Testimony before the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C., April 12, 2000
In all democracies around the world, national elections generate important data about the condition of the political system and the concerns, hopes, and beliefs of society. In new democracies such as Russia, national elections are even more important as they provide crucial measures of democratic consolidation or the lack thereof.
Russia's latest presidential election, completed on March 26, 2000, represented one step forward and two steps backward for Russian democracy. For the first time in Russia's history, power within the Kremlin changed hands through an electoral process. The election did occur and was conducted as prescribed by the constitution, no small achievements for a country with Russia's authoritarian history. More than two-thirds of the eligible voters participated, and they appeared to make informed choices between a range of candidates who offered alternative platforms, policies, and leadership styles. At the same time, this election did not occur on a level playing field. Vladimir Putin enjoyed tremendous resource advantages that tainted the process. Although weak in some arenas, the Russian state still enjoys too much power regarding the electoral process, while societal organizations -- political parties, civic organizations, trade unions, and independent business groups -- remain too weak to shape the outcomes of elections.
Does this latest election represent a fundamental turn away from democratic practices or a temporary setback for democratic consolidation in Russia? It is too early to tell. However, prematurely answering this question in either the affirmative or the negative will most certainly generate distortions of analysis. Putin may turn out to be Russia's Milosevic. He may develop into a weak leader presiding over a feudal order, dominated by oligarchs and regional barons, in which the people have little say. But he may also lead Russia out of its chaotic, revolutionary, and anarchic recent past and into a more stable decade of economic growth and political stability. And economic growth and political stability can help to consolidate democratic institutions. At the same time, Putin has provided mixed signals on which direction he wants to take Russia and demonstrated a real indifference to democracy. Consequently, the only honest assessment to be made at the early period of the Putin era is to assert that democracy in Russia is not lost, but its future is still uncertain.
To demonstrate why Russian democracy is alive but not well, this article proceeds in three parts. Section one explains why Putin won. Section two suggests what Putin's electoral victory might mean for policy generated out of the Kremlin. Section three discusses the implications of this recent electoral cycle for Russian democracy.
I. Why Putin Won.
The first step in coming to grips with a post-Yeltsin Russia is to understand why Putin won the March 2000 presidential election. The election reveals much about the evolution of Russia's political system and the mood of Russian society.
The simple story for why Putin won is the following. Putin was chosen by Yeltsin and his band of oligarchs as a loyal successor, who would (1) keep them out of jail, and (2) preserve the basic system of oligarchic capitalism, in which oligarchs make money not by producing goods and services sold for a profit in the market, but by stealing from the state. To get him elected, they had to provoke a war with Chechnya as a way to boost Putin's popularity. Some assert that this cabal even blew up apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere last fall, and murdered innocent Russian citizens as a way to bolster support for the war and Putin. The "popular" war, however, could only sustain Putin for so long. Therefore, Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999 to allow the presidential election to happen in March instead of June. As acting president, Putin had at his disposal all the resources of the Russian state, which he wielded convincingly to run away with election victory.
There is much truth to this simple account. Yet, to know the rest of the story, one has to question the genius of the Kremlin and the stupidity of the Chechens as well as bring others actors into the analysis, including first and foremost the voters and the other presidential candidates.
The Chechen War
Why do we always think that the people in the Kremlin are so smart and everyone else in Russia is so dumb? In the summer of 1999, no one believed that a quick little war with the Chechens would be the formula to deliver electoral success the following year. On the contrary, when Yeltsin ordered the Russian military to respond to the Chechen incursion into Dagestan in August 1999, most electoral analysts in Russia thought that the counter offensive would result in another unpopular military debacle. If the entire event was staged to assist Putin's electoral prospects, then Shamil Basaev -- the Chechen commander who lead the military intervention in Dagestan to free the people of Dagestan from Russian imperialism -- must either be a traitor or a fool. Basaev, it should be remembered, is the same Chechen commander who managed to seize a Russian hospital in southern Russia in the August 1995, killed hundreds of Russians citizens, and then escaped. His record in the field suggests that he is neither a traitor nor a fool. Basaev, it should be remembered, is the same Chechen commander who managed to seize a Russian hospital in southern Russia in the August 1995, killed hundreds of Russians citizens, and then escaped. His record in the field suggests that he is neither a traitor nor a fool.
