The Swamp logo

Democracy and Regime Changes

The Soviet Union

By Kayla CharlesPublished 6 years ago 20 min read

Between 1917 and 1991, Russia was a single-party state led by the Bolsheviks, later to be known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) (Service 2009, 62). From the beginning, the CPSU had authoritarian tendencies that were built into the communist institutions of the Soviet regime. They held a monopoly of political and economic power in the Soviet Union in terms of having a “Leninist party dictatorship, a transformative ideology, central planning, and state ownership of the means of production.” (Bunce 1999, 22). By the time Gorbachev took the office of General Secretary in 1985, the Soviet centralized economy required major reforms in order to increase the quantity and quality of industrial output that would meet the levels of the United States and Western European states (Service 2009, 441). In 1987, Gorbachev introduced two reforms: perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness). Glasnost opened the space for the airing of grievances, for more information to be available, and for media to be freer. While the Soviet Union was once capable of repressing nationalism, Gorbachev’s social reforms led many ethnic groups of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc into nationalist mobilization (Service 2009, 456-458). On December 26th, 1991, the Belavezha Accords effectively ended the Soviet Union and were signed by the Russian President Yeltsin, Ukrainian president Kravchuk, and Belarusian parliament chairman Shushkevich (Service 2009, 506-507). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced a triple transition, meaning a political and economic transition and a transition in statehood, in which Russia was recognized as a sole state. While Yeltsin played an essential role in the development of an embryonic Russian democracy, his later years were marked by a partial retreat from the development of a truly democratic political system. The difficulties of the economic transition and the political complications that ensued convoluted the task of creating a solid foundation for a democratic society in the Western sense (Service 2009, 529-534). The results were perverse, as there was a rise in oligarchs, this term “refers to a small group of leaders in the largest financial and industrial structures who are closely tied to the regime” (Zudin 2000, 5).

The goal of this research is to discover the effects of the transition from an authoritarian regime type to a democratic regime type in the post-Soviet space by focusing on Russia’s case. Russia’s transition from authoritarian -ism to democracy drastically affected the politics, economics, and social conditions of the country. Although these aspects all play a part in amalgamating a country’s legitimacy, solely the political dimensions of Russia will be correlated within the topics of this paper. Beginning in 1991, Russian politicians have attempted to transition to a more democratic regime type. However, Russian governance has maintained many authoritarian elements despite Russians claiming to be democratic. Thus, the question targeted in this paper is “Did Russia’s transition out of an authoritarian regime and into a democratic regime in the 1990’s, develop or hinder their international and domestic legitimacy?” The first hypothesis presented is “Russia’s transition from an authoritarian regime type to a democratic regime type remains incomplete and flawed, which has impeded political development in the years following an attempt to consolidate”. The second hypothesis is “Russia has maintained more than a few elements of an authoritarian type of government, which has in part led to their rise to power in the 21st century”.

The relevancy behind Russia’s transition is deemed important as it is one of the biggest countries to have attempted this kind of political shift. Their effort to democratize was also viewed as the most important test for the democratization of a country (Evans 2009, 4). Another reasonable assumption would be that all internal acts within such a country like Russia can heavily dictate the relations it has with different countries and their involvement in foreign policy. This is a loaded topic itself as it aligns directly with states who have failed to consolidate after a push for democracy. However, it is important to acknowledge the fact that Russia has lived through phases of communism, but is now considered a “semi-authoritarian” country (Evans 2009, 4). As the country continues to develop, the literature behind these themes becomes essential to better understand the logistics of democracy, and the answers as to why Russia has failed to become fully democratic. Today, Russia commands many of the geo-political aspects other countries would not be able to maintain. As examples of how much power they hold and why they are so relevant, one can view the case of Russia taking over Crimea. Another example can be their continuous support for Eastern Ukraine separatists; Russia is arming them and consequently causing havoc. More recently, they have become very influential in the fight against terror involving ISIS. In a conclusive manner, they force individuals to redirect the importance they place on the United States. As such, they continuously challenge the ways of American foreign policy by taking first steps and initiatives to ensure they are a country and a force not to be reckoned with politically.

