How a democracy can self

When the USSR fell in 1991, Russia achieved, thanks to the reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev, who had come to power six years earlier, a level of democracy that it had never known in its history. The Russian population then has only one wish: to see the country become a prosperous western democracy.

It is paradoxically by seeking to establish this Western democracy that the liberal Russian elites will set in motion a process which will lead to the transformation of the country into a nationalist autocracy. Like others, a KGB officer named Vladimir Putin will be able to join this movement in order to make the most of it.

The evolution of Russia in the 1990s shows us the essence of the process of ideological dissolution which sees a society convert to ultranationalism as the last benchmark following the collapse, first of communism, then of liberalism.

A promising future

If the situation in Russia following the fall of the USSR was very delicate with major shortages linked to an explosion in prices, it was no less promising. Gorbachev had succeeded in establishing a real separation of powers, the foundation of all democracy.

The Russian population was then full of optimism. Its ability to break the August 1991 coup invigorated her and convinced her that democracy was inevitable.

30 years ago, the failed coup in Moscow precipitated the fall of the USSR, Euronews, August 19, 2021.

The link between the establishment of democratic institutions and the imminence of “Western-style” prosperity was clear to Russians. The only political shadow on the board: the strong development of a radical nationalism, which was nevertheless counterbalanced by a strong liberal movement. Thus, at the end of 1991, a survey showed that 85% of Russians said they were in favor to a transition to a market economy.

An economic and political collapse

Russia’s Economic Collapse which took place between 1992 and 1995 resulted in profound deindustrialization, a fall in the standard of living and the loss of its intelligentsia. The latter emigrated or converted to subsistence jobs. In the endthe country has been reduced to the rank of a simple producer of raw materials and semi-finished products.

The political collapse will occur over a shorter period, during the first two post-Soviet years, then be confirmed during the presidential election of 1996.

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As a result of this process, Russia will have become, paradoxically, a more authoritarian country than the USSR at the end of the 1980s, a state where the autonomy of individuals will have considerably regressed, whether in their relationship to their employers or to public institutions. The opportunism of Vladimir Poutine, who will adopt a nationalist posture at the end of the 1990s, will only confirm the current evolutions.

The beginning of a worrying transition

The first months of post-Soviet Russia were a period of liberal consensus, even if the beginning of a high inflation caused considerable damage.

Assessing the situation of Russian society and economy, the Parliament – ​​where the former communists, although strongly divided, were in the majority – quickly opposed to the economic policy of President Boris Yeltsin. This policy, known as the ” shock therapy “consisted of establishing a market economy at high speed inspired by the liberal recipes advocated by the IMF, without taking into account the complexity of socio-economic realities of Russia. It had serious social consequences since it destroyed almost all of the population’s savings.

Flea market in Rostov-on-Don, 1992. Many Russians had to resort to selling clothes and other everyday objects in order to feed themselves.
Brian Kelley/Wikipedia, CC BY-NC

Similarly, the establishment of a free trade system could only have a devastating effect on Russian industry, which was lagging far behind its new Western competitors. Paradoxically, the great organizer of these new liberal policies, Egor Gaidarseemed to lack a minimum of pragmatism, imposing its reforms with a dogmatism worthy of the old Soviet elites.

The establishment of an authoritarian state…

In September 1993, after a year and a half of persistent conflict with Parliament, Boris Yeltsin decreed its dissolution. This decree was illegal since the Constitution did not allow it. The Constitutional Court issued a judgment annulling this decree, then the Parliament voted for the dismissal of the President of Russia.

Citing a coup attempt linked to violent demonstrations by supporters of parliament, Boris Yeltsin set up the founding act of the Russian autocracy : he ordered the storming of the parliament building by the Russian armed forces.

This act of unprecedented violence, which probably caused several hundred deaths, was approved by the United States, which was too preoccupied with eliminating what it considered to be the resistance of the former Soviet elites.

