Nemtsov Putin Regime Change Regime Transformation Revolution Russia Transition

Nemtsov’s Legacy: A United Russian Democratic Opposition?

RusBookCover-Bolotnaya Dec 2011

by Gordon M. Hahn

            There are only four domestically-driven ways for an authoritarian regime to become democratic, and all but one require a united and strong democratic opposition movement to one degree or another. It is more the absence of a united and strong democratic movement since the mid-1990s than the authoritarian nature of President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle that has plagued Russia’s democratic development. The February 27 murder of Boris Nemtsov, one of Russia’s key democratic opposition leaders, is generating an impetus for the still weak democratic opposition to unite as 2016 Duma elections come over the horizon.

A Typology of Regime Transformations

There are four domestically-driven ways for an authoritarian regime to become democratic: revolution from below, revolution from above, pacted transition, and imposed transition. Revolutions from below are familiar to us all. They are burned into our memories by images of peaceful or violent crowds seizing power against the will of the old regime and its ruling groups. The opposition forces are rooted in society and arrayed against the present forms of rule, state organization, elite behavior, and state-society relations.

Revolutions from below are rooted in one or more state ruling groups and institutions. Regime groups controlling one or more state institutions unconstitutionally use them to undermine other traditionalist ruling groups and the existing order of rule and establish a new system of rule. There is little societal mobilization, especially in comparison with revolutions from below. There have been numerous military-led revolutions from above, including in Turkey, Meiji Japan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Only one, Ataturk’s in Turkey, led to democracy, and that process took decades and in some ways is still not complete. In 1990-1991 Boris Yeltsin and other disenchanted apparatchiks of the ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) led the only civilian-led revolution from above when he used the state apparatus of the Russian Federation to fully separate the CPSU’s apparatus from the Soviet state apparatus in Russia and to destroy the Union state apparat’s power or transfer them to ‘his’ Russian state apparatus. The results so far lag behind Turkey’s democratic achievements.

Non-revolutiuonary ‘transitions to democracy’ require a strong softline or reformist regime group and a strong, united democratic movement that dominates among the forces opposed to the regime and rejects violence and radical methods of transition, preferring instead to cooperate, even nudge the regime through the process of democratic reforms (imposed transition) or force the regime softliners to negotiate with it the process of transition and the details of institutional design (pacted transition).

Regime Transformational Types, Democratic Movements, and Democratic Outcomes

While each of these modes of regime transformation needs a strong democratic movement, especially in the post-takeover democracy building and consolidation stage, such is especially crucial for several of them in the phase of the old regime’s destruction. Most obviously, if a revolution from below is to produce a democratic outcome, a strong, united democratic opposition movement is needed. Otherwise, more extremist elements are likely to destroy the old regime through violent means, which historically has not led to democracy in many cases. Radicals also might undermine democracy-building and consolidation in the constructive phase of the revolution. Democrats may risk an alliance with radicals (socialist, communist, fascist or others) in order to gather the critical mass to remove the old order, but they do so at the peril of the democratic outcome they seek.

Following revolutions from below, the mode of regime change that most needs a strong, united democratic opposition is the ‘pacted’ or negotiated transition. In this case the opposition needs to be strong enough to force a key regime ruling group of softliners to negotiate a transition pact outlining the path to, and design of the aspired democracy. An alliance of strong, united democratic forces and pro-democracy elements within the regime groups with whom they negotiate ensures a strong democratic core that can isolate both regime and opposition radicals during the transition process of state and or constitutional design and defeat them in successive elections needed to consolidate the institutions, culture and habits of democracy.

Revolutions from above, being largely state-based in both the destructive and constructive phases of the regime transformation require less societal mobilization than revolutions from below and pacted transitions. Nevertheless, a significant opposition movement with a substantial democratic component is needed on occasion as an ally for pressuring the regime hardliners to abstain from reactionary actions to combat the efforts by the softline revolutionaries from above to dismantle the old order and bring in the new. The threat of revolution can be held out to intimidate potential putshcists seeking to restore the old system. After the seizure of power, the revolutionaries above are likely to try and demobilize the societal opposition in the nascent revolution from below with which they had allied during the destructive phase in coming to power. The revolutionaries above might also co-opt former hardline or fence-sitting regime elements in order to shore up their power base and obviate the need for support from the societal and democratic revolutionaries. In this way, they are likely to quash the prospects for democratization in the short- to mid-term at the least. This is why a more robust united democratic opposition is more requisite for a democratic outcome in revolutions from above than in imposed transitions.

