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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .

Russia's Road to Deeper Democracy
Tom Bjorkman

(Brookings Institution Press, Washington D.C., 2003) 141 pp, PB, $16.95, ISBN 978-0815708995

Bjorkman?s clearly written, empirically grounded and prudent analysis offers concrete insights without notable theoretical complexity. Based on his career as a former CIA analyst - with a Soviet/Russian focus - a US ambassador and a Brookings fellow, Bjorkman offers a considerably more optimistic perspective than the current conventional wisdom about Russian politics. Bjorkman analyses years of Russian public opinion survey data, with reference to political culture concepts, to establish that most Russians want democratic elections, an independent judiciary and a democratic welfare state. Nostalgia for the Soviet Union focuses on health, education and welfare deficiencies of the post-Soviet era. Two thirds of Russians with primary school education favour a one-party system, but majorities of all Russians favour two or multi-party competition, and two thirds of Russians with tertiary education favour a multi-party system. Russians respect Putin's restoration of order, after suffering the consequences of Yeltsin's chaos. Although they have little confidence in the present Parliament or political parties, they prefer a balance between the President and Parliament to the dominance of either. Most Russians want improved Russian institutions that provide effective and accountable government. Bjorkman?s analyses of Russian politics, including advice to Putin from Gorbachev, leads him to conclude that deeper democracy is primarily impeded by an entrenched but vulnerable Russian bureaucracy, not political culture or the President. Bjorkman rejects the easy western criticisms that seem to freely attribute all Russian misconduct to Putin, arguing that (like Neustadt?s analysis of US presidents) Russian Presidents have limited power