Many scholars have continued to impose new ways to describe Russia’s attempt to democratize. Lilia Shevtsova explores this idea and discusses what Russia is considered to be today. The author’s arguments would support the statement that the country has maintained several aspects that can retract the idea that they ever went through a period of political reform. Shevtsova discusses the fact that power has remained “monolithic and focused at the top of the executive branch of government” (Shevtsova 2007, 892). However, is this necessarily a bad thing? Did Russia ever want to become democratic? Shevtsova argues otherwise; the popular belief in the country is that Russia plays an essential role on the global scale, and has sway amongst neighboring countries (Shevtsova 2007, 892). What is more is that even Liberalists within Russia support the ideology that Russia must remain a powerful entity, or else it will fail, a term referred to as “derzhavnichestvo” (Shevtsova 2007, 892). She goes further and explains that Russia never did go through stages that would consequently lead to them maintaining a newly formed democracy; instead they ended up with an “illiberal democracy” (Shevtsova 2007, 892). Citizens’ liberties are so restricted within Russia, such as simple human rights; how can we properly call them a democratic state? Yeltsin, as this particular author discusses, had attempted to push four simultaneous transformations to “create a free market, democratize the state, abolish an empire and create a non-imperial Russia, and seek a new geopolitical role for a former nuclear superpower…” (Shevtsova 2007, 892). Shevtsova then concludes that Russia had attempted to transition, but did not do so by creating a political system that was different than what they had in place; instead, they did so by “the privatization of property (Shevtsova 2007, 893). Russia was then unprepared to go through such a shock within the country. Within this article, the author discusses the paradox involved in Russia, where individuals pushed for more severe power, instead of advocating for the implementation of entities that can potentially halt the abuse of power (Shevtsova 2007, 893). Furthermore, what are the implications politically? Can Russia then benefit from the system? Shevtsova states that a country such as Russia is led by a single person, who in turn relies on the support of particular administrations, military power, as well as wealthy businesses (Shevtsova 2007, 897). A reason for Russia’s current stability and political success is not only due to the fact that the leader holds a large amount of power within the administration, but also holds significant power as President; thus, the leader of the country must rely on allure to gain the approval of the masses (Shevtsova 2007. 897). The final point to draw from this article is the notion of power. Power has remained the main priority for Russia; and everything else is simply pushed aside (Shevtsova 2007, 898).

Another body of work worth analyzing is Graeme Gill’s The Failure of Democracy in Russia. This text correlates with Shevstova’s that was discussed above, as it analyzes the concept of political elites dominating Russia, and effectively hindering their ability to properly democratize (Gill 2002, 169). Gill argues that although Russia may look like a country which has developed and consolidated into a democracy, it is anything but (Gill 2002, 170). Essentially, the argument that stands is that Russia will forever be a country in which certain values of society are entrenched in the ideology and is in fact, a Russian way of life (Gill 2002, 170). A direct example of this is when Yeltsin put many individuals in positions of power; “through this political machinery that he sought to manage political affairs” (Gill 2002, 175). This would create an imbalance of power, where this body of individuals would potentially overthrow the government (Gill 2002, 175).