However, he did overestimate the anti-imperial sentiment in Dagestan and underestimate the resolve of the Russian state to respond. As Prime Minister and with the blessing of Boris Yeltsin, Putin acted decisively. Everyone who has discussed the Chechen war with Putin personally will tell you that Russia's new president expresses real passion about his resolve "destroy the Chechen terrorists." For the first time since 1941, a military force invaded Russia last summer. To argue that the Russian military response to this incursion was motivated solely by electoral calculations, therefore, is inaccurate. Any responsible leader of any country would have responded, though not, of course, using the similar inhumane means that the Russian military deployed. Terrorist attacks on apartments buildings in Moscow and elsewhere shortly after the invasion heightened the feeling of a nation under siege within the Russian population. Society demanded a response from its leaders and Putin responded.
What was different about this particular response was its "success" or appearance of success. In the first Chechen war, Russian forces appeared to be losing the war right away, in part because they performed so miserably and in part because the rational for the war was not embraced by either the Russian army or the population as a whole. An independent media, lead by the national television network NTV, reported on military setbacks and continued to question the purposes of the war. After several months of fighting, a solid majority in Russia did not support the war. Compelled by electoral concerns, Yeltsin called for a cease-fire in April 1996 and then allowed his envoy, Aleksandr Lebed, to broker a temporary settlement with the Chechen government. The second war started under very different circumstances. First, the Russian military and the Russian people believed that the rationale for the war was self-defense. A majority of Russian citizens supported the counter offensive from the very beginning and have continued to support the invasion of Chechnya throughout the military campaign. Second, the Russian army used different tactics in this campaign relying on air power to a much greater extent than the first war. The complete demolition of Grozny is the gruesome result of this change in tactics. Third, the media coverage of the war within Russia has been much less critical of both the military tactics and the political rational. The Russian state has exercised a greater degree of control on the media's coverage of this war, while at the same time learned the value of conducting a propaganda war on the airwaves to help sustain a military offensive on the ground. Over time, NTV has become more critical of the war aims and the means deployed, but not nearly to the same degree as in the last war. All other major media outlets supported the Kremlin's position in the months before the presidential vote.
Consequently, this second Chechen war has been a popular war in Russia. During the 2000 presidential campaign, public support remained steady at roughly 60 percent and did not waver, as many predicted, when Russian casualties increased. This popular support for the war translated into positive ratings for Putin as a political leader. Opinion polls conducted in the fall of 1999 demonstrated that people were most obliged to Putin for accepting responsibility for the security of the Russian people. He looked like a leader at the top who was taking charge during an uncertain, insecure time and then delivered on his promise to provide stability and security. By the end of 1999, he enjoyed an astonishing 72 percent approval rating.
A Vote for the Future, not the Past
Putin's decisive response to the sense of insecurity that prevailed in Russia in the fall is the reason why he initially rose in the polls. However, Putin's policy in Chechnya is not the only reason why Putin maintained a positive approval rating throughout the spring of this year. In fact, our polls of Russian voters in December 1999-January 2000 showed that 28 percent of those planning to vote for Putin believed that Chechnya should be allowed to leave the Russian Federation, while roughly the same number of his supporters --35 percent --believed that Russia should keep Chechnya at all costs. This distribution of opinions roughly reflects the distribution of opinions on this question among all Russians. Therefore, Putin's execution of the Chechen war is not the only reason why Russian voters supported him. Other factors -- more psychological than material in nature -- also came into play.
First, Putin symbolized for voters the end of revolution. For the first several years of the last decade, Russian politics were polarized by the struggle between communists and anti-communists. Unlike the more successful transitions from communist rule in Poland or Hungary, the debate about communism as a political and economic system continued in Russia for many years after the Soviet collapse. A period of volatile and unpredictable politics resulted. In his last years of power, Yeltsin further fueled political instability by constantly changing prime ministers. Putin's coming to power signaled for many an end to this volatile period -- the Thermidor of Russia's current revolution. Coined during the French revolution, the Thermidor of any revolution marks the cooling off of the revolutionary fever and the beginning of a period when old institutions are revived and melded into the new practices of the post-revolutionary order. Thermidor is also the moment in a revolutionary transition when the state becomes stronger and nationalism replaces the more idealistic slogans of the earlier revolutionary period. The parallels between contemporary Russia and the periods of Thermidor in other great revolutions are striking.
His youth and energy also punctuated the end of an old and sick ruler at the top. The voters welcomed this generational change. In focus groups that I commissioned in December 1999 and March 2000, Russian voters uniformly stated that Putin's youth was a positive attribute. For many in Russia, Putin's rise to power ironically reminds them of Gorbachev rise to power.
