The fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 ushered in a period in which hopes were high for the emergence of a new Russia distinctly different from its predecessor.
Both in Russia and especially in the West, many people looked forward to a future Russia in which a democratic political system, resting on a vibrant market economy, produced a society in which material plenty and political freedom abounded. Many saw this in terms of the creation of a “normal” society, or one like those in the West. However these exaggerated hopes have been disappointed.
Politically, post-Soviet Russia falls well short of being a stable democracy. Especially over the last six years, the weak democratic elements that existed in the system have come under pressure.
Although elections have been held regularly for parliament and president, the dominance of Putin personally and of the party created to support him, United Russia, allied to the weakness of the opposition, has drained these of meaningful competition. At the regional level, governors are no longer elected but appointed.
A leading businessman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has been jailed, officially on tax issues but it is popularly believed that this has been because he opposed the president.
Increasing concentration of ownership by the state of national media outlets has meant that, although many niche publications enjoy substantial freedom of discussion and comment, press freedom has been reduced. Even the editors of still independent publications have widely been suspected of exercising a kind of self-censorship over what they publish.
Many have argued that these sorts of measures constitute an attack on democracy by Putin and his colleagues and that this is a new development. They argue that the Yeltsin years in the 1990s were democratic. But this is a misreading of the situation.
The trends under Yeltsin were in the same anti-democratic direction as under Putin. During Yeltsin’s presidency, the parliament was illegally closed by force by the president, elections were manipulated, and undue influence was exercised at the top of the political system by unelected, shady figures whose only qualifications for power were their close personal associations with Yeltsin.
Rather than building the institutions of a strong democracy, Yeltsin left a legacy of weak institutions and a strong and expansive conception of the presidency as able to ride over the other institutions in the system.
In the economy too, achievements did not match expectations. Immediately after the end of the Soviet Union, the new Russian government introduced some elements of economic shock therapy. The result was the effective collapse of much of the economy and a depression which was deeper and more long-lasting than that of the 1920s in the West.
The majority of the population was catapulted into poverty as people’s savings were eaten up by the inflation that wracked the country. There was unemployment and, more importantly, significant underemployment as the process of de-industrialisation gathered pace. Begging became more prominent on the streets as wide sections of the population experienced economic hardship.
In 1998, the Russian economic system experienced a form of melt down as the government was forced to default and devalue the currency. Paradoxically, this had one positive impact internally in that it increased the price of foreign goods and made Russian-manufactured goods competitive. The surge in purchase of Russian-made goods fed into Russian industry and helped to revive it. On the back of this, and especially of rising oil prices for its exports, the Russian economy has boomed in the new millennium.
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