the world, and of a state able to provide everything for the people still holds a powerful allure for the citizen who has been the beneficiary of the planned economy and who took pride in knowing or believing they were a cog in the works of the great Russian empire. In making the transition to embracing the democratic system, it is more difficult for Russians to accept change. Piirainen writes, “The Russians lost an empire, the other nations became independent from an empire — and this makes a big difference for the formation of national consciousness and for the popular attitude towards the institutions of the new national state (Piirainen: 1997, 244).”
The rural Russian psyche is reflective. The citizenry is not actively engaged in working for a better future, rather their consciousness is centered on the failing of socialism and the loss associated with being part of a world superpower. This nationalistic view of Russia does not bode well for progress. The market economy is centered on individualism and entrepreneurship. The majority of rural Russians have earned their living directly or indirectly through the collectivization programs of the planned economy. These people are used to being given the commodities necessary for making a living: livestock, tractors, seed, and tools. The transition to democracy and the market economy has left a staggering portion of the population without the education, job skills or capital required to compete in a market economy.
Democracy requires a transition from the private sphere to the public sphere, the citizenry must be actively interested, informed, and opinionated on public matters. The Soviet society promoted a system where the individual was a subordinate of the state. In the United States, everyone feels that the government is held accountable to the people by the power of the vote. Unfavorable actions by government officials result in the incumbent exiting office. The Soviet model of government was one where the people were subordinate to the state as opposed to citizens of the state. The argument is made that the people were deeply concerned with matters in the private sphere and that as a result, things of a public character were disregarded (Piirainen: 1997).
An understanding of political engagement and participation in Russia must first be prefaced with an examination of Russian political culture. Russians have a tradition of authoritarian government that stretches back for centuries. Historically, Russians have been concerned with the state providing order and stability. This is so due to geographic concerns related to security and also because Russia has been a step removed from the more liberal political developments of Western Europe (McCormick).
Attesting to this favoritism for strong leadership is the fact that many older Russians view the atrocities of Stalin as necessary and as acts that were required at the time. Also, Yeltsin’s forays with and around the Russian legislature and his military actions were met with a rise in his approval rating. (Brown and McCormick). Another struggle Russians face in adapting to democracy is their history of closed politics. Closed politics were described as “the basic identifying characteristic” of the Soviet political system in the 1970’s. This tradition of strong leadership, the one party system, and the risk of reprisal under authoritarian regimes remains a serious impediment to political engagement. Compounding the problems associated with closed politics is the individualism inherent in a democratic society and lacking in Russian society. Russian society has been and remains largely group oriented; a collective society has existed for decades in Russia. Russian political tradition is the equivalent of intense political repression in western liberal democracies. The transition from serfdom, to the Soviet era, to the contemporary managed democracy, where the president exercises enormous powers makes any embrace of tangible democratic participation by the average citizen difficult. In order not to be unfair, the changes in the Russian political system are extremely recent in the context of Russia’s long history of authoritarian rule. There is not the inborn grasp of how democratic institutions function and with which methods these institutions may be influenced that is natural and identifiable in societies accustomed to democracy. However, this transition will only come with time.
It must also be considered that the historically conservative Russian citizens are less inclined to challenge or meddle with the political system. Chaos has been an ever- present danger to Russia with the World Wars and the fall of the Soviet Union, the succession of satellite states, the kidnapping of political adversaries. Political parties emerge and fade in Russia leaving the same ideology in power. The grooming of successors in Russia has left the ruling ideology in power (stable opposition parties have yet to surface). The citizenry (in particular the older people and the rural population) are adverse to democracy because its forms and ramifications distance Russia from its past. This proves interesting due to what western world as atrocities under Stalin and political oppression. However, ideas such as free speech and even questioning the government are foreign to Russians and the collective society mold that has permeated their society for so long.
Having said this, change is occurring in the Russian political culture, but the vast majority of this change is occurring in urban areas where younger Russians have greater entrepreneurial opportunities and less attachment to Russia’s past. Many individuals without traditional ties to a village or a closed social network find the transition to representative government easier to accept because rural Russians don’t have the exposure to political developments that urban Russians do.
A crucial component of Russian political participation is the legitimacy and establishment of law. Russia’s current constitution did not provide for the power of the court until 1993 and the court structure wasn’t clearly outlined until1994 (McCormick). Russia must establish a viable legal system to reign in not only organized crime, but also the government itself. It is imperative that the court serves as a check on the executive. The supranational facets of the Russian executive must be reigned in by the constitutional court, which can gradually align the cogs of the relatively infant constitution and democracy into a political system that can be meaningfully influenced by the average Russian. Legitimate political participation in the form of strong political parties, unbiased media exposure, and political mobilization at a grassroots level are dependent upon the legal system being both responsible, prudent, and legitimate. Appointees to the Congressional Court are appointed for twelve-year terms, perhaps an advantage in effecting change more rapidly as lifetime appointments would probably cause the Court to be excessively conservative for years to come.
An examination of the relationship between the public and private is instructive when examining the new relationships Russians have with the State. Under Soviet rule, the standard of living was predictable and stable. Democracy is a complete reversal of the Soviet social program. Capitalism and the entrepreneur are the forces that drive democracy. The freedom and opportunity for upward mobility in an established democracy are lost on a Russian populous who had the security of a job and health care — the basic elements of life. Under Soviet rule after the Stalin era these things were ensured. Job security existed at a level that is impossible in a market economy. This stability is a product of a bygone regime and the change associated with this loss is a central lament of the adjustment to democracy. Political recourse seems unthinkable to most rural Russians. Some statistical bearing: “According to the official statistical information of the Russian Federation, 46.5 million Russians, i.e. almost one=third of the population, had in June 1995 an income that was lower than the minimum subsistence level” (Piirainen, 55). The argument can be made that these figures are inflated due to the magnitude of the informal economy. Yet, “The life expectancy of Russians dropped from 70 years in 1987 to the astonishingly low level of 64 years in 1995” (Piirainen, 189). This stark statistic makes the relative success of nationalistic and communist parties more understandable. The bad government that ruled the Soviet Union was better able to provide for Russian citizens than the infant stages of democracy have been able to.
