Russia never associated as a democracy in anyone’s mind. It had always been an authoritarian regime of different species and developed a mentality, which creates an almost unsurpassable obstacle for democratic development. Unlike Britain, which took gradual and methodical steps towards democracy, Russia always had abrupt and extreme changes that always created chaos and significantly slowed down the development of the democratic system. By the end of the 20th century Russia finally embarked on a pragmatic course towards democracy, however it certainly prognosis a long establishment.
Russia’s history and culture traces back for over a thousand years, which left deep marks in the mentality of Russian people and certainly had a great impact in Russia’s political and cultural development. Russia was always somewhat different from most of the European countries; it was isolated by different political principals and convictions. From the early historical development Russia took a different route from the rest of Europe. It adopted the orthodox religion from the Byzantine Empire and became the center of orthodoxy, the main religion of present Russian Federation, while most European states had Roman Catholicism.
Besides religion Russia also acquired the Cyrillic alphabet that is still used today, instead of Latin alphabet that was used throughout Western Europe. However, the biggest difference between Russian and the west were the contrasting polity developments. During the Middle Ages Russia was occupied by the Mongols. The Mongol dominion inclined Russia towards autocracy and a threat of further invasion triggered Russia to create an autocratic regime, which from their perspective would create a better defensive environment.
Russia’s size and multicultural population was a big threat for disintegration, and thus required a strong centralized government. After the middle ages most of Europe began slow democratization process. For example Britain was sailing away from autocratic feudal system, developing a political system with more even distribution of authority. Russia on the other hand gave no signs of democratic idea and still had single rulers know as czars. They ruled the Muscovite state, which is how Russia was called roughly from 12th through 15th century.
People were completely suppressed and no one had courage or sufficient education to object with the czarist ideas and promote and changes and reforms. While Europe experienced the Renaissance period with intellectual and spiritual movements, Russia stayed isolated lacking any incentive for economical and political progress. The beginning of the seventeenth century characterized the westernization of Russia under Peter the Great. He tried a coercive enforcement of western ideals into Russia’s rather ignorant society.
This created the great deal of ambivalence. Some were extremely shocked by the western life and admired it, whereas others tremendously hated it and regarded as being evil. However, Peter’s reign was unfortunately too short to convince and alter the well-established Russian autocratic mentality. And further isolation from Western Europe, which underwent a period of democratized political evolution, Russia continued functioning with a centralized government, which was even more devastating being practiced on such enormous territory.
By the mid eighteen hundreds, Russia still did not achieve a crucial status that was performed in Europe long during the medieval period. It did not separate church and the state. The Orthodox Church still held strong power, while in Europe the Catholic Church during the eighteen hundreds had little if no influence on the government. Thus the political secularization did not occur, which was a tremendous disadvantage in Russia’s development. Russia also did not put much effort in developing the law system.
While the United States had already an established constitution and more or less developed law and judiciary systems, and Britain Crown had almost no power, the Czar in Russia was the constitution, the law, and together with the church held enormous amount of unquestionable authority. No institution or organization had any independent political power. The State Council, the Committee of Ministers, the Senate, and the Holy Synod were all manipulated by the Czar of Russia. The Czarist Russia entered the twentieth century condemned to be doomed.
Dictatorship never saw a prosperous future, and Russia was not an exception. People were long fed up with the unlimited abuse and needed a strong leader that would change their lives. Vladimyr Ilyich Lenin was a good candidate to take this role. Influenced by Marxist ideas he slowly began “enlightening” the masses and thus acquired power. As he gained more and more followers, he was able to create the Bolshevik Party; he did something that was never done before. Earlier, no political parties were allowed in Czarist Russia, and all attempts to create such were simultaneously stopped.
The Bolsheviks together with Lenin gained more and more support from the common population, as they were able to establish the “socialistic paradise” and life free of dictatorship in the minds of people who lived lives of uncertainty and hopeless poverty. Finally, on October 25, 1917 the legendary Cruiser Aurora signaled the beginning of the Outrageous “October” revolution that was meant to cease and obliterate dictatorship once and for all. The Red Army led by the Bolshevik Party and Lenin swept through Russia killing the nobility, and the Royal Family.
This led to the end of the Czarist regime and cleared an opportunity for the development of a socialistic state, based on Marxist principles. The newly established government was completely controlled by the state, and there was no more segregation between the upper and middle class. The idea of newly established socialism guaranteed a good life for every single citizen. The wealth of the nobleman was evenly distributed and was used to begin the industrial age in Russia and the rest of the countries that joined the Soviet Union. However, the salutary socialistic theory was not applied exactly the way it was meant.