Hanna Smith explains the reason behind a failure to democratize in the third article studied in this literature review. She looks to internal conflict within the country, more specifically the Chechen wars (Smith 2014, 627). This war was a setback to the consolidation of democracy; it protected the inherent authoritarianism within the country (Smith 2014, 627). She highlights the argument that “countries experiencing the process of democratization are more war prone, especially when their domestic institutions are too weak to effectively regulate increases in mass political participation that accompany democratic transition” (Smith 2014, 628). This can be used to support the idea that since power is held solely by a majoritarian group or even a sole entity, it becomes harder to maintain a democratic system. This can be contrasted with Shevtsova’s article, in which a President will only seek to benefit themselves. Additionally, the civil war that was caused by the transition resulted in a heavy impediment on Russia’s political system, and how power was distributed (Smith 2014, 629). Nationalism became a way to sway the people, as the promotion of democracy was significantly unpopular (Smith 2014, 629). Did Russia even want to become democratic? To support this, Smith brings up an argument that states “the Russian population and its leaders remain undecided over the kind of country they want to build” (Smith 2014, 631). Smith concludes her text by stating that whatever the country’s attempt was in the 1990’s, it should not be seen as much of a push toward democracy (Smith 2014, 644).

A fourth and final article is Michael Mcfaul’s Russian Democracy: Still Not a Lost Cause. He depicts Russia as an unconsolidated democracy, and states that power between the governing body and the president is biased; these powers are in favor of the president (Mcfaul 2000, 163). However, he argues that although they are unconsolidated, Russia is stable. Another argument that can be linked with Hanna Smith’s article, is the fact that the war in Chechnya has pushed the country to neglect the standard human rights that accompany any democratic system (Mcfaul 2000, 163). He also contradicts the points made earlier, in which Russia is only focused on immediate power. According to Mcfaul, the Russian system has undergone changes as the players are now solely focused on long-term policy making (Mcfaul 2000, 164). Shevstova argues that the political system in Russia was implemented only to fulfill what was under its control, thus why they were not able to consolidate their full potential. The author goes on and pinpoints certain characteristics about Russia that make for the transition to have impeded their developments of a liberal democracy. As such, Mcfaul argues the case of “Superpresidentialism”, a weakly institutionalized party system, a poorly organized civil society, an ineffective state, and a slowly developing commitment to the rule of law” (Mcfaul 2000, 168).

In sum, it is understood that all the authors encompass the idea that power is prioritized over human rights. Additionally, power was not a virtue that was desired solely by the President; it is clear that the concept of power was a priority for the oligarchs just as much as it were for the general public. Russians view themselves as a distinct society, as such, a simple application of democracy would not be sufficient to support and answer the needs both on a domestic level and international one. Has this, in fact, led to more stable political conditions? From the articles presented above, it is argued that their political system is so deeply woven into the minds of millions across the territory. They are a considerable threat in world politics, and they have done so by maintaining illiberal stances on many of their policies.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought an end to the Cold War. Democracy was widely upheld as the dominant form of governance, and so Russians demanded for a democratic regime. Given that Russia had never experienced democracy (there was no democratic legacy already in place like other post-Soviet states), and that it entailed an entire political and economic transformation, the transition from a communist to a democratic regime was extremely troublesome. The international system was largely hostile to the now weakened Russia, especially the United States. Russia lost its international and regional influence, and factors that dictate power, such as their economy, completely collapsed; Russia was then in a worse position now than they were under communism. Additionally, the democratic system was rampant with corruption under Yeltsin. He had created a constitution that gave the executive much more power than the legislature, as we saw in Mcfaul’s article, he explains how Superpresidentialism is a crucial aspect that affected their consolidation process. Russia chose democracy as the alternative to communism; however, it was failing them domestically and internationally. As a result, when Putin came to power and provided Russia with a sense of hope, Russians only seldom cared about preserving democracy as they did preserving their own economy and power. Essentially, the Russian population did not care about the political systems that were in place. Russia’s hardline attitude with Chechnya and Ukraine, for example, can be seen as harping on Russian nationalism and preserving Russia’s regional, and more importantly, international influence. As it stands, Russians are willing to sacrifice their human rights and elements of democracy; human rights are mostly a western concept that has not made its way to certain countries in the world. By doing so, Russia hopes to thrive on domestic and international scales. However, can Russia be respected on the global stage without caring for human rights?. Today, the president is regarded as largely popular; he can pretend to be a democratic leader despite his authoritarian tendencies he places on the country.