The underdevelopment of civil society is a root cause for many of the problems that plague contemporary Russians. Everything revolved around the state in the Soviet era. There was no public sphere, there existed the state, which controlled everything and then there was the private — the network of family and community, which provided indirectly in the areas where the state did not.
Democratic development in Russia is closely linked to the role political elites play. Patrimonialism – patron/client relationships – have been a central fixture of Soviet and Russian politics. Governors no longer enjoy the immunity and the opportunity for participation associated with their former status as Duma representatives. Putin has steadily siphoned more and more tax money under the arm of the Federal Government so that he may exercise greater discretion in allocation of these funds. In 1998 47 percent of tax revenue was transferred to the federal government, in 2002 that figure had jumped to 63 percent (Steen, 104). Governors are more liable to appease the president as he begins to exercise considerably more influence in the distribution of funds. The separation between regional government, local government, and federal government is a large problem because authority is being exercised from the top down in a disproportionate manner. With the weakening governors who have been hampered by both the legislature and the election of Putin (Yeltsin was much more liberal) the governors have seen their political clout significantly decrease. Russia has for all intents and purposes a one-party system. Any action deemed adverse to the presidential agenda makes it highly unlikely any regional official will advance to the upper levels of the federal political hierarchy. Russian politics is dominated at the federal level. Distinctions between how to levy taxes and whom is responsible for collection and which branch of government disburses the funds; all these issues are so new and vague that participation at the root level seems futile. The government must be able to collect enough tax revenue to guarantee public services to the common citizen. The welfare system, pensions, infrastructure, education, providing for the military; all these areas must be properly funded. If they are not the populous will simply turn to the informal economy, which has been both easiest viable source of survival/prosperity for decades. This is the central issue in addressing the meaningful political engagement of the rural population. Until these basis needs are addressed, the informal economy, which robs the state of both legitimacy and effectiveness, and also robs the citizen from a shot at real upward mobility political participation will, democracy will remain a synonym for traitor in rural Russia.
In urban areas democracy is being accepted and adapted too at an accelerated rate in comparison with rural areas. Urban Russians are apt to be younger, have less traditional views on politics and change, and also have more opportunity. The rural populations have continued to live in the collective way of life by working and joining large farm cooperatives, by continuing a subsistence way of life through barter and by holding on to the past. Rural Russians have the perception that the state is not in their sphere of influence (and it probably is not for the time being); they view the state of Russia affairs as being a fluctuation of the state. The state is separate, they don’t identify with the fact that they are the state. They are the public, they are the government, but they don’t realize the importance of suffrage. One party rule during the Soviet era was so absolute that the ramifications of the vote are lost upon those who view the new experiment with democracy as merely a downturn in national fortune.
Now, after considering a the social and historical factors that make democracy a challenge to the Russian, focus will be shifted to what is actually occurring at the lowest strata of Russia society. How do persons ill equipped to adjust to this new system feed their children, pay their bills, feel about politics? The press often latches on to the oligarchs and their exploitation of national resources when privatization occurred, this exploitation occurs at other levels of Soviet society as well. A farm chairman responded to a journalist’s questions in 1990, “we’ve got democracy now so I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. The district Party committee used to order me to respond to criticism so I responded, but now I don’t owe anybody anything” (O’Brien, 329).
The problem with rural Russia is how to move forward in a climate which doesn’t allow for long harvest seasons, four to five months at max (which naturally encourages collective farming). Of rural areas O’Brien writes, “They still lag behind metropolitan areas with respect to economic and social development.” Totalitarian societies view competing loyalties and associations as a threat, suppression of competing social organizations occurs. Competing social organizations are what brings progress and improvement; the government views social organization as a threat as well. The de facto one party system in Russia continues to discourage this type of association even though the government has proved itself incapable of providing basis social services for the rural population. Rural populations do not have access to the normal governmental channels to improve their situation, due to this fact they seek redress “outside of the tax code” (O’Brien). Individuals rely on their interpersonal channels for success not only due to traditional conservatism, but also because they do not have faith in the government or new economic actors introduced by democracy. This recalcitrance to barge into a formal market economy is based upon good business sense as much as a resistance to change.
The same theme keeps running through the problem of Russian political engagement and meaningful involvement and faith in the government. The government has not done a good enough job of providing in rural areas so the government is rejected. Why pay taxes to a government via the formal economy when an interpersonal network of contacts can provide a more stable and higher standard of living. Why embrace a government and pay taxes when conscripts into the Russian Army are dying because they cannot be fed and clothed by that same government. Why sell commodities for rubles when the exchange rate is not consistent enough to ensure that food will be on the table tomorrow. Why vote? Why vote when political actors are simply men in suits on television? Rural persons have good thoughts and intentions, but hold their self-interest above all else. This is not a unique situation. Rural persons operate on a micro-economic scale, until the government figures out and shows a legitimate macro-economic strategy, very little will change. The government has used a conservative strategy or reform strategy – promoting collective farms and a reform strategy alternately – private farming. A consensus among the rural population is that the government has done little to attempt to understand the intricacies of rural social and economic networks. This lack of understanding and consistent inability of the government to provide basic social services renders the legitimacy of the government shaky. It also leaves the power of the vote negligible. Why vote?