Russian Elections- Authoritarianism or a Limited Democracy? 

Kathleen McKinnon

In light of the recent Russian elections, the democratic nature of this country comes to mind. Russia has been long criticized 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 here the answer will simply be 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 and stunt its growth. Russia displays elements of authoritarianism and 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 (see here a New York Times article on the recent elections and some democratic deficits https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/16/world/europe/russia-election-vote-putin.html ). Anti-democratic elements can exist strongly in a country such as Russia, but they do in every country even if in small amounts considering there are many flaws to most electoral systems including voter turnout and the popular vote vs. who gets voted in which means that democratic deficits do not make or break which countries become a fully-fledged democracy (see here a 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 https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-votes-2021-election-night-highlights-1.6177106). 

In Russia, there is such a vast territory and identities that uniting the people creates a very difficult task and it is this nation-building and state-building that brings out the authoritarian aspect in 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. With such a vast region and diverse identities in Russia, the name of Vladimir V. Putin’s party being “United Russia” should say it all (see here for an interactive map of Russian regions https://usrbc.org/site/resources/russianmap).

For Russia to stay a world power it needs to stay united and if regionalism and politics get too far then the country could face more turmoil than it is already in (for example economic issues see chart here for an example of Russia’s economic “highs and lows” https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/11/russias-economy-under-president-putin-in-charts.html). Creating a shared history, memory, identity and goals are all important factors used in authoritarian regimes to keep salience 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 https://www.theguardian.com/world/datablog/2015/jul/23/vladimir-putins-approval-rating-at-record-levels. This shows that the identity and nation-building attempts are working and that there is indeed on some level a “United Russia” with very clear boundaries of who should be “in” whether they are already or not. 

The regional political interests in Russia, and the fight to keep a unified identity, especially after the Soviet Union with the past unified Soviet identity/legacy despite the extensive territory it had, Russia will never get there unless there is some “top-down” approach in keeping things together. 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, things are working out for President Putin, it has evolved this way and Russia will continue to evolve even after Putin is gone because there will come a day where this will happen and Russia will face what it has and where it can go with where it is.

So in the end, Russia is a “managed democracy,” democratic in that it does have features that can grow into a fully established democracy but “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 the country can be one strong force in the world instead of being divided and fragmented, losing its voice and image of the Soviet power it once was. 

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