Imposed transitions are least in need of strong democratic opposition movements at least during the outset of the transformation process, since a core group of regime softliners is committed to a democratic regime transformation and needs little or no pressure to stay the course. However, as the process moves from declaration of intent and institutional design to implementation a strong, united democratic movement must be nurtured in society or culled from one or more of the ruling groups into one or more parties agreeing to the uncertainty of the democratic process and prepared to be out of power for some period of time as elections are held.

Russia’s Revolution From Above and the Stalling of Russian Democracy

It is more the absence of a united and strong democratic movement since the mid-1990s than the so far weak authoritarian impulses of President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle that has plagued Russia’s democratic development. The 1991 Soviet Revolution was neither a peaceful revolution from below like Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution” from below or a negotiated transition to democracy like that in Poland and Hungary. Nor has it been like the violent first Russian Revolution against tsarist autocracy or the Chinese Revolution won by political movements organized in “councils (soviets) of workers, peasants and soldiers” rooted in society and independent from the state.

            The essence of the Soviet/Russian transformation was a bureaucratic, state-led revolution from above. Led by Boris Yeltsin, elected chairman of the new RSFSR Congress of People’s Deputies in June 1990, opportunistic Soviet Communist Party and state apparatchiks who defected from the reform camp led by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev were most instrumental in overthrowing the communist regime, not the Soviet people. Soviet Party bureaucrats and younger members of its nomenklatura ruling class won control in mid-1990 over the core “republic” in the Soviet Union — the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) – and proceeded to carry out a creeping bureaucratic revolution against the central Soviet party-state machine. Their weapons were RSFSR state institutions, parliamentary laws, presidential decrees and administrative orders, not the marches, strikes, bombs and bullets of revolution from below.

            The RSFSR Supreme Soviet declared Russia sovereign in June 1990, establishing the supremacy of RSFSR law over USSR law on Russian territory. Russian law then transferred all property, financial and natural resources in Russia from USSR to RSFSR jurisdiction. The Russian Central Bank and new quasi-commercial Russian banks destroyed the Soviet centralized financial and banking systems. By winter, Russia outlawed at all levels combining the posts of Communist Party first secretary and chairman of the soviets semi-democratized by Gorbachev and took the first steps to establishing its own presidential, KGB and military institutions. Upon election as Russian president in July 1991, Yeltsin decreed the removal of Party organizations from all state institutions and enterprises in Russia. During the failed August 1991 hardline coup, Yeltsin placed under RSFSR control all USSR institutions, including the KGB and military. When the coup failed, the Party was banned, effectively abolishing the old regime. With the Party gone, Russia easily abolished or expropriated the Soviet state ministry by ministry. With the regime and state apparatus gone, there was little reason for the republics to maintain the Union. The USSR was tossed into history’s dustbin. Throughout this entire period the masses were rarely mobilized. When they were it was most often to defend Russia’s revolutionaries from above (as in February-March and August 1991), not too overthrow the remnants of the partocratic regime. This explains the limited extent of social revolution and the lack of violence during the fall of the Soviet regime.

            But it also explains much of the troubled development of democracy and the market in post-Soviet Russia (and other former Soviet republics). The co-optation of Party and state apparatchiks and entire structures by the revolutionary Russian regime has left the nomenklatura in power along with its limited understanding of, and weak commitment to building political and economic institutions based on the rule of law. A good part of the elite represents economic interests formed under the old regime or its death throes, so the “new” Russian state is rendered deeply penetrated by old and new economic oligarchs. Thus, state institutions are politically divided, diminishing the cohesion needed for concerted revolutionary economic transformation. This contributed to undemocratic, uneconomical insider “nomenklatura privatization” and cemented the relationship between corrupt bureaucrats and criminalized semi-private and private financial-industrial groups. The expropriation of the old regime’s structures has also prolonged old operating procedures, preserving the massive bureaucracy’s strong role in the economy. The result is a weak Russian state unable to defend either its interests or those of society from the preferences of bureaucrats and oligarchs and an inefficient state that does too many things and does them all poorly.

The limited mobilization of the masses, while it may have helped avert the violence typically attending revolutions, stunted the development of civil society, especially the formation of political parties and trade unions that defend societal interests. Thus, society is too weak to encourage the state to concentrate on the development of a civil polity and economy. The consequence of these limitations in Russia’s revolution is an unstable, corrupt, oligarchic, and almost anarchic quasi-democracy and market.