Second, Putin's lack of a record as a public leader allowed voters to project onto Putin their wishes and desires for the future. With the exception of policy towards Chechnya, he was a tabula rasa onto which voters could write what they wanted. In focus groups that I commissioned on the eve of the March 2000, participants generated a long and diverse list of expectations they had about Russia's future under Putin's leadership. The list included everything from order in Chechnya, respect for Russia on the international stage, and a crackdown on crime to higher pensions, a better educational system, and more job opportunities for young people. In other words, supporters were casting their votes for Putin as a future leader, and were not supporting him for his past achievements, his ideological beliefs, or his policy positions. Putin and his campaign managers understood this mood in the Russian electorate and as an explicit campaign strategy deliberately refrained from articulating a program or set of policies before the election. To do so would have alienated a part of Putin's rather eclectic electoral base.
This electoral motivation is radically different than what we witnessed among supporters of Yeltsin in 1996. In that election, voters knew exactly what they were getting with Yeltsin and had no illusions about a more promising future. Yeltsin won 54 percent of the vote in the second round of the 1996 election even though his approval rating was 29 percent at the time. In 1996, people were voting against communism, supporting the lesser of two evils. In 2000, Putin supporters have a much more positive assessment of their leaders and are much more optimistic about the future. They were more motivated by this emotional feeling about the future and less motivated by individual material interests, ideological beliefs, or party identification. For instance, when asked in a January 2000 poll, about their attitudes about Russia's political future, 41 percent of respondents believed that the new year would be an improvement over the last year, while only 9 percent believed that the political situation would worsen. Likewise, regarding the economic situation in the country, 39 percent believed that the economy would improve in 2000 while only 12 percent believed that the economy would worsen. The last time that Russians were so optimistic about the future was the fall of 1991.
Strikingly, Putin's support was national in scope and not influenced by age or even income level. He did just as well in rural areas as urban areas and won as many votes from poor as he captured from the rich. Amazingly, he won the most votes in 84 out of 89 regions. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, his chief opponent, won in only 4 regions, while Aman Tuleev received the highest number of votes in the region where he is governor, Kemerovo Oblast. In contrast, Zyuganov placed first in 25 regions in the second round of the 1996 presidential vote.
The Absence of an Effective Opposition
In addition to Chechnya and this psychological yearning for a better future within the Russian electorate, a third important reason why Putin won was the weak competition he faced. Often forgotten in analyses of Russian politics, the real story of the 1990s is not how clever the Kremlin has been, but how ineffective the opponents of the Kremlin have performed. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has continued to dominate the space of opposition parties in Russian electoral politics and yet this party has not generated new leaders or a new image. To be sure, Zyuganov tried to look and sound more modern for several specific audiences, and even appeared on a campaign poster with young people. So far, however, the makeover has not succeeded. The contrast between the modern, Western-oriented, and young leader of the left in Poland, Mr. Kwasniewski, and the traditional, anti-Western, and old leader of the left in Russia, Mr. Zyuganov, could not be more striking.
Years ago, well before we had even heard of Vladimir Putin, all experts on Russian electoral dynamics knew that whoever emerged as the candidate of the "party of power" would win the 2000 election. The reasoning is simple when one remembers the solid and consistent electorate support for Zyuganov and Russia's two-ballot electoral system. Gennady Zyuganov, the head of the CPRF, was assured a second place showing and possibly a first place showing in the first round no matter who ran against him in this presidential election. His voters have consistently supported him and his party for the last decade. There was no reason to believe that they would not support him in this election. At the same time, polls also have showed for years that Zyuganov would lose to almost everyone in a run-off. The only presidential contender he could beat was Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Consequently, Putin and his associates were eager to see Zyuganov and the CPRF do well in the parliamentary vote to insure that he would participate in the presidential election.
We also knew that Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of the liberal opposition in Russia and the party head of Yabloko, would run for president in 2000. Yet, no serious analyst ever believed that Yavlinsky stood a chance of getting into a second round. Like Zyuganov, Yavlinsky also has his loyal electorate, but his core of supporters has never exceeded more than 5 percent of the voting electorate.
The only real question, then, was who would emerge from the so-called party of power. Two years ago, Moscow major Yurii Luzhkov looked poised to assume this mantle. Then last year, former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov emerged as a more likely candidate, especially after the extremely unpopular Boris Yeltsin fired him as prime minister. Primakov's popularity soared and many regional leaders and part of the Moscow elite rallied to his cause. As a symbol of stability in a time of uncertainty, Primakov skyrocketed in the polls. Having navigated Russia's out of a financial crisis that began in August 1998, Primakov earned a reputation as a pragmatist who would chart a slow, "centrist" reform course somewhere between radical reform and communist restoration. He originally joined the Fatherland-All Russia electoral bloc as a means to jump-start his presidential bid and as a strategy for building parliamentary support for his presidency.
