The Myth of a Russian Dictatorship

Thursday, April 30, 1998

In both Russia and the West, most analysts portray Russia's political system as an authoritarian regime. According to this view, the executive branch of government dictates state policy. Other institutions of the state do not matter since they are too weak either to make policy or to constrain the all-powerful presidency. The traditional components of a liberal democracy--the separation of powers between the president and the parliament, a party system, federalism, rule of law, independent media, and civil society--are all missing in Russia. Unconstrained by the rules and ways of democracy, Russia's president and his government are free to do whatever they want.

Somebody should tell Anatolii Chubais. As the "privatization tsar," the "architect of market reform," and the "mastermind of Yeltsin's reelection campaign," First Deputy Prime Minister Chubais should have been in a position to manipulate this superpresidential system to serve his policy agenda. Yet Chubais's series of political setbacks in 1997 demonstrate that the Russian regime is hardly a dictatorship. On the contrary, power within the Russian state is diffuse, informal checks and balances do indeed exist, and the central government has little capacity to execute anything at all. The irony is that Chubais himself may have believed in the myth of Russian authoritarianism. If so, he was grossly mistaken.


One of Chubais's first big setbacks in 1997 was his failure to remove Primorskii Krai governor Evegenii Nazdratenko. Few doubt that Nazdratenko is one of the most corrupt and authoritarian regional bosses in Russia. So when Chubais relaunched his campaign to oust Nazdratenko after the 1996 presidential elections, the governor looked like an easy target.

But Chubais failed for one simple reason--Nazdratenko was an elected official. Russia's heads of administration stood unanimously in defense of their elected peer. In rallying to Nazdratenko's cause, elected regional leaders demonstrated for the first time in Russia's volatile postcommunist history that they were prepared to enforce the principle of federalism and limited central authority. They won. Chubais lost.

Relations between the Executive and the Legislative

Chubais and the Russian government also proved unable to enact critical economic reform policies. Although de jure endowed with tremendous executive decree power, the Russian government opted to implement new measures through the legislative process. Yet the Duma responded with inaction, delaying key initiatives--including a new tax code, amendments to the Production Sharing Agreement, a law on land privatization, pension reform, and a new program regarding housing subsidies. If the executive branch is so powerful and the Duma does not matter, then why have Chubais and the Russian government proven so slow in pursuing these vitally needed reforms?

Independent Press

Chubais's third and greatest setback of the year took place in the realm of personnel policy within the executive. After a well-respected investigative journalist, Aleksandr Minkin, reported that Chubais and several of his close associates received $90,000 "advances" for writing chapters of a book on privatization, three of those associates lost their senior government jobs at once. Other senior officials, including Chubais himself, found their influence undermined as a result of this scandal. Chubais's nemesis in this instance? A free and independent press.

The constraints that held Chubais back last year are not entirely the result of democratic institutions. In part, Chubais failed because the government in which he serves is divided between reformers and conservatives. In part, he failed because he challenged powerful economic interest groups close to the Kremlin.

But Kremlin court politics is only part of the story. Constraints on political authority of the kind that Chubais encountered only occur in democracies, not dictatorships. Stalin could remove any regional head he wanted. Pinochet did not have his pension reform plan blocked by parliament. No muckraking journalist ever toppled senior officials in Saddam Hussein's government. Although by no means a consolidated, liberal democracy, Russia's political system is also not an authoritarian regime. Just ask Anatolii Chubais.