The Nemtsov Murder as Impulse to Democratic Unity and Mobilization

The murder of Nemtsov, regardless of who stands behind it, could be playing a mobilizing and rallying function similar – in a scaled-down form – to that played by the hardline crackdown in Latvia and Lithuania in January 1991, the August 1991 hardline putsch in Moscow, or other reactionary crackdowns in past political crises. Those regime-driven violent incidents sparked both Russia’s nascent revolutions – one developing above inside the state, another still slowly simmering within society and consisting of democrats, moderate and radical nationalists, and moderate socialists.

Nemtsov’s murder has generated an impetus for the still weak democratic opposition to unite as 2016 Duma elections come over the horizon. In November Nemtsov put forward a proposal for the formation of broad democratic coalition or association called the ‘United Democrats. Thus, in the wake of his murder, there is some movement towards taking up this idea more aggressively. The democratic opposition’s sense of being embattled and even under threat of physical extinction has concentrated their minds on some form of effective unification.

Last week, a key member of Aleksandr Navalnyi’s Party of Progress, Leonid Volkov, has called on Russia’s democratic opposition forces “to stop quarreling and unite” in preparation for participation in the 2016 elections to the State Duma. Navalnyi’s Party of Progress is a potentially potent force, especially in Moscow (9 percent of Russia’s population), where as candidate for mayor in 2012 he won 29 percent of the vote, suggesting the kind of take a united democratic force could muster. The older, mainstay democratic ‘Yabloko’ party’s leader Sergei Mitrokhin responded with a list of conditions his party would insist on for joining a democratic coalition. It is likely that Nemtsov’s co-chairman in the RPR-Parnas party, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov will follow his late co-chair’s wishes. In addition, former leader of the party Vladimir Ryzhkov has been rumored to be considering a return to RPR-Parnas, where he was the founder of the Republican Party of Russia (RPR) that formed one-half of the later united RPR-Parnas. In 2013 Ryzhkov left the party as the result of a dispute over strategy and leadership positions within the united party.

Another impetus might be the return of the single-mandate seats that will comprise half of the Duma’s 450 seats and will be contested in 2016. None of the democratic parties will be able to field candidates in all 250 districts, and in many key districts, such as those in Moscow and other large cities, there will be many cases where several democratic parties will run candidates, reducing the ability to defeat the Kremlin’s United Russia-affiliated candidates. However, with organizational unity or at least inter-party coordination in forming a joint candidate list, the democratic parties could field candidates in all 225 districts quite easily with each single-mandate candidate having an open field when it comes to mobilizing democratic voters, allowing him to focus on real opponents. Moreover, this would allow the democratic parties to make maximal use of their limited resources.


A united democratic party consisting of Yabloko, RPR-Parnas, the Party of progess and other smaller parties could give democrats a minimum of 10 percent (22-23 seats) and as many as 20 percent (45 seats) of the party list seats, depending on the situation in Russia at election time. If unification is limited to the formation of a coordinated candidate list and an agreement on full abstention from running competing candidates, the united democrats would be very unlikely to garner 10 percent of the districts which is less than 5 percent of the overall number of Duma seats. If they ever managed to fully unite, democrats could easily take 12 percent of the seats in the Duma (say, with 15 percent of the party list and 10 percent of the district seats) and possibly 20 percent. This would make the democrats a much more potent force outside the parliament as well, more able to amass larger demonstrations in protest against Kremlin policies.

Over the mid-term, along with other developments (such as the troubled Russian election process itself), a unification of Russia’s democratic forces could yield the kind of mobilization that occurred in December 2011 and forced then President Dmitrii Medvedev (and presumably then Prime Minister Putin) to institute a series of concessions and other processes that bore a resemblance to regime-opposition pacting over issues of democratization.

Combined with domestic economic difficulties and foreign military-political ones, the democratic opposition could galvanize into a potent force and ally with moderate nationalists and socialists. Navalnyi is essentially a reformed radical nationalist and has staked out moderately nationalist and patriotic positions on issues such as immigration. In October he said that if he were elected president he would not return Crimea to Ukraine (contrary to Yabloko and RPR-Parnas). Yabloko’s platform is well-suited to attracting moderate socialists, who support a strong state welfare system Russians have grown accustomed to.

Ultimately, a united opposition of democratic and moderate socialist and nationalist forces could pose sufficient a challenge in parliament and/or the on the streets that Putin would have to meet either through concessions towards democratization or with an uncharacteristically harsh and broad crackdown on opposition activity that would have unforeseeable consequences and outcomes – even a regime transformation.