Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment and an assistant professor of political science at Stanford University and a Hoover Institution Fellow. McFaul is widely regarded as a leading authority on domestic political developments inside Russia. His new book, Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin, was released in October 2001 by Cornell University Press. McFaul just returned from a trip to Russia and shared his views on the current domestic political climate and the positive and negative changes that have occurred in the country during the Putin presidency.

McFaul began his remarks commenting on the weakening of the party system in Russia. According to McFaul, this began with the 1999 Duma elections. The passage of the Law on Political Parties and the creation of the new Unity party - a large political party that supports Putin - has further weakened the party system. At present, the party system is far less representative of the multitude of societal interests than it was even two years ago. The process of political consolidation continued with the recent enfeeblement of the upper house of the Russia's parliament - the Federation Council. By the estimates of the Carnegie Moscow Center, almost half of the members of the Federation Council are appointed directly by Putin himself or by his administration, although they formally represent Russia's regions.

In McFaul's opinion, the government's conduct of the Chechen war shows its wanton disrespect for human rights. In regard to the Russian media and freedom of the press, there can be disagreement about the legitimacy and the ambiguity over the government take-over of the Media-Most group and its NTV station. However, in McFaul's words, the fate of TV6 was "a slam-dunk case of the roll back of independent media" and was "a real tell-tell sign" of the direction and the intentions of those against free speech. The tender that is going to take place in March 2002 will show whether the consortium of investors and the team of journalists led by Yevgeny Kiselyov will be able to get a license to broadcast. Although there's some reason to be optimistic about their chances, the journalists are so backed up into a corner, that even if a new TV6 were to come into being it would not resemble its predecessor or the old NTV. As far as the freedom of speech is concerned, the harassment of the critics of the state has continued. The FSB's most recent harassment of outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya for her investigation of abuses in Chechnya is another demonstration of an anti-democratic use of state power.

Returning to the role of politics, McFaul noted that the balance of power between the central government and regional governors had shifted towards the center. This may be good for democratic consolidation and state coherency, but is a negative tendency for those who support the principle of federalism and multiple centers of power. The state has become much more interested in civil society primarily because it wants to replace the slow drip of foreign assistance with even more limited state assistance and thereby control what kind of civil groups are being financed. Although the creation of state-sponsored Civic Forum means that certain civil society activists will receive attention from the Kremlin, McFaul expects to see a negative trajectory in the development of state-civil society relations.

McFaul pointed out the unprecedented rise of the FSB's role in governing the country. The FSB is now changing the balance of power and becoming a decision making body in Russia. Numbers of the FSB are growing throughout the ministries and within the presidential administration. All this is causing a growing crescendo of worry among some of Putin's formerly very close advisors, who now find themselves edged out of power by members of the FSB. Moreover, the recent arrest of the managers of Sibur (a large petrochemical and gas company) sent tremendous shock waves through the oligarch community. In the past it was assumed that businesses were safe as long as they remained loyal to Putin, but the arrests proved that it is not only political, but also economic rules that are up for re-negotiation.

Speaking on positive developments in Russia, McFaul mentioned recent changes in economic reform and foreign policy. Focusing on the political regime in Russia, the speaker noted some important improvements. Putin, unlike Yeltsin, does go to work everyday and seems to care what the people of his country think as he reads the polling data everyday. Putin has ended the ineffective leadership and quasi-anarchy that characterized Yeltsin's second presidential term. Indeed, there had to be some strengthening of the state after a period of a very weak state, and one cannot assume that this is synonymous with a dictatorship.

The president is popular, which shows that the people respect their government and like their leader. However, Putin has not done much in terms of what the society really cares about, and it will be interesting to look at the polling data, when the real structural reforms that are going to take place begin to affect people's lives. A promising legal reform is underway in Russia, but courts are still being manipulated. And by all accounts, corruption is still rampant.

Analyzing why Russia has not succeeded in transition to liberal democracy, McFaul cited two of the most common explanations. The first explanation is cultural; it underlines the lack of democratic experience in the history and culture of Russia and the Russian people. The second argument is more actor-centric and its thrust is that the chance for democracy in Russia was destroyed by anti-democratic forces that came to power. While recognizing that both explanations are partially correct, McFaul believes that the answer lies somewhere between these two explanations.

The Russian case is particularly unique because of an extremely large agenda of change that was not present in other transitions to democracy. In the Soviet Union and Russia this agenda included contestation over where the borders of the state should be, contestation over the nature of property rights, economic institutions and the political regime. Not only was this agenda broad but the things that were being contested were not easily divisible, thus making it difficult to make a bargain. At the same time, distribution of powers between political actors was relatively equal and both sides, democrats and communists, were tempted to fight because they thought that they had a reasonable chance to win.

Democrats barely won victories in 1991 and 1993, and they had to cut deals with the army, the KGB and the Ministry of Interior. The limited attempts to change the law-enforcement agencies from the top have failed and as a result of this kind of transition, the unreformed, Soviet-style institution lingered for a very long time and came back to fill the institutional vacuum in 1999 - 2000. As the individual power of Boris Yeltsin weakened towards 1998 - 1999, the formal institutional power of the presidency established in 1993 did not. The same institutional rules allowed President Putin to exercise a great deal of personal control over developments in the country. However, a possible future political weakening of the presidency may facilitate democratization in Russia.

McFaul concluded that there is hope for democracy in the country, largely because no one yet has articulated an alternative way for governing Russia. The issues dividing the society became much smaller, and so did the risk of overthrowing the system. According to the polling data, the majority of the Russian population believes that democracy has its problems but it is better than any other form of government.

Summary by Marat Umerov, Junior Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Program.