The totalitarian Czarist regime shifted into another sort of despotism. Thus, Russia’s democracy was far away from Britain’s in development. By 1920s Britain already granted the suffrage rights to almost all citizens and more or less developed an efficient government structure. After Lenin came Joseph Stalin, the real father of Soviet autocracy. As he acquired power in 1924 Russia quickly entered an industrial era with a tremendous amount of public suppression consisting of numerous exiles and repressions of the educated elite and various leaders of patriotic movements.
Stalin wanted no power of whatsoever to challenge his authority, and the best way was to eliminate people who had brains to do so. The World War II brought up new radical changes in Soviet Russia. The Allies were victorious, but soon after the Soviet Union began developing a conflict with the United States and the west, thus isolating itself from the rest of the world. The two super powers were now in competition to establish world hegemony.
Whereas during the Cold War people in the United States lived with constant fear of the possible nuclear war, the Soviet citizens knew no other life than the life within the iron walls of the Soviet Union and thus had no worries or concerns. Everyone was so much dedicated to the laid out life that the communist party and the politburo provided. The Cold War’s peak was reached after Stalin’s reign. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were actively involved in arms development, trying to surpass one another. Both countries sought to cease the progression of the enemy’s dominion throughout the world.
To increase security, United States joined with a several other countries to create a North Atlantic Treaty Organization, while the Soviet Union took a step to form the Warsaw Mutual Defense Pact. Russia in cooperation with Cuba set a number of Missiles that were directed towards the states, while the United States were actively developing military bases in Turkey. Both sides were ready to launch a massive attack and perhaps cease the earth’s existence. As the Cold War peaked in the late 1970s, the Soviet economy was way too weak to cope with the rapid arm race and technology developments.
Most of the Soviet resources and funds were used to continue, in my opinion a pointless competition, which could be rather used for economic development and elevation of people’s living standard. However, no one had an authority to question USSR’s success. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he understood that major reforms and repairs are needed in the system, to rescue the Soviet Union from an extreme downfall. He began an age known as perestroika and opened some freedom to make necessary reforms for improvement.
The weakness showed by the strict communistic regime allowed people to take a different perspective, which they could never picture earlier. All of a sudden they decided that the Soviet system does not work and many leaders emerged that wanted to cease its existence. The radical process began as more and more countries gained autonomy and finally independence, which brought the eighty-year continuation of the communistic autocracy to the end. That was a second sufficient example, which proved that totalitarian system whether czarist or communistic would never work in a long run.
It was a time for Russia, now an independent country, to form a democracy. Russia now was faced with a difficult dilemma of democracy formation. Would it be possible to apply democratic principles to the nation that over centuries developed an autocratic mentality? How would the shift occur and what would it be successful? The new Russia needed a leader that would lead it to democracy, Gorbachev’s rival and the most active leader of the opposition Boris Yeltsin, quickly succeeded as the first president of the post-soviet Russia.
The first sign of democracy was that Yeltsin was elected president in a direct, popular, competitive election, rather than just emerging in a time of chaos. This gave him a great advantage in acquiring people’s support for creation of the new government. To establish full presidential power, Yeltsin needed to adopt his constitution. The process of the new constitution endorsement was very tough; the parliament was significantly opposed and nearly impeached Yeltsin in March of 1993. However, the president went forward and dissolved the parliament in September of the same year and called new elections.
This created a tremendous chaos as the opposition barricaded in the White House, which housed the parliament. Yeltsin used the army to assault the White House and killed many people, obliterating the radical supporters of the soviet system. At the same time he created the Federal Assembly that would replace the Congress and Supreme Soviet. By the end of year 1993 Yeltsin drafted a new constitution together with new parliamentary elections. The new constitution outlined the new type of government, which was called the “presidential republic”.
The new system was federal, in which many parts of Russia were divided into autonomous regions. The president together with the parliament held the legislative power. The president is chosen through a popular vote of the citizens and is considered the head of the state and the government. The president has an authority to choose a prime minister to run the bureaucracy and any ministers to take charge of the bureaucratic branches; however, his choices must first pass the parliament before they could be applied.
If the parliament disagrees with the president’s choices they could make a “no confidence move” and if they expression objection three times, the president has a right to dissolve the parliament and initiate new elections with a hope that newly chosen members would appeal more to his ideas. With the same ease the president may remove a prime minister and a minister from the office, but without the parliaments approval. In Russia the prime minister does not hold as much power as in Britain. In Russia, the prime minister’s main role is to operate the bureaucracy and do the work to develop economic and social sectors of the country.
