Russian History


The Political Outlook

Russia's political culture made long strides toward democracy in the first five years of the post-Soviet era. By mid-1996 numerous political parties with widely varying agendas and viewpoints had participated in three free national elections--two legislative, one presidential. Although the sitting president enjoyed a distinct advantage in media coverage, all sides agreed after the 1996 election that the people had spoken. Observers noted the similarity of the 1996 campaign to those in the West, including barnstorming speeches, generous promises to special interests, and ample use of "photo opportunities." Never in the history of Russia had a head of state been subjected to open public evaluation and then been peacefully assured of a new term in power. Certainly this was a complete reversal of the Soviet Union's programmed, one-party political rituals.

Although the process of choosing a leader has been democratized, the process of governance remains a hybrid of Soviet and Western practices. The first administration of Boris Yeltsin was a combination of bold democratic initiatives and secretive decision making by committees and individuals beyond public view and responsibility. As criticism of Yeltsin grew in 1993 and 1994, his hold on power depended increasingly on presidential decrees rather than on open consultation with other branches of government or with the Russian people. Yeltsin's relatively easy reelection in mid-1996 fueled hopes that a second administration would revive some of the democratic processes that had enthused Russians as Yeltsin struggled with Gorbachev for Russia's sovereignty before the demise of the Soviet Union. As a leader, however, Yeltsin showed little interest in the routine of day-to-day governance, and he often exercised poor judgment in delegating authority. Meanwhile, a formidable array of antireform factions retained their power base in the State Duma, and Yeltsin's precarious health further endangered the continuation of his reform program.

According to many analysts, the long-term well-being of Russia's political system will be determined by the next generation of political figures, who will not have been schooled in Soviet-style power politics. The question is how well democratic institutions will fare in the meantime.

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Richard Sakwa covers Russian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in his textbook Russian Politics and Society . Boris Yeltsin offers an account of his forcible dissolution of the legislature in October 1993 and other Russian political events in The Struggle for Russia . Among books with useful sections on Russian politics are After the Soviet Union: From Empire to Nation , edited by Timothy J. Colton and Robert Legvold, and Russia and the New States of Eurasia by Karen Dawisha and Bruce Parrott. Prognoses of the future of reform in Russia are given in Anders Aslund's "Russia's Success Story," the "Russia Symposium" in the Journal of Democracy on the theme "Is Russian Democracy Doomed?," and Russia 2010 by Daniel Yergin and Thane Gustafson. Informative articles on federalism and local politics include Susan L. Clark and David R. Graham's "The Russian Federation's Fight for Survival," Paul B. Henze's "Ethnic Dynamics and Dilemmas of the Russian Republic," and Robert Sharlet's "The Prospects for Federalism in Russian Constitutional Politics." In her article "Wrestling Political and Financial Repression," Laura Belin describes the situation of Russia's print and broadcast media in the mid-1990s. Information on current events in government and politics is provided by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service's Daily Report: Central Eurasia , the Open Media Research Institute's journal Transition , and the Jamestown Foundation's Prism , a monthly bulletin on Russia and the CIS. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)