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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Victory for Optimists

The last year of Russian politics presented a great challenge for analysts both in Russia and the West. Polarized for years over the future of Boris Yeltsin and Russian democracy, both optimists and pessimists faced a critical test of their assumptions, models and ability to predict events. With the main event -- the presidential election -- now over, the optimists can claim victory.

Though difficult to generalize, the gloom-and-doom school shared several assumptions about the Yeltsin regime, Russian electoral politics and political culture. First, Yeltsin was no democrat. He had revealed his true autocratic proclivities first in October 1993 and then with the war in Chechnya. It followed, then, that Yeltsin was not serious about the electoral process: He would either falsify the results or postpone the vote, but never give up power. Cartels, mafias, and under-the-rug Kremlin politics, not voters and their preferences, ultimately drove Russian politics.

Second, this school proclaimed that if Yeltsin did allow a free and fair election, he would most certainly lose. According to these analysts, the results of December's parliamentary elections marked a dramatic swing to the communist left and nationalist right. Voters, in their view, wanted to go back to the Soviet past or toward a more imperialist future.

Third, and following from this analysis of electoral preferences, the gloom-and-doom school declared that the Russian people were inherently, if not genetically, "unfit" for democracy. Whether citing Soviet culture or tsarist traditions, these writers asserted that because Russia had never been a democracy, it could never be one.

In the long run, all these assumptions may prove to be true. For those interested in explaining and predicting Russian politics in this pivotal year, however, this approach to thinking about Russia proved confusing, misleading and ultimately wrong.

Regarding Yeltsin and his regime, it was right to call his actions in Moscow in October 1993 and in Chechnya in December 1994 undemocratic, avoidable and tragic. Yeltsin bears ultimate responsibility for both of these mini-civil wars. Had Yeltsin embraced democratic reform with the vigor that he carried out economic reform, this bloodshed might have been avoided.

Yet, analysts were wrong to assume that these past transgressions against democracy would compel Yeltsin to thwart the democratic process in the future. On the contrary, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Yeltsin wanted to revive Russia's fragile democratic institutions. In December 1993, Yeltsin called on the people to ratify a new constitution. Moreover, free and fair elections for parliament took place in 1993 and again in 1995. There were thus compelling reasons to believe that Yeltsin would abide by the democratic process. Despite all the claims of impending fraud, postponement and military coups, Russia's historic and unprecedented election for head of state happened on time, according to the law and without falsification.

Pessimists also misjudged the Russian electorate. A dramatic swing to the left or right did not take place in 1995. On the contrary, the results demonstrated tremendous stability in voter behavior. In 1995 (as in 1993, 1991 and 1990), roughly a third of Russia's voters cast their ballot for militant opposition parties, a little less than a third for reformist representatives and the remaining third for amorphous "centrist" groups and populist leaders. The first round of the 1996 presidential race reflected this same balance of electoral preferences. In the second round, when the race became polarized between reform or regression, centrist voters gravitated back to Yeltsin, and populist supporters either sided with the reform candidate or stayed home. Claims of radical swings of voters against the reform process, therefore, grossly misinterpreted Russian electoral dynamics over the last few years.

Third, the behavior of Russian voters in the past year has refuted the claim that Russians are apathetic or predisposed to authoritarianism. In 1995, 65 percent of the eligible population participated in an election that the gloom-and-doom school told them did not matter. In 1996, voter turnout climbed to nearly 70 percent in the first round and an amazing 67 percent in the second, numbers that make America, not Russia, look like the political culture indifferent to democratic processes.

Finally, most impressive was how Russians voted in the pivotal presidential race. Though nationalists, communists and imperialists all appeared on the ballot, the majority of Russians ultimately opted for Yeltsin, the candidate most clearly identified with market and democratic reforms.

Yeltsin's electoral victory is only a partial victory for Russian democracy. Much more needs to be done. Russia's system of government is best described as super-presidentialism; the balance between executive and legislative power needs correction. Even more troubling, Russia still has no effective multi-party system. Once the Communist Party finally disintegrates, Russia will have no nationwide political organization dedicated to articulating and organizing societal interests before the state. The absence of a consolidated party system creates opportunities for populist, extremist and unpredictable leaders to dominate future elections. Finally, the lack of investigative journalism and Yeltsin's virtual monopoly over national television suggests that Russia's press is not as free and independent as we once assumed.

Yet even with all these birth defects, Russian democracy is still alive and growing. Before expecting the worst again once the next crisis in Russia occurs -- the pessimists already are warning of an economic meltdown in the fall -- we should remember how poorly the gloom-and-doom school served us in this historic and ultimately triumphant year for democrats and democracy in Russia.

Michael McFaul teaches political science at Stanford University and is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.