The leading responsibility in Russia falls on the president, thus he is in charge of representing Russia on international level, sketching out Russia’s political and economic strategies, and Being the head of the Security Council, to assure the safety of state burdens. The parliament in Russia, unlike the parliament in Britain posses more power and is able to challenge the president’s authority. One major thing is the vote of no confidence, which was mentioned earlier. It allows the parliament to control president’s decisions to certain extent.
The president certainly has an ability to dissolve the parliament after the third no confidence vote, but that would be an unpopular choice to make and would be done only under very radical circumstances. Another powerful tool that the parliament in Russia has in an ability to impeach the president if he commits a crime, makes an act of treason, or does any other move that challenges the constitution. The British parliament has almost no authority to remove the primer minister; it could only be done within the party from which the prime minister emerged.
In order to prevent the parliament abuse by the president, the constitution contains certain regulations. For example the president cannot dissolve the parliament during the impeachment process or six month before his office term is over. The parliamentary apparatus of Russian Federation if bicameral and consists of the Duma, being the lower chamber, and the Federation Council, being the upper chamber. Duma serves to draft laws and different policies. When a certain law or a bill is approved by the majority vote in the Duma it then goes to the Federation Council and once it is passed it heads directly for president’s signature.
The Federation Council might object, and then the document is moved to a special committee consisted of both Duma and Federation Council representatives where disagreements are being negotiated. If the negotiation process fails, the Duma has a right to override the Federation Council by a two-thirds majority vote and place the document on the president’s desk. Once the president is familiarized with a bill or a proposal he has an option either to accept or place a veto on the document. If a veto is placed, the document is returned back to the Duma for further reconsideration.
If a president suggests a simple modification the bill or the proposal the majority in Duma must approve it. If the president completely objects to it, then the Duma has a power to bypass his decision with a two-thirds majority vote, which then has to be supported by the Federation Council. The House of Commons in the British Parliament do not have the authority to override the prime minister’s decision and thus is significantly weaker than the Russian Duma. Unlike the British Parliament, which consists only of two parties, the Russian Duma consists of several parties that win elections.
The Duma’s principal decisions are made by the Duma Council containing a single member from each party present in the Duma. The parties are voted to Duma directly by the public through popular elections. The Council’s main purpose it to create legislative agenda and overcome collisions that often occur between parties in Duma. Under the Duma Council are many smaller committees that specialize on different issues. For example there might be a committee that deals with financial problems as well a committee that is concerned about health and education reforms.
The Federation Council is an instrument of federalism that more or less resembles the United States Senate. It contains two representatives, from each sector of the Russian Federation. Since the different federal regions have different populations, the small ethnic-national territories are over represented. Its members are the heads of executive branches of every federal sector. They do not meet on the regular basis, but rather hold their meetings when visit Moscow to deal with other businesses and duties.
Besides challenging the decisions of the State Duma, the Federation Council is responsible for approval of presidential nominees for high courts such as the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The Federation Council is also responsible for dealing with economic issues, foreign policies, and declarations of war. The Federation Council is very important in protecting the rights of smaller autonomous states that compose the Russian Federation. They are successful in distributing the power throughout the Federation, rather than concentrating the complete legislative power in Moscow.
It helps to adjust the democratic control and functions of such gigantic territory. To secure the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin created a Constitutional Court. Its nineteen members are nominated by the president but are subject to confirmation by the Federation Council. Their main function is to watch and analyze the actions of the president, parliament and the bureaucracy. They must make sure that those institutions of the government do not violate the constitution amendments in any way. In my opinion it is a very good idea to have such apparatus to promote more competent operation of different government branches.
However, it would be better if the Duma, rather than president would nominate the members, to eliminate a possibility of prejudice. Unlike Britain and the United States, where only two parties dominate and control the political system, the Russian Federation, like France or Germany, contains numerous amount of different political parties with all the spectrum of beliefs and conventions. One of the strong opposition parties to the current Russian government is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF).
Lead by Gennadii Ziuganov, it is the only real European-style party in Russia, with a membership base and extensive national organization. Even though the word “communist” in Russia associates with dictatorship CPRF claims to be democratic and follow the constitution in achieving goals and policies. They are not fond of radical reforms especially concerning economic issues and prevail closer to the idea of planning out industry and market. They also do not support the rapid westernization of Russian economy and society, rather they believe in a more gradual and conservative social and economic development.
