Can Russia and Ukraine be regarded as democratic states? If not, why not and what alternative concepts may be best used to describe their political systems?

Below is an essay I wrote recently on the democratic situation in Russia and Ukraine… Enjoy:

Given the current situation in Russia and Ukraine, it seems somewhat pertinent for this essay to discuss the nature of democracy in these states and whether they can actually be considered democracies in an orthodox manner or even in the broadest sense; it will also explore whether these post-communist regimes are actually something entirely different, such as a form of authoritarian regime. This essay will begin by analysing the third wave of democratisation and will develop a critique of its application to post-communist states, such as Russia and Ukraine. Subsequently, it will then define the concept of ‘democracy’ and how democratic regimes have traditionally been defined by scholars. The essay will move on to develop a number of alternative conceptualisations of democracy in turn and apply these to both the past and present regimes in Russia and Ukraine; these definitions diverge from the traditional liberal definition in a number of ways, as will be shown. It is then necessary to contemplate a number of alternative conceptions of the regimes that have existed in Russia and Ukraine, by considering whether these regimes are actually authoritarian and what type of authoritarian regime they are. This essay will conclude that Russia and Ukraine are definitely not orthodox liberal democracies and that they are either illiberal democracies of a number of forms or authoritarian regimes of a competitive or electoral nature.

The third wave of democratisation refers to the third major surge of democracy in history, which occurred in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s with the collapse of various authoritarian regimes in Europe and Latin America (Huntingdon, 1991). The existing body of transition theory takes the view that these regimes will eventually transform into liberal democracies (Linz, 1990; Huntingdon, 1993).

There are a number of problems that arise when applying existing transition theory from the third wave of democratisation to the post-Soviet situation in Russia and Ukraine. The context of the transition process in Russia contrasts with a number of countries in Europe that were permitted relatively stable transitions, with economic aid and the metaphorical carrot of membership of the EU and NATO being dangled before them (McDonough et al., 1998). In Russia and Ukraine, there was never the promise of EU or NATO membership and whilst the counties of Western Europe were facing a single transformation as they were situated in economies that had earlier undergone economic liberalisation (Encarnación, 2001; Bermeo, 1994). Indeed, Nelson highlights the fact that Spain’s political transformation ‘occurred after some fifteen years of considerable economic growth’ (1993: 446). Russia and Ukraine were having to move from a totalitarian system to democracy, from a command economy to a market based economy, were having to build new nation states (Tolz, 1998; Kuzio, 2002) sometimes in precarious circumstances (Smith, 1998; Janmaat, 2000), and also, especially poignant in the Ukrainian situation, they were having to build nations from heterogenous groups of people.

Moreover, the notion of transition in Russia and Ukraine simply did not exist: what were they transitioning to and from? In both of these states, there was no historical legacy of democracy, nor of non-authoritarian regimes (Roper & Fesnic, 2003). Additionally, much of transition theory has focused on the number of elections that states have to hold in order to be considered democratic. Some scholars (Schedler, 2002) have claimed that to be considered democratic, they must have a certain number of free and fair elections, with a peaceful changeover of power. In many cases, this cannot be applied to Russia and Ukraine given that they have had elections, but they have not always been free and fair (Pammett & DeBardeleben, 1996; Nicoleyenko, 2004). Most notably in the Ukrainian case, changes of power have not been orderly, with the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’ (Wilson, 2005; Christensen et al., 2005; McFaul, 2007) and the 2014 ‘Maidan Revolution’ (Guardian, 2014) not being changes of power that were necessarily peaceful or as one would expect in a democratic state. Literature on democratisation often takes for granted the fact that transitions from authoritarian regimes will encompass a certain level of acquiescence with the opposition voice in Russia has been largely paralysed or driven underground by the Putin regime (Blondel, 1997). With Russia and Ukraine, both the old regime and its challengers were relatively equal for most of the democratic transition period, with McFaul suggesting that this particular situation led to “protracted confrontation”, which in turn meant that in both these cases, what was created were ‘unconsolidate, unstable, partial democracies and autocracies’ (2002: 214).

Furthermore, it is imperative to define what a democracy actually is, in order to discuss how such a definition affects how we see the regimes in Russia and Ukraine. The idea that is conjured up when ordinarily defining a democratic state stems from a procedural, westernised, liberal definition of democracy was which firstly offered by Schumpeter. For Schumpeter,

‘the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’ (1947: 269).

Indeed, the conditions that are frequently seen to define a democratic state include the above definition given by Schumpeter, but has also further been defined by a number of works from other scholars, as we will now see.