These plans proved premature. In fact, Primakov's participation in the parliamentary election exacted real damage to his prospects as a presidential candidate. During the fall campaign, the Kremlin's media empire launched a full-scale negative campaign against Primakov and his bloc. With varying degrees of truth and evidence, the Kremlin's media accused the former prime minister of being a feeble invalid, a lackey of NATO, a Chechen sympathiser, a closet communist, and a destabilizing force in international affairs who had ordered the assassination attempt against Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. This smear campaign, in combination with Putin's spectacular rise in popularity, helped to undermine popular support for Fatherland-All Russia. They won only 12 percent of the popular vote, while the Putin-endorsed Unity bloc won 24 percent.
In effect, the parliamentary vote served as a presidential primary for the party of power. Primakov lost this primary and pulled out of the presidential race. With Primakov out of the race, there was never any question that Putin would win the presidential election. The only real question was whether Putin could win more than fifty percent the first round and avoid a run-off. He did, capturing 52.9 percent of the vote in the first round compared to Zyuganov's 29.2 percent.
The Early Election
The final critical factor to Putin's electoral success was the early date of the election. Be resigning on December 31, 1999 and thereby moving the electoral calendar forward three months, Yeltsin delivered to Putin the most important campaign present of all. According to Putin's own advisors, his popularity peaked in mid-January when 55 million eligible voters were prepared to vote for him. On election day on March 26, 2000, only forty million voters cast their ballot for the acting president. In other words, Putin lost the support of five million voters every month between January and March. Putin campaign strategy of no campaign was only viable in a short-campaign season. If the vote had occurred in June, Putin most certainly would have faced a run-off.
The Insignificance of the Campaign Itself
This rapid decline in support suggests that the tremendous television coverage that Putin received during this period as acting president did not bolster his electoral prospects. Nor, however, did Yavlinsky's massive media campaign increase his electoral support. At the same time, Zyuganov devoted very few resources to television and yet managed to capture thirty percent of the electorate. In other words, there appeared to be little correlation between money and television time on the one hand and electoral performance on the other.
Winners and Losers
Putin was the obvious winner of this election. As in all presidential systems, he will now serve for a fixed four-year term. The ebbs and flows of his popular approval rating will matter very little for the next three years. The fact that he won by only a few percentage points also will fade in importance over time.
Putin's small margin of victory, however, does have a few immediate implications as well as other more intangible psychological effects. Because Putin just squeaked by in the first round, he and his team are much less likely to dissolve the Duma and call for new parliamentary elections anytime soon. In the wake of the strong showing for the pro-Putin Unity bloc in the December 1999 vote and Putin's skyrocketing support earlier in the year, some of his allies, including the new leaders of the Unity bloc, had called for new elections for the Duma immediately after the presidential vote. They believed that Unity could win an even larger share of the parliamentary seats after Putin's election. Now, however, such a move is unlikely since most now believe that a new parliamentary vote would yield basically the same result as last December. This is a positive outcome, which will result in stable executive-legislative relations for the foreseeable future.
Putin small margin of victory is also likely to make him more cautious in taking steps against those who helped him win. Before the election, for instance, Putin's advisors spoke brashly about removing "difficult" governors from office. With this smaller mandate, Putin is now less likely to move aggressively against regional leaders. He must tread especially lightly in those places where regional leaders probably falsified the results to help push Putin over the 50 percent threshold. If Putin strikes out against these regional leaders, they might be tempted to expose their falsification efforts, which in turn could call into question the legitimacy of the election results more generally. For the same reasons, Putin might now be more cautious about taking actions against the oligarchs, especially those that helped him win. He is also less likely to pursue constitutional amendments such as extending the presidential term to seven years. More generally, Putin does not start his first elected term with the same momentum that he would have had with a more decisive victory.
Gennady Zyuganov and the CPRF must be satisfied with their performance in the first round, even if they were unable to force a second round. Citing the results of their own parallel vote count, CPRF officials claim that the result were falsified and that Putin did not win 50 percent in the first round. However, they have not pursued this issue vigorously. Many believe that they are not pursuing a court investigation of the election results because Zyuganov believes that the CPRF can cooperate with Putin in forming a coalition government. Communist leaders assert that Zyuganov's showing gives them a mandate to participate in the new government. On election night, Putin made very conciliatory comments about Zyuganov and the communists, reflecting that their strong showing demonstrates that many Russian citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo. Boris Yeltsin would have never made such a comment on election night.
