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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .

Between Dictatorship and Democracy: Russian Post-Communist Political Reform
Michael McFaul, Nikolai Petrov, and Andrei Ryabov

Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2004, 18.00, PB, ISBN 0870032062

This book suggests that it will define the identity of the Russian state. Is Russia a democracy? Will Russia be a democracy in ten years? Was Russia ever a democracy?

The introduction neatly outlines the rules of engagement. Effectively, it describes the benchmark-definition of democracy to be used in the ensuing chapters, as well as defining the parameters of what is to be discussed. Electoral and liberal democracy are the democratic benchmarks for determining the political identity of Russia. Whilst electoral democracy is the ?minimal definition of democracy? (3), liberal democracy is the ?higher model or ideal type? (3). Larry Diamond?s breakdown of the higher model definition creates the parameters of this research. Ten points discussed in the introduction become the basis of the chapters. For example, the importance of the freedom of the press in a liberal democracy becomes Chapter Seven on the ?Mass Media?, and the importance of protecting the individual?s rights becomes Chapter Eight on ?The rule of Law?, and so on.

Given the size of this book, it has an inescapable design-flaw. Its ability to explain the intricacies that abound within fifteen years of particularly intense political and societal change is necessarily limited. However this flaw is somewhat marginalised by the writers? ability to summarise clearly and effectively. This has been achieved by soliciting only the major paradigms and their shifts during the post-Soviet time frame. For example, in Chapter Two on elections they concentrate on explaining why Russia, unlike other post-Communist states, did not return to the former Communist leaders in the second round of democratic elections. As a consequence, a more in-depth discussion of particular events or acts during elections is missing.

Another criticism is in the examples they use to prove that Russia does not compare favourably to the ?ideal type? of democracy. Despite the fact that Chapter Two engages in the probability that US Senatorial incumbents will retain office, the nature of Russian democracy is too rarely contextualised by comparison with other liberal democracies. By omitting examples of established liberal democracies? infractions to this ideal, they weaken their argument.

For example, in Chapter Seven on the mass media, Andrei Ryabov talks of the importance of the media in a liberal democracy being independent so as to provide a critical eye to political proceedings. In cataloguing and explaining the mass media?s development since the late nineteen eighties he has provided an invaluable insight into the country?s comparable level of free media as requisite for a liberal democracy. I do not dispute the veracity of his findings, but it remains that similar occurrences of elite control over the media, or the creation of new ?virtual? parties are capable of happening in the developed western liberal democracies as well.

When discussing the support the mass media gave President Yeltsin in 1996 in order to create a ?parallel political reality that had little in common with the actual political process? (184), Ryabov rightly suggests that this practice is not commensurate with a liberal democracy. However, the influence elite media magnates, including Rupert Murdoch of News International have on citizen voting behaviours in liberal democratic states including the US and the UK is impressive. Impressive enough for Tony Blair to arrange a memorandum of understanding with Murdoch to support the Labour party in the 1997 UK general election. His media empire played a vital role in ensuring that the UK public identified with the Labour party. This does not stop us from identifying the US and the UK as liberal democracies.

Another example of the lack of independent action in the mass media in a developed liberal democracy is the nominal level of criticism by the mainstream US media of the US government?s decision to act militarily in the run up to its invasion of Iraq in March 2003. If you, quite rightly, judge Russia to this ideal model of liberal democracy, then placing your criticism in context with the types of defaults that occur in established democracies is necessary.

If a ?virtual? political party becomes ?real? in that it holds seats then what is ?virtual? about it? This may sound supercilious but clamping down on transitions between one and the other is important. The authors note that these ?virtual? Russian political parties were established with the permission of the President. Where is the evidence for this statement? Is this fundamentally anti- liberal democratic? Do established liberal democracies behave in this manner? When they do it are they being anti- liberal democratic? These questions have to be raised and answered.

In sum, bearing these two observations in mind, this book is a thought provoking insight into contemporary Russian politics. The identity of the Russian state is explored. With each chapter capable of standing alone this book is a great resource for professionals, and formal and informal students of politics to dip into when the need arises, although I suggest reading the introduction first.

Matthew Alan Hill, INCORE Associate, University of Ulster

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