Dahl (1971) defines democracy as being contingent upon six main characteristics: in a democratic state, citizens ought to be able to have the freedom to form and join organisations; the freedom to express their views and access alternative sources of information; they must be able to vote in free and fair elections and compete for office without major obstacles; to be able to hold politicians to account, but also for politicians to expect to be held to account by the public; and lastly, but by no means least importantly, citizens ought to be able to trust that their judiciary is independent from political control and that the rule of law is upheld by the security forces, the government, and the judiciary.

Further to this, an orthodox definition of democracy, which would suggest that neither Russia nor Ukraine are democratic, was given by Mény and Surel (2002), who highlight the importance of a ‘constitutional democracy’ to balance out the rule of the demos, that is the popular vote,

‘democracy has become a composite regime which combines the rule of the people in many different ways with the rule of law as a counterweight to the discretionary and arbitrary power of the people’s representatives’ (2002: 8-9).

This form of democracy encompasses a Madisonian definition with the requirements, via a constitution, of good government with limits on executive autonomy and guarantees of individual liberty and collective rights, alongside a system of legislative checks and balances. These do not exist in Russia (Amnesty International, 2013) and only partially in Ukraine (Freedom House, 2014). This essay will now move on to look at a number of other forms of democracy, collectively labelled as “adjectival democracies” (Balzer, 2003) and will be analysed in relation to Russia and Ukraine.

It would be a much easier world for political scientists if all states fitted into these idealised definitions of what a democracy is; sadly, they do not. Russia and Ukraine are notable examples of countries which, in recent years, have come to be seen by political scientists and analysts as something more nuanced than an orthodox democratic state.

In the post-1989 era, scholars have analysed countries from the ‘third wave’ of democratisation (Linz, 1990) and also from the post-Soviet bloc, which is also known as the ‘fourth wave of democratisation’ (McFaul, 2002; Doorenspleet, 2005) and have conceived a number of new types of political regime (Way, 2005) which this essay will now analyse in turn. It will evaluate the various forms of democratic regime which differ from the orthodox, liberal norm, these include: illiberal democracies; sovereign democracies; delegative democracies; and managed democracies, before analysing how each of these types of democracy fit in with the existing models of contemporary Russia and Ukraine. Subsequently, it will then consider new forms of authoritarianism which have been forged in recent years, such as competitive authoritarianism and electoral authoritarianism and the impact that these have had on Russia and Ukraine.

Illiberal democracies are democracies in which governance by the people is combined with major shortcomings in the provision of constitutional liberties and individual rights and freedoms (Zakaria, 1997; Diamond, 1999). According to O’Donnell, illiberal democracies are systems that empower an individual

‘to become, for a given number of years, the embodiment and interpreter of the high interests of the nation…after the elections, voters/delegators are expected to become a passive, but cheering audience of what the President does’ (1994: 60).

Illiberal democracies tend to be strongly majoritarian and Russia, under Putin, is no exception to the rule. An illiberal democracy exists in Russia (Oversloot and Verheul, 2006), albeit in a slightly different manner to O’Donnell’s definition. Firstly, although elections take place, they matter even less than the insignificant role O’Donnell gives them because of the fact that the Putin regime has created an almost hegemonic grip on power (Economist, 2003). It has even been the case that voters/delegators are largely a passive, but cheering audience of what the President does, even during elections (Levada Poll, 2012). Even when the Russian presidency was at its most unpopular in the run-up and aftermath of the 2011 elections, the personal popularity of Putin and support for the regime held relatively steady with 30% of voters saying they would vote for Putin, with the nearest rival candidate coming a long distance away with only 10% of the poll, with a significant number reacting positively to Putin’s decision to contest the 2012 election (Levada Poll, 2012).

According to some scholars, illiberal democracy is seen to be a ‘growth industry’ (Zakaria, 1997); this has particularly been the case in Russia with the Putin regime moving towards ‘heightened illiberalism’ under Putin (1997: 24), fast ending any hope Russia would eventually mature into a slightly more liberal form of democracy. All of the forms of democracy below are of an illiberal nature and having defined what a liberal democracy is, the essay will now consider the other types of illiberal democracy that scholars have formulated in recent years.

The label of a sovereign democracy has been used by some commentators and political protagonists to describe the existing political system in Russia; it has been associated with a paternalistic environment where top leaders and their ideas are more important than the actions and elections of political institutions (Isaev & Baranov, 2009; Putin, 2012; Dubin, 2012). Putin has sought to differentiate Russia from the manner in which other countries of the ‘third wave’ have democratised by referring to Russia’s ‘national model of democracy’ (Putin, 2012e).

