Two Forward, One Back

Russia's capitalist revolution began with the dismantling of the Communist system under Mikhail Gorbachev and culminated with the freedom parade of Boris Yeltsin. But what will be the legacy of Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin? To his supporters, he is a stabilizer who put Russia back on track after years of chaos. To his detractors, he is the man who stopped Russia's democratic development—and then rolled it back. Both have elements of truth. But the fact remains that Putin caged rather than killed the freedoms of the capitalist revolution. While his forebears took the proverbial two steps forward, he took a step back, largely preserving, rather than reversing, the principal gains of that era. Yes, property rights are still far from assured. But there is no longer any debate about private property as such. In addition, Russia is a far more open place than ever before. Although crossing its borders can be difficult, the problem for Russians today is getting a visa from foreign consulates, not securing permission from the Russian government to leave the country. The debate over religion has changed dramatically, too. The focus on state persecution of the church has been supplanted by perceived threats to secularism.

And democracy? Putin's critics argue he killed the seeds planted in the Gorbachev years and nurtured in the Yeltsin era—an argument that should not be trivialized. But it is also important to remember that the anti-communism of the late 1980s and the weakness of the state in the 1990s were insufficient for constructing a truly democratic polity. Even now, democracy remains an unpopular notion in Russia. Putin's claim to legitimacy is based on the phenomenal support he enjoys from the bulk of the Russian people. If this is authoritarianism (and it is), it thrives with the consent (or passivity) of the governed.

Ironically, Putin helped lay down the conditions under which democracy can flourish. He presided over eight years of steady economic growth and, while part of his success was due to the luck of high energy prices, his government's macroeconomic policies were prudent. Prosperity is slowly trickling down, helping to create a middle class. This group is not yet self-conscious as a political force, preferring moneymaking and merrymaking instead. But it is learning to understand where its interests lie. Over time it will demand better public services from those who are supposed to govern them. In this way, Russia is not so different from other countries in the former Soviet bloc, many of which are now full-fledged free-market democracies, such as Poland and the Baltic states.

Turning consumers into citizens will not happen overnight. The Soviet-bloc nations transitioned with help, including integrationist projects like the EU and NATO. Russia will need to find its own path. Further retarding the process are some of Putin's policies, which entrenched the bureaucracy and recentralized power in the Kremlin. Russia's history suggests its progress will be further punctured by sudden shake-ups at the top and periodic showdowns below.

Putin's major contribution to the development of democracy was his refusal to rewrite the Constitution to abolish a two-term limit on the head of state. By following Yeltsin's practice, and engaging in a risky and uncertain succession plan, he turned the abstraction of following constitutional norms into an observed tradition. His heir apparent, Dmitry Medvedev, will be judged by how he follows through on his pledge to build the rule of law in Russia. Gradually, a tsarist Russia is turning into a kaiser Russia—a subtle but crucial difference. Both were autocracies, but the tsars ruled arbitrarily. The kaiser had to rule in accordance with the law set forth by Parliament.

But even as Medvedev moves into the Kremlin, Putin's ideas linger. He has agreed to remain as prime minister, and he recently outlined plans for Russia's evolution for the next dozen years. If those plans go forward, it will amount to a total of two decades of Putinism. This brings to mind another controversial figure in Russian history: a turn-of-the-last-century prime minister by the name of Peter Stolypin. He demanded 20 years to transform Russia, and he is remembered as a ruthless and visionary reformer. Then, as now, a capitalist society was struggling to emerge. But in Stolypin's day, Russia got caught in the storm of World War I, and was sunk by the Bolshevik revolution. This time it has a better chance of finishing the business.