In light of President Vladimir Putin recently calling on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to have dialogue with his opponents, saying “…and of course we appeal for dialogue between the authorities and the opposition”, and the recent 2021 Russian elections, the democratic nature of Russia comes to mind. Russia has been long criticized in the West for the democracy it says it has but lacks. It has been called a “guided” or “managed” democracy by many in academic and political circles. The question is whether a “managed” democracy is democracy at all or authoritarianism by another name. The answer that will be explored by this article is that in the case of Russia it is both.
In Russia, which is one of the most obvious cases of this “managed” democracy. There are many elements at play that make it an excellent example of where strong nation and state-building collide with democracy, stunting its growth. Russia displays elements of authoritarianism and uses questionable tactics to quell party opposition but that does not make it far removed from the beginnings of democracy that can grow in the future. Anti-democratic elements can exist strongly in a country such as Russia, but they do in every country even if in small amounts. This is taking into account there are many flaws to most electoral systems including voter turnout and the popular vote vs. who gets voted in. In short, democratic deficits do not make or break which countries become fully-fledged democracies; see for example this CBC article on how the winning party in the Canadian Federal 2021 election did not win the popular vote, which means more Canadians did not vote for who formed government than those who did. So, it is interesting that Russia would call on an ally like Belarus and suggest that it should negotiate more with its opposition. This, however, is a tactic of bringing the Belarusian autocracy closer to the managed democracy that exists in Russian, rather than Russia advocating for democracy in Belarus.
In Russia, there is such a vast territory and range of identities that uniting the people creates a very difficult task. It is because of these challenges that nation-building and state-building are needed and, this in turn brings out the authoritarian aspect of this country. In building a national identity the goal is to have a stronger state that is not under threat of fragmentation through bids for succession or feelings of marginalization and vocalized dissent.
For Russia to stay a world power it needs to stay united and if regionalism and politics get too divisive then the country could face more turmoil than it is already in (for example economic issues: see here a chart for an example of Russia’s economic highs and lows). Creating a shared history, memory, identity and goals are all important factors used in authoritarian regimes to maintain cohesion and are used in Russia for the same reason, to build a national myth of unity and to keep the country together. In fact, Putin’s approval rate went up in Russia when his government annexed Crimea . This shows that the identity and nation-building attempts are working since the Crimean populace had a Russian identity and were brought back into Russia. That means there is indeed on some level a “United Russia” with very clear boundaries of who should be “in” whether they are already or not. This also is related to why President Putin would have a say in Belarusian politics, as he puts it “but for its part Russia will definitely continue its approach of strengthening ties and deepening the process of integration with Belarus.” Clearly Putin is defining Belarus as one country Russia has an interest in being united with.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and Russia’s loss of a unified Soviet identity, the regional political interests in Russia today and the fight to keep a unified identity is also a fight to keep this legacy, despite losing the extensive territory it had in its Soviet past. Russia will never get there and regain this lost ideological ground unless there is some “top-down” approach in keeping unity over its smaller but still extensive territory. There are elections, there are opposition parties, and these are the seeds that democracies need to develop even if now there are suspicious circumstances surrounding how the opposition leaders leave the race for presidency and possible ballot stuffing.
For now, the nation-building and unifying efforts of President Putin are working, they have evolved under his leadership and Russia will continue to evolve even after Putin is gone. Russia will face a day where President Putin will no longer lead Russia, and what efforts of unity he has been successful with will lay the groundwork for where the country will go next with its leadership and with the growth of its democracy. So, in the end, Russia is a “managed democracy,” democratic in that it does have features that are democratic such as elections and party opposition. The major democratic deficits within Russia may one day lessen as identity, and the unity of the Russian nation is solidified.
Meanwhile, Russia’s democracy remains “managed” in that the leader, Vladimir Putin, is trying to keep the country united despite its intricate regional differences. To have everyone be “Russian” means that Russia can be one strong force in the world instead of divided and fragmented, losing its voice and image of the Soviet power it once had.
Kathleen McKinnon is a second-year MA student in the Department of European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University. In 2020, Kathleen completed her BA in Political Science, minoring in History and German. Her current research focuses on the effects of Europeanization on the Russian linguistic minorities living in the former Soviet Republics of Estonia and Latvia.