When attempting to analyse Russia’s relationship with democracy, one must take into account the significant transformations that have occurred in Russia over the last 25 years. The Federation has moved from being a one-party state and one of two world powers in a nation that combined many different republics, of which Russia was one, to a system that is theoretically a multi-party democracy in a multi-polar international system where Russia has ‘sovereignty’ over its actions, but no longer has a comradely union with its neighbours due to the fact they are now also sovereign states. The Russian economy has also been transformed from a government-dominated planned economy to a market-based economy, despite being largely controlled by a small number of oligarchic individuals.

Moreover, Dubin (2012) has highlighted that the majority of Russians feel that their political system is substantially different to the more orthodox western European and American models. Russians see their type of government as an imperfect developing democracy, as a result of the transformations noted above (Isaev & Baranov, 2009) and that the Russian political system has defects that are commonplace in countries at a similar level of democratic development (Schleifer & Tresiman, 2004).

Officials in the government have claimed that Russia is a ‘sovereign democracy’ in order to define it differently in comparison with models defined by Western scholars and to attempt to legitimise the political establishment that exists in Russia (Hayoz, 2012). The sovereignty of the Russian democratic model is also attached to the fact that Russia feels that although the international system is now multi-polar and Russia has increasing economic and political clout, the United States and Europe still view it as something of a junior partner. Many in the western media portray Russia as the ‘other’ and whip up a dichotomous narrative about Russia and the West  that harks back to the Cold War and neglect to recognise Russia’s strategic interests within the existing international system.

Some posited that the Yanukovych regime in Ukraine was also a sovereign democracy as it sought to avoid intervention from outside influences, whilst fitting in with the viewpoint that it was a democracy, albeit in an imperfect manner. The sovereignty of the political regime under Yanukovych can be highlighted by the fact that he was hesitant to side with one grouping or another when it came to deciding whether to sign a trade deal with the EU or to back an agreement with Russia. Further to this, the style of democracy that Yanukovych implemented was all about protecting the political and economic influence of those closest to the regime (Guardian, 2014b); ergo, he sought to crack down on those who opposed the malfeasance of the regime which he embodied (Financial Times, 2014).

A delegative democracy (O’Donnell, 1994) is one in which the formal requirements of democracy are upheld by the regime, despite the fact that residual elements of authoritarianism remain. In such a democracy, the leader (often the President) is able to rule as they see fit and institutions that would normally ensure accountability are largely absent. It is frequently the case that countries that adhere to this type of democracy do not have a long experience of democratic governance. For this reason, Kubicek (1994) has defined Russia under Yeltsin as a delegative democracy as elections were held, but the readiness of Yeltsin to place himself above the political institutions and create a constitution that gave rise to a powerful presidency and a weak legislature, encouraged Kubicek to claim that Russia, in the immediate post-Soviet period, had all the hallmarks of a delegative democratic system.

Further to this, a system which has all the formal trappings of democracy present, but in which the above institutions are restrained, regulated and controlled by a central authority has been defined as a ‘managed democracy’. A number of scholars and analysts see Russia in this light, with Markov (2004) seeing the constraints on parliament and the judiciary, to name but a few restrictive institutions being a ‘natural stage in the development of Russia from Soviet dictatorship to normal democracy’. Additionally, Colton & McFaul (2002) see Russia in this light as the regime permits a limited diversity of opinion, but it fixes itself the boundaries in which such opinion can be expressed.

A seminal work by Levitsky and Way (2002) brought the idea of a competitive authoritarian regime into mainstream academic consciousness. In a competitive authoritarian regime, institutions and the level of democracy falls short of meeting the orthodox criteria for defining a democracy outlined above. Levitsky and Way posit that ‘in competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority, even if those institutions are biased towards those who hold incumbency’ (2002: 52).

Although these regimes do not meet democratic criteria, they cannot be described as wholly authoritarian because the leaders of such regimes are unable to eliminate ‘formal democratic rules or reduce them to a mere façade’ (Levitsky & Way, 2002: 53). It is often the case that despite the fact that elections take place in competitive authoritarian regimes, those who lead said regimes are ‘more likely to use bribery…to legally harass, persecute, or distort co-operative behaviour from critics’ (ibid: 53).

