Transition, Not Tragedy

What is Russia, where is it going and what is the essence of its current political regime?

These are questions that leading political analysts and scholars both in the West and Russia have been raising on this fifth anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union. But in the new field that sprang from Sovietology, what Stephen Cohen calls "transitionology," you won't get the same answer to any of these questions. The usual criteria used to understand the country have collapsed together with the U.S.S.R.

I shall try all the same to give yet another answer to these questions by dividing them into two parts. It is important to look not only at what is happening in Russia now but how the country's transition is being carried out.

Much of the way the current regime is functioning has already taken on some rather democratic qualities. A system of checks and balances has arisen after the State Duma elections last December, the presidential elections this summer and the current gubernatorial elections, which provide at least minimal guarantees against a return to authoritarianism.

Each of these elements is far from being democratic, however. For instance, there are few people today who would call the Russian president a democrat, unless they meant it as a form of slander. Authoritarian methods are extremely popular, and governors don't hesitate to apply them.

Still, despite all the hints that the elections would not be held in June, they were carried out. It seems that the governing elite understood the need for observing, if only the appearance of democracy. This could be seen in not only the elections, but in the ruble that former security adviser Alexander Lebed won in his libel case against Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov and in the release of Alexander Nikitin, the environmental activist charged as a traitor and spy.

These are enormous accomplishments for Russia -- although playing by the new rules is very difficult, almost like putting aside the ubiquitous spoon and getting in the habit of using a knife and a fork.

Despite the tendency toward authoritarianism, Russia has a popularly elected president and Federation Council, the upper house of parliament made up of regional leaders. Moreover, by constitution, the president cannot dissolve this parliamentary body. What we have then is a kind of multi-authoritarian regime that, paradoxically, undermines authoritarianism.

On the other hand, federal and local authorities have maintained some strong authoritarian elements, which in their own way have acted to preserve the state from the collapse that Russia has experienced over the past three years.

The government and State Duma find themselves in a position of dependence on presidential power, but not entirely. The fact that there is no coalition in the present government allows the Duma to bargain with the president. The government too must cooperate with the Duma, which is charged with handling the budget. Despite its very modest powers, the Duma has responsibility for ratifying international agreements.

Finally, the current Duma is essentially the only body capable of forming another very important element of democratic society -- political parties. The most organized among them is the Communist Party. As the budget procedures showed, the party consciously acted within the limits that were imposed on it from the democratic mechanism of checks and balances. It is thus a systemic rather than destructive or unpredictable element of the political system.

The way this system is functioning therefore gives some cause for optimism, however guarded.

Alas, this cannot be said of the condition of society, its ideals and ideology. What Russians longed dreamed of -- freedom of speech and freedom of movement -- has turned out to be tied to a recognition that life is difficult during transitional periods. When there is a struggle for survival, there is little time to dream.

The collapse of idealism, however, which in the past was distinguished most by a lack of consideration for the individual, is in many ways to the good. Respect for the person is growing, although the benefits are reaching only a small number of individuals.

But the strengthening of such ideals is acting in a positive way, even if it takes the form of envy, or the desire to live better and become wealthier than the neighbors. Understanding that someone else's poverty spoils one's own sense of well-being or getting satisfaction from being a law-abiding citizen can only come later.

What is truly dangerous for Russia's transformation is the ideological vacuum that now exists and the lack of a national ideology. Any attempts to impose a national idea have failed.

Much of society is still immune to any kind of ideology, after being subjected to decades of proletariat internationalism. But what is clear is that whichever ideals emerge, there will be strong elements of great-power ideology.

How democratic this great power will be is still unclear. Much will depend on how the West, and in particular the United States, relates to Russia. If the West treats Russia as a country that, with much difficulty, has remained intact as it has gone through its most difficult critical stages, with little bloodshed and no military dictatorship, a power that holds to its international obligations and does not pose a military threat, then Russia will most likely build its relations on the basis of cooperation and compromise.

The country would begin to act according to the rules of civilized company, where there is no doubt that the invited guest knows how to use a knife and fork. In short, there would be nothing left for Russia to do but follow these rules and become a democratic great power.

Irina Kobrinskaya is a program associate at the Moscow Carnegie Center. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.