Not since the August 1991 coup attempt has the future of Russian democracy been more uncertain than it is today. Ironically, at a time when Russian society has embraced individual liberties, a free press, and competitive elections, the new leader of the Russian state, President Vladimir Putin, has demonstrated real ambivalence toward democracy.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.  

American inattention to the cause of Russian democracy also has never been greater. Focused on short-term "deliverables" such as ratifying the Start II treaty or amending the ABM Treaty, the Clinton administration has praised Putin as a man "we can do business with" and at the same time cut U.S. democratic assistance programs to Russia. This trade-off—cooperation on arms control in return for allowing Russia a free hand to pursue antidemocratic policies at home—is a bad one for both the Russian and the American people.

For years we assumed that the real threats to Russian democracy would come from outside the state. In 1993, it looked to be neonationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; in 1996 it seemed to be communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. Now the real threat comes from within the state. It is fashionable in the West to cite Russia’s weak state as the source of the country’s ills. In the political realm, however, the Russian state is still too strong, able to dominate and manipulate a beleaguered and weak Russian society.

In the last years of Boris Yeltsin, we did not witness the state’s awesome power because the man at the controls was often absent or incapacitated. Since Putin’s rise to power, however, we have seen what this state can do when a leader with ambition and a pulse is at the helm.

The atrocious violations of human rights in Chechnya reveal the low priority Putin assigns to democratic principles.

In the realm of electoral politics, the Russian state looked more robust than ever during the December 1999 parliamentary campaign, wielding its power in ways that exacted considerable damage to democratic institutions. Putin and his allies created a party, Unity, out of thin air in October, which then won nearly a quarter of the vote in December. State television incessantly promoted the new party and destroyed its opponents with a barrage of negative advertising never before seen in Russian politics.

More gruesome has been Putin’s deployment of state resources in Chechnya. Russia has a right to defend its borders. Yet the atrocious violations of human rights in the cause of defending Russia’s borders reveal the low priority Putin assigns to democratic principles.

Independent journalists, human rights activists, environmentalists, and academics also have felt the power of the Russian state under Putin. Reporters such as Andrei Babitsky from Radio Free Europe have suffered the consequences of reporting news from Chechnya that inconveniences the Kremlin. Equally disturbing is the case of Igor Sutyagin, a researcher on security issues who sits in jail because he allegedly shared open source documents with Western colleagues. Leaders of nongovernmental organizations have warned that their operations have become much more difficult since Putin came to power.

And more antidemocratic measures may be in the works. Putin advisers speak openly about eliminating proportional representation from the Duma electoral law, a revision that would practically eliminate all prodemocratic political parties in Russia. Putin and his aides also have expressed support for the highly antidemocratic idea of appointing rather than electing governors. Putin has even hinted that he would like to extend the term of the Russian president to seven years, instead of four.

Putin seems to believe that Russia might have to sacrifice democracy in the short run to achieve "more important" economic and state-building goals in the long run.

Individually, none of these innovations would spell the end of democracy. In combination, however, they could re-create a system dominated by a single "party of power" (i.e., the Kremlin).

Despite all of these ominous signs, it would be wrong to conclude that Putin is an "antidemocrat." The Russian president is simply too modern and too Western oriented to believe in dictatorship. Rather, Putin is indifferent to democratic principles and practices, believing perhaps that Russia might have to sacrifice democracy in the short run to achieve "more important" economic and state building goals.

Because Putin wants cooperation with the West, the Clinton administration now has an opportunity to help the cause of Russian democracy. Rather than shower Putin with faint praise about his businesslike demeanor as a way to secure the Russian president’s support for arms control treaties, Clinton and his foreign policy team need to stress that the preservation of democracy in Russia is a precondition for cooperation. In tandem with a more constructive engagement of Putin regarding issues of human rights, the United States also needs to give greater support to Russian societal forces still fighting to preserve Russian democracy.

This means empowering human rights activists through high-level meetings with U.S. officials. Ronald Reagan never went to Moscow without meeting with societal leaders even when it inconvienced his Kremlin hosts. A similar tradition needs to be reinstated today. It also means increasing, not decreasing as currently planned, assistance programs designed to strengthen the independent media, trade unions, political parties, civil society, and the rule of law.

Arms control did not end the Cold War. Rather, it was the collapse of communism and the emergence of democracy within the Soviet Union and then Russia that suspended the international rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. If a new nationalist dictatorship eventually consolidates in Russia, we will go back to spending trillions on defense to deter a rogue state with thousands of nuclear weapons.

In Russia, democracy is not yet lost. Clinton still has the opportunity to help promote its consolidation. If, however, Russian democracy fails, no one will remember who secured the ratification of the Start II treaty.

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