Another strong opposition to the current government as well as to the CPRF is the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) chaired by Vladimir Zhirinovsky. LDPR is characterized by much stronger nationalistic feelings, and harsh treatment of non-Russian ethnic minorities. Zhirinovsky also supports strong westernization of Russia, and calls for rapid reforms. The LDPR economic policies are not clearly defined. At some points they propose that the market reforms are being too brutal to the population and on the other hand they do not support more socialistic economic policies.
Even though LDPR seems to act as a strong opposition party, during crucial Duma elections they tend to support the current government. The Yabloko Party headed by Grigorii Yavlinsky, is an opposition party with strong pro-Western conventions. Even though it is not a greatly represented in the State Duma as CPRF or LDPR, Yabloko was very active and successful in passing various bills and in creating alliances with other parties. The most numerous party in the State Duma and the strongest supporter of President Yeltsin was the Russia’s Choice Party.
It was formed by Egor Gaidar, a firm supporter of Boris Yeltsin in the early stage of his presidency. In 1995, the party faced serious problems within the party and several members retrieved to form or join different parties. Those are just a few of the main parties in the State Duma, however there are many more parties which are not significant enough to be present in Duma, however, I believe that Russia’s multiparty system is a better example of a democratic representation of different beliefs and ideas compared with British or American two party systems.
Even though after the fall of the Soviet Union many countries gained independence, Russia was still a quite hetero-ethnic state. Some feared that this would cause the Russian Federation to collapse following the USSR’s steps, however the fear was rather exaggerated. The Russian Federation contains 20 percent of minority groups and out of those 20 percent no group makes up more than 4 percent of the total population. Russia is divided into many oblasts, krais, and autonomous districts, each ran by a governor who is directly appointed by the president.
The president also has special agents from Moscow who tour different parts of the federation trying to seek for problems and concerns of each individual division. This control somewhat assures that no district would go out of control and cause trouble. Tatarstan and the Republic of Chechnya were the only autonomous states that cause problems to the federation. They both declared independence together with other states, which separated from Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The Russian government settled things with Tatarstan through peaceful negotiation and both sides came to a consensus of keeping Tatarstan as a part of the Russian Federation. Negotiations with Chechnya were by far less successful, since the Chechens heavily demanded independence by any price. Thus, in December 1994, the federal army invaded the Chechen state and leveled their capital Groznyi, killing thousands of people. This act progressed as an outrageous war, which temporarily ceased in summer of 1996. However, this was not an end to the conflict, but rather marked a beginning of a more serious one.
The Chechens now tremendously outraged and full of hatred began forming various terrorist organizations. The Chechen government could no longer control the hostile situation at home and thus demanded more federal troops to be sent to Chechnya seeking to establish order. The organized Chechen terrorists committed a multitude of terrorist acts that involved blowing up apartment building, metro station, and severe murders in Moscow. The most recent terrorist act organized by the Chechen terrorist groups was taking hostage one of the major Moscow theaters, which resulted in many deaths of civilian people.
The Chechen conflict placed a bad image on the Russian government. The inability to cease terror in Chechnya first of all creates a bad impression of the president. The public cannot accept the fact that such a massive and strong country cannot suppress a couple terrorist groups in Chechnya. This played a big role during all presidential elections and plays a tremendously significant role in Russia’s political and social development. Censorship and strict control over media was always an attribute of an autocratic government. Throughout history Russia experienced strong censorship during the Czarist and Soviet periods.
When Yeltsin came to power, he created a much more liberal criterions on censorship and freedom of speech. If Russia is striving to acquire democracy, then why did the new President Vladimir Putin bring back the controlled press and media? Soon after his inauguration, the most popular television channel in Russia HTB was placed under a big controversy. Putin felt that HTB revealed Russian government and the president himself from a “wrong” angle and band the channel by getting rid of the HTB owner and the rest of his crew. The HTB soon reappeared under a new supervision.
This act was followed by significant disapproval of public as well as of the Duma. Many Russian citizens filled the streets with demonstration posters feeling that the weak developing democracy and their freedom is being abused. The people felt that after attempting to leave the authoritarian system and establishing a new democratic one, Putin is trying to gear political development to a dictatorship. It is rather difficult to tell precisely where Putin’s polity and actions will take Russia in the future. Will he develop a democracy or turn back to autocracy?
Might sound a little poetic, but realistically speaking Russia is still far to match the examples of western democracies. The long established historical influence and mentality must be cleared away through generations and generations, before the people would be ready to accept democracy. For now Russia should attempt to make smart choices, which would push it towards the democratic dream. Who knows, maybe a several decades years later our great grandchildren would be writing papers and doing studies on the great Russian phenomenon: The great transition from complete autocracy to a most successful democracy.