A contemporary illustration of Russia being seen at a sub-national level as a competitive authoritarian regime was in the 2013 Moscow Mayoral elections when, rather than moving to ban outright the political opposition or fix theresults in a manner that would not be credible, the regime sought to tame it by including one of its leader, Alexi Navalny in the elections, where he came a distant second (Guardian, 2013). Russia, at a federal level, cannot be seen to be a competitive authoritarian regime as there is no alternative hegemony that competes with United Russia and the Putin regime in presidential or parliamentary elections.

With regards to Ukraine, some have positioned the recent Ukrainian regimes as being of a competitive and authoritarian nature, as they’ve not been effective at governing for and on behalf of the people (Guardian, 2014c). Firstly, under Kuchma and subsequently under Yanokovich, the state became in thrall to individual and group interests whilst dominant elites used the state to gain power and protect its interests, ergo becoming somewhat authoritarian in nature. What the aforementioned article demonstrates is that the regime in Ukraine is competitive because there is space for more than one elite in Ukraine, as was seen in the aftermath of the 2004 ‘revolution’. Although there previously have been some irregularities with the Ukrainian elections (Canadian government, 2012), change through the ballot box has been possible as was seen in 2010 when Yushchenko’s elite ceded power in a peaceful manner to Yanukovych and his supporters. Despite the frequently peaceful nature of these elites, the quality of democracy in Ukraine that existed between 2004 and 2014 was still somewhat volatile; although some optimistically opined that Ukraine could move towards a process of democratization, eventually becoming a more liberal democracy; the events of the six months have highlighted that Ukraine still has a long way to go and has become an authoritarian state once more. Having looked at what constitutes a competitive authoritarian regime, this essay will now analyse what factors make up an electoral authoritarian regime and apply this case to Russia.

Schedler (2006) defines an electoral authoritarian regime as being one which ‘plays the game of multi-party elections’, whilst violating the liberal democratic principles of freedom and fairness in the electoral system, to the degree that it renders unworkable any kind of democratic nature of the electoral political system in a state that is led by an authoritarian leadership of this nature.

In an electoral authoritarian regime, the said violations mean that elections become something of an instrument of authoritarian rule. A typical electoral authoritarian regime is that of Fujimori (Carrión, 2006) and some have claimed that under the Medvedev-Putin tandem, Russia is facing a similar situation. Under the Fujimori dictatorship Peruvian elections took place, but any political opposition to the regime was severely restricted (Attwood, 2001). The state manipulation of elections that has been carried out over the last fourteen years in Russia has meant that elections have become subject to manipulation in such a manner that they have been stripped of any possible democratic value.

In Russia, it is possible to make the claim that the federal government exists in something of an authoritarian bubble, as the regime has devised discriminatory electoral rules through legislation, such as the law “on political parties” (2001) leading some to posit that Putin seeks to create a ‘dictatorship of law’ (Kahn, 2002; 2004). The Russian authorities have sought to inhibit any form of political dissent by minimizing the penetration of a political opposition in the legislature, leading some scholars to concoct a number of typologies into which Russian political parties might fit (White, 2012), with some labeling the United Russia grouping a “party of power” (Roberts, 2012). Whilst opposition leaders have been imprisoned, most famously including Alexei Navalny and a number of other key opposition figures, but also, most recently, interrogating the leader of the opposition liberal party, Yabloko (Yabloko, 2014). Furthermore, the Putin regime has sought to restrict what passes from the public to the mass media by shutting down opposition news websites, but also limiting access to radio stations and TV networks (Rianovosti, 2012; Guardian, 2014d; BBC, 2014), clearly demonstrating that the Putin regime is somewhat authoritarian and that it does not have an alternative elite to compete with it in the same manner that the Ukrainian regime does. 

To recapitulate, it is without doubt that neither of these countries would be considered liberal democracies. This essay has shown that both of these countries can be seen as illiberal democracies, however, they can also be seen as hybrid-authoritarian regimes. Russia is best characterized as being a sovereign democracy, a managed democracy or an electoral authoritarian regime. Ukraine, despite the fact that it faces an uncertain future after the ‘Maidan revolution’ of early 2014, is best characterized by its previous regime, which can be said to be either a sovereign democracy or a competitive authoritarian regime. The recent election of Poroshenko has led to some hopes for a democracy in Ukraine; conversely, one may opine that this is merely a change of elite as previously happened in Ukraine in 2004 and 2010. On the whole, there is still a lot of work that has to be done for either country to move away from a slow march into heightened illiberalism and authoritarianism.


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