In terms of understanding Russia’s current powerful status, has there been a surge in power due to their authoritarian ways? Julien Nocetti’s Contest and Conquest: Russia and Global Internet Governance argues that the power dominated through cyberspace, by limiting what is shown to the population; this gives Russia leeway to compete on the global scale (Nocetti 2015, 111). Nocetti goes on to express the significance the Internet has, and the reasons why Russia considers it an important tool in foreign policy (Nocetti 2015, 112). That being said, Russia sees the threat behind the Web; they realize they must effectively reduce how much the population can see in order to limit their knowledge of the situation (Nocetti 2015, 113). He goes on to state “this approach is intimately connected with the inherently authoritarian nature of the Russian regime, continuing a century-long habit of muzzling dissenting voices by whatever medium is currently available” (Nocetti 2015, 115). Russia is heavily in tune with what is released to their citizens internally, but also care deeply of what is released on a platform that is international. How then, do they continue to manage their powers even by continuing to censor what the world is able to see?

Stephen Blank and Younkyoo Kim discuss the importance Russia has with Latin America. They argue that Russia keeps in mind that they must advance the respective geopolitical goals of the country, but also “to enrich key sectors of the Russian government (Blank and Kim 2015, 164). The country does so by tackling areas that are of interest to both parties in play, namely arms sales, energy deals, and large scale investments (Blank and Kim 2015, 164). Interestingly enough, the strategic implementation of Russia in Latin America is done in order to eliminate the dependency the country has with the United States. Blank and Kim confirm this by saying “Moscow is clearly targeting Peru and Brazil for arms sales in order to move them away from their close ties to, if not previous dependence on, U.S. defense producers and Washington in general” (Blank and Kim 2015, 165). This is considerable in their quest for power, as they have tackled on a continent in which cooperation was never seen as a viable option. Furthermore, Russia also attempts to connect with countries like Bolivia and Ecuador. These relations are essentially based on monetary loans as well as selling arms (Blank and Kim 2015, 166). These two motives Russia stunts are due to their desire to become the main reliable superpower. Blank and Kim discuss this by stating “Russia seeks lasting bases of influence, military power projection, and creation of a network of partnerships to thwart U.S. policies using overt diplomatic and covert means (Blank and Kim 2015, 166). The conclusive argument the authors pull from this essay is that Russia is on a hunt for a high global standing, as well as to diminish U.S. power in Latin America, in this case (Blank and Kim 2015, 169). By analyzing the case of Latin America, it is proven that although Russia may be authoritarian and lack the qualities of a liberal democracy, Russia is a serious contender when analyzing the legitimacy it may have in global affairs. This can be developed further by assuming that even though they have failed to democratize, Russia is stronger and more fearful than it ever was. It is then fair to suppose that the sheer lack of consolidating a democratic system, has in fact made the country more powerful.

An additional article by McFarlane depicts the reason behind Russia as not being an emerging power. The author defends this claim by saying that Russia cannot be considered influential due to its failure to “develop a widely shared domestic consensus on values and identity” as well as “its internal difficulties and its vulnerability to criticism in terms of international human rights and governance norms” (McFarlane 2006, 42). McFarlane continues along this line of thought and identifies Russia’s stride toward an attempt to democratize as one full of “confusion, retrenchment and decline” (McFarlane 2006, 44). The author disagrees with the fact that Russia has become politically stronger. Furthermore, he argues that Russia is attempting to clean up the years following an attempt to consolidate (McFarlane 2006, 56). He concludes by stating that “Russia’s foreign policy is designed to limit further losses and to sustain or promote conditions that will permit Russia to re-emerge as a great power in a pluralist international system (McFarlane 2006, 57).

By molding the three texts together, it can be understood that Russia is significantly powerful in the sense that it finds itself with the ability to dictate the tracks on international politics. Russia is, in fact, able to do this because it is viewed as a threat by other superpowers, mainly the United States. Thus, had the transition from the authoritarian regime to a desired democracy been consolidated in the 1990’s, Russia would, today, be viewed as a model country, having thrived in all aspects of governance.

As a means of analysis for how Russia is perceived today still under a non-democratic regime, one can look at public opinion polls on the Presidency. In the study conducted by Daniel Treisman, he finds that illiberal democracies lead the public to perceive their leader as someone to “boost their popularity by exploiting nationals, exaggerating external threats, and manipulating the media (Treisman 2011, 590). He concludes that although Yeltsin was regarded as unpopular, he saw the opposite with Putin; “no American president has equaled Putin’s record since regular polling began in the 1930’s” (Treisman 2011, 592). This is due in part to a President’s personality, in today’s case: Vladimir Putin. An additional factor is public image; civilians tend to back their President when the economy is strong (Treisman 2011, 607). Another interesting criterion can be observed in the amount of arms Russia exchanges with Latin America and compare that number to arms sales from the United States to Latin America. However, another interesting factor would be GDP growth, or running polls based on Russia’s civil society, as it has sought to be a decreasing phenomenon. New data can be studied to indicate how Russia is perceived in countries that are not so closely aligned. One may also look and study if there will ever be a time where Russia can fully strengthen their way of governance; will Russia ever be a democracy?

In conclusion, this essay looked at the ways in which Russia has in fact become a superpower in global politics, despite having failed to consolidate their democracy. The determinants of this are widespread. Even though the country itself is extensively authoritarian, is led by an individual constantly under the microscope, with questionable ways of running their own, Russia continues to dominate. The question of this paper is then answered by stating that the regime type would not seem to hinder them, but yet, distributed more political power for them domestically and internationally. Solidifying this question can be seen by validating the second hypothesis. Furthermore, one can also confirm a section of the first hypothesis by only specifying that it hindered them mostly politically and economically.

Works Cited

Bunce, Valerie. Subversive Institutions. Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Blank, Stephen, and Kim Younkyoo. 2015. “Russia and Latin America.” Problems of Post-Communism 62, no. 3: 159-173. Academic Search premier, EBSCOhost (accessed march 28, 2016)

Evans Jr., Alfred B. 2009. "What Russia Can Teach Us about Democratization." Conference Papers -- Western Political Science Association 1-23. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 25, 2016).

Gill, Graeme. 2002. "The Failure of Democracy in Russia." Perspectives On European Politics & Society 3, no. 2: 169-197. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (Accessed March 27, 2016).

Macfarlane, S. Neil. 2006. “The ‘R’ in BRICs: Is Russia an Emerging Power?.” International Affairs 82, no. 1: 41-57. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (Accessed April 29, 2016).

McFaul, Michael. 2000. "Russian Democracy: Still Not a Lost Cause." Washington Quarterly 23, no. 1: 135. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 28, 2016).

Nocetti, Julien. 2015. “Contest and Conquest: Russia and Global Internet Governance.” International Affairs. 111-130. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (Accessed March 30th, 2016).

Smith, Hanna. 2014. “DEMOCRATIZATION AND WAR: THE CHECHEN WARS' CONTRIBUTION TO FAILING DEMOCRATIZATION IN RUSSIA." Demokratizatsiya 22, no. 4: 627-645. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 25, 2016).

Shevtsova, Lilia. 2007. “Post Communist Russia: A Historic Opportunity Missed.” International Affairs. 891-912. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 23, 2016).

Service, Robert. A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Vladimir Putin.

Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2005.

Treisman, Daniel. 2011. “Presidential Popularity in a Hybrid Regime: Russia under Yeltsin and Putin.” American Journal of Political Science 55, no. 3: 590-609. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed April 1, 2016).

Zudin, Aleksei Iu. 2000. "Oligarchy as a Political Problem of Russian Postcommunism." Russian Social Science Review 41, no. 6: 4. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed March 23, 2016).


About the Creator

Kayla Charles

Born and raised in MTL

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.