Russia's Image Problem

One reason for Russian democracy's poor image is that commentary coming out of Russia is dominated by the Russian intelligentsia.

Every day, democracies all over the world change governments in accordance with some predetermined constitutional process. Yet, when Russian politicians decide to change their government, the event is framed as a "constitutional crisis,'' a "period of instability'' or evidence that Russian President Boris Yeltsin has gone mad.

During the past month, when Russian politicians were consumed with selecting a new prime minister, analysts both in Russia and the West made dire predictions about the impending chaos that would follow Yeltsin's decision to dismiss his prime minister. Yet, as with so many other alleged crises of the past few years in Russia, the sky did not fall. On the contrary, Russian politicians followed well-defined constitutional rules for selecting and approving the new premier.

So why did so many predict (if not even hope) that a constitutional crisis in Russia was bound to unfold? In comparative perspective, why are we so quick to label events in Russia in negative terms, events which in other countries would be described as politics as usual? And given Russia's short experience with democracy, why do we implicitly compare Russian democracy to our own contemporary system, and not Chinese "democracy,'' Uzbek "democracy'' or the early years of U.S. democracy?

Several factors account for Russian democracy's image problem in the West. First, it is new and indeed imperfect. As the recent government change demonstrated, Russia's constitution gives too much power to the president. In addition, Russian political parties are marginal political actors, civil society is weak, the rule of law is still a work in progress and the press is becoming less independent as large corporations take control of most media outlets.

Yet despite these warts, it is striking what Russia's new democracy has accomplished in the past three years. In December 1995, Russian citizens voted in parliamentary elections. In two rounds of voting in June and July 1996, voters then elected a president. Despite calls for delay and postponement, these two elections were held on time, under law, and were considered relatively free and fair.

Moreover, large majorities participated in both elections -- 65 percent in 1995 and 70 percent in 1996.After the presidential election, which Yeltsin won handily, the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament approved the president's candidate for prime minister -- Viktor Chernomyrdin -- by an overwhelming majority. In April, the State Duma and the president succeeded again in adhering to the constitution when they approved Sergei Kiriyenko as prime minister. In comparison with Western democracies, these may be meager accomplishments. But when compared with the first two years of Russian independence, the Soviet era, or the tsarist period, these milestones are impressive.

A second factor that contributes to pessimism about Russian democracy is the Russian economy. Analyses of political and economic reform are often conflated. Commentators accurately report on the dismal record of economic growth and the subsequent human suffering that has accompanied Russia's painful and slow economic reform, but then misleadingly suggest that this poor economic performance will precipitate a meltdown of the political system.

A third reason for Russian democracy's poor image is that commentary coming out of Russia is dominated by the Russian intelligentsia. In all revolutions, the intelligentsia always has inflated expectations of the new revolutionary state. In Russia, the intelligentsia's disappointment is amplified by Russian culture -- a culture known for gloom and doom, whether talking about the "fate of Russia'' or the weather.

Fourth, many within the American scholarly and policy community on Russia also have a historical predisposition toward accentuating the negative in post-Communist Russia. For those drawn earlier to the field because of a fear of communism and Soviet imperialism, the Russian bear still remains a threat. For those attracted to the field because of a romantic affinity with socialism, Yeltsin and his reforms have destroyed all that was good about the Soviet system.

The contrast between Russia and China scholars is revealing. For many within the Chinese scholarly community, Chinese leaders can do no wrong. Whereas a change in government in Russia is portrayed as a crisis or a sign of autocracy by Russia analysts, the sustained absence of real progress toward genuine democratic reforms in China is depicted by many China scholars as a necessary evil of China's development model. Many Russia scholars think Russia will fail; most China scholars think China will succeed.

Finally, Russia has no domestic constituency in American politics. While African Americans, Poles, Jews or Balts can muster effective lobbying campaigns to further domestically the interests of countries dear to them, Russia has no ethnic lobby to trumpet its cause. Most Russians living in the United States actually hate Russia. Likewise in the business community: Many large American corporations have mobilized to check criticism of human rights violations in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria, but U.S. investments in Russia are still minuscule, and a comparable lobby for this country does not exist yet.

The prevailing negative image of Russian democracy has real policy consequences. Because so many do not believe that Russian democracy can succeed, U.S. commitments to helping Russian democracy make it are few, while investments in hedges against democratic failure in Russia -- such as NATO expansion -- are high. In believing that Russian democracy is bound to fail, those who form Russia's image within the United States might help it to fail.

Michael McFaul is a professor of political science at Stanford University, and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.