At the time, the President of the Constitutional Court had proposed a solution: the dissolution of Parliament and at the same time the resignation of President Yeltsin, which would have made it possible to resolve this crisis while preserving the democratic framework of Russia. This option was unfortunately rejected by both parties.

Paradoxically, and due to its lack of homogeneity, the victory of the rather conservative Parliament would possibly have had less of an impact on Russian democracy. Subsequently, Boris Yeltsin was able, thanks to a new Constitution, to put in place the instruments of an authoritarian state by effectively reducing the separation of powers.

Parliament thus became an organ with reduced attributes, a simple chamber of consultation and recording, incapable of influencing the decisions of the executive. As for the judicial power, it lost its autonomy and its ability to counter presidential decisions was in fact greatly reduced.

This is how Boris Yeltsin, re-elected in 1996 at the end of a presidential campaign far removed from democratic standards, made Russia an authoritarian state; Vladimir Putin, who will succeed him on December 31, 1999, will be the heir. The lack of awareness of the West and, mainly, of the United States with regard to this enormous democratic backsliding, the consequences of which we are suffering today, can only be surprising, but at the time the idea reigned that the advent of the market economy would make it possible to ensure the establishment of a fully democratic logic.

… and an authoritarian society

In fact, the opposite happened. Privatizations allowed the old Russian technical and administrative elite to acquire a legal right of ownership over what it de facto owned beforeand that contrary to the belief of some international organizations who saw in this process a means of getting rid of the managers inherited from the old system.

To state authoritarianism was added more brutally a social authoritarianism. The autonomy of workers has considerably reducedbusiness leaders now have much greater room for maneuver in the management of their employees.

Russia became at the end of the 1990s a country of oligarchsa social class with exorbitant power compared to ordinary citizens. Rising inequality has also seen the collapse of the middle class and the intelligentsia. The latter had been very present in the last years of the USSR to support the democratic transition.

A West deceived by the fear of a possible return of the Soviet system?

Boris Yeltsin’s authoritarianism showed itself during the First Chechen Wara very violent war which notably saw the almost total destruction of Grozny.

The many abuses committed at the time by the Russian army provoked little reaction from the European authorities; the latter, in any case, did not recognize the independence of Chechnya. With hindsight, it appears that Boris Yeltsin benefited from unjustified Western support, while he distanced Russia from any democratic logic.

Retrospective of the war in Chechnya, since 1994, INA Histoire, October 24, 2022.

This was confirmed when the 1996 presidential election, where he benefited from the explicit support of the United States, which, among other things, greatly helped him to win this election, while the Communist candidate appeared to be the big favourite. However, the latter’s victory, far from seeing the return of the USSR, would probably have tempered a resolutely anti-democratic development. Faced with strong opposition from the Russian elites, he would have been forced into numerous compromises on his program.

After all, other leaders claiming communism won elections in former Eastern bloc countrieswithout going back to the old regime.

Nationalism as a substitute for a failing liberalism?

It was also Boris Yeltsin’s liberal team that significantly contributed to the last ingredient of today’s Russia: the advent of a strong nationalism.

If, at the beginning, this liberal team considered the nationalists and the communists as its worst enemies, it understood from the year 1994 that it could have points of convergence with the far-right party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. All the more so since, as a minority following the elections of the new Parliament in December 1993liberals found that nationalists were more likely to vote for their legislative proposals than communists and centrists.

By the end of the 1990s, there was no longer any doubt that in the face of the discredit of liberal ideas, nationalism was the last resort of the Russian elites. Vladimir Putin understood this very quickly and made himself its apostle.

This article is the third in a series of three articles devoted to the concept of collapse as a transition through the analysis of the fall of the Soviet Union and its transformation in Russia. In order to reflect on the future, a forthcoming article will ask the question, as for the Roman Empire after its fall, of the future of the ideal of the USSR in contemporary Russia.

How a democracy can self-dissolve: the example of Russia in the 1990s