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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Overdue Mandate for Managed Democracy

The online newspaper ran a piece last week about the referendum held on March 17, 1991, in which 80 percent of eligible voters took part and fully 76.4 percent of that number voted to preserve the Soviet Union in an updated form. On the same day Boris Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian socialist republic within the framework of the Soviet Union.

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"The vote count in the 1991 Russian presidential election was fair," Mikhail Gorbachev said. I spoke with him at a small gathering on the day of the presidential election just over a week ago. "History will never forgive you for that, Mikhail Sergeyevich!" I exclaimed. "Your honesty set back Russia's democratic development by nine whole years."

Few people seem to realize that Vladimir Putin is in fact fulfilling the mandate that Yeltsin received back in March 1991. I have no doubt that no more than 15 percent of the voters who backed Yeltsin in that election did so because of his "democratic" credentials. The majority of his supporters, exhausted by the chaos and uncertainty of perestroika, saw him as a muzhik, a man of the people with a stern countenance and a booming voice who would take the country in hand and restore order. Average voters didn't want a return to the past, however. What they needed was managed democracy.

I needed managed democracy, too. I gained a great deal from Gorbachev's reforms: political freedom, freedom of speech and of enterprise. I did work for Postfaktum, a thriving "cooperative" (read: private) news agency, following the rise of nongovernment television stations in the regions. The conferences I organized were bringing in so much money that I was able to hold them on rented cruise boats sailing between Rostov-on-Don and Volgograd. In short, I lived and worked in a remarkably free, albeit imperfect, market society. The only thing that worried me was Yeltsin's push for greater freedom and market reforms. He was clearly driving the party nomenklatura to revolt. I had no great love for the nomenklatura myself, but in practice it didn't impinge on my freedom or my business dealings.

By allowing Yeltsin to come to power, Gorbachev effectively steamrolled the tender shoots of democracy that he had cultivated for six long years.

The end of history then ensued. Yeltsin proved incapable of managing anything, not to mention democracy, and he thrived on scandal. He was pathologically power-hungry, impatient and vengeful. As the political scientist Dmitry Furman put it, Yeltsin twice used the Communist Party to make his career, when he joined the party and when he left. For this reason he was obsessed with proving his anti-Communism to himself and to everyone else.

The upshot was that old conflicts, which could have been resolved during two presidential terms, were left to fester until the dawn of a new era. Yeltsin's entire tenure became a "time of troubles." The only thing that came of it was the revival of Communism, which seemed to have died a natural death under Gorbachev.

In March 2000, Russian history resumed from where it had left off a decade earlier. Simply joining the Council of Europe wasn't enough to allow Russia to skip over the mandatory stages of democratic maturation. You need special criteria to measure the progress of such processes. To my mind, the real measure of a leader is the extent to which he has harmed the country and the people. Compared to Yeltsin, Putin has caused almost no harm up to now, and this explains why calm has been restored, the Communists have lost votes, the "democrats" have lost their seats in the State Duma, and more and more readers have started buying my magazine.

Judging by Putin's track record, it seems logical to assume that in his second term he might even get around to doing good. But even if he continues to refrain from doing harm, I can assure you that a decade from now there'll be no need to fight for or manage democracy in Russia. It will have become the natural habitat of the entire Russian people.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals. []