Putin, however, is not likely to include communists in major positions in his new government. He understands the importance of creating an ideologically unified team. At the same time, he is likely to continue to consult and cooperate with the communists on a whole range of issues where they hold similar positions. And this list is long, and includes continuing the war in Chechnya, greater support for the military industrial complex and intelligence services, and the building of a stronger state. More generally, Putin is much more of a nationalist than Yeltsin and therefore shares the worldview of many prominent CPRF leaders.
For Zyuganov personally, his strong showing - five points above what the CPRF won just three months earlier in the parliamentary vote - insures that he will remain the leader of the CPRF for the foreseeable future. The Kremlin had backed Aman Tuleev, hoping that the popular Siberian governor might win a large portion of the communist and protest vote and therefore weaken the lock of the CPRF on this part of the electorate. Outside of Kemerovo, however, support for Tuleev was minimal.
Russia's liberals suffered a major setback in this presidential election. The Union of Right Forces (SPS) -- a coalition of liberals headed by former prime ministers Sergei Kiryenko and Yegor Gaidar, former deputy prime ministers Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov, and a handful of other prominent figures such as Samara governor Konstantin Titov and businesswomen Irina Kakamada - emerge from the December 1999 parliamentary vote with real momentum. To the surprise of everyone, they placed fourth in this election, winning 8.5 percent of the popular vote. Importantly, they surpassed the total of their rival, Yabloko, by new more than two percentage points. For many, their smashing electoral victory marked the rebirth of Russian liberalism. However, they then squandered this momentum by demonstrating indecision in the presidential election. SPS failed to endorse a presidential candidate, even though one of its founding members, Governor Titov, was on the ballot. Some, such as Kiryenko and Chubais, backed Putin while others wavered. In the end, SPS had no impact on the presidential vote.
Yavlinsky, however, fared no better. In this presidential vote, Yavlinsky was flush with money. Without question, he spent more on his campaign than any other candidate. He also enjoyed access to all major television networks. He did endure some slanderous attacks from ORT, the largest television network, only days before the vote. But, few experts believed that these attacks had any effect. By most expert accounts (including my own), Yavlinsky also ran a very professional campaign, his best performance to date. And yet, despite an excellent and well-funded campaign, marginal harassment form the state authorities, and no real competitors for the liberal vote, Yavlinsky won only 5.8 percent of the vote, well below his 7.4 percent showing in 1996 showing and only a fraction above what his party garnered in the December 1999 parliamentary vote. This result was a major defeat for Yavlinsky personally and for Russian liberals as a whole.
This election was also a setback for nationalist leaders and parties independent of the Kremlin. Zhirinovsky fared very poorly, winning a paltry 2.7 percent, and all the other nationalist hopefuls did not win more than one percent of the vote. This outcome is very different from 1996, when General Alexander Lebed won a strong double-digit third place showing, which then allowed him to play a critical endorsement role for Yeltsin in the second round.
In several respects, this first round of the 2000 vote resembled the second round of the 1996 vote. Third party candidates played a much smaller role in this last election. The biggest losers in this election were liberal and nationalist parties whose candidates performed so poorly that one has to wonder if they will be able survive as political movements in Russia in the future.
II. Implications for Russian Policy
Because Putin ran an issue-free presidential campaign, we know very little about what he intends to do as president. Putin himself probably is still forming views on the thousands of issues that he must now address. This is not a man who spent decades preparing to become president. The first time he ran for political office, after all, was last month! At the same time, we do have some clues regarding his priorities.
We know that Putin is committed to preserving Russia's territorial integrity. For years, many in the West have written about the fragmentation of power within the Russian Federation, the weakness of the center, and the possible disintegration of the Russian state altogether. These threats have been greatly exaggerated. Chechnya's desire for independence from Russia is the exception, not the rule, among Russia's other republics. No other republic or oblast has ever made a credible threat to leave the federation. Under Putin, we will witness attempts to strengthen the center's control over the regions.
Regarding economic reform, Putin's initial signals have been clear and positive. Putin has invited a young team of economists many of whom formerly worked for former prime minister Yegor Gaidar to draft a comprehensive reform program. The new program covers all the right subjects, including tax reform, deregulation, social policy restructuring, and new ban