The concept of democracy in Russia has evolved significantly since its use by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to describe its totalitarian system, which was underpinned by regular elections consisting of a single candidate from the only legal political party. The process of democratization (demokratizatsiia) pursued under Mikhail Gorbachev led to the introduction of multicandidate and eventually multiparty elections in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
   Under Boris Yeltsin, popular elections became a mainstay of the country’s system of governance, though Yeltsin’s increasing power vis-à-vis the legislative branch, evidenced most dramatically by the constitutional crisis of 1993, and the control of the media by allies of those in power weakened Russia’s claim as a genuine democracy. Free and fair elections in the country’s ethnic republics during the 1990s became rarer and rarer as the incumbents used their control of the local economy to ensure loyalty.
   Under Vladimir Putin, Russia began to develop its own form of “rule by the people,” which has been categorized as a “Potemkin” or “managed democracy,” though the Kremlin prefers the term “sovereign democracy.” Both reflecting and influencing the form of republicanism common in Central Asia, the Russian system came to exhibit strong signs of neo-authoritarianism combined with a panoply of democratic trappings, including regular presidential elections, a bicameral parliament, and opposition parties. In reality, the presidential elections of 2004 and 2008 were a foregone conclusion, as the legislature is dominated by a “party of power” that is doggedly loyal to the executive, and the opposition political parties are either for show or prevented from gaining parliamentary representation by electoral hurdles imposed from above.
   Putin has further undermined democracy by curtailing certain journalistic practices and closing critical media outlets, particularly after the Nord-Ost theater siege in 2002. Responding to international criticism, Putin steadfastly defended his country’s right to pursue a unique form of democracy based on its history, geopolitical position, and economic situation. Since coming to office, President Dmitry Medvyedev has made clear his intention to improve the quality of Russia’s democracy, particularly in relation to the growth of civil society.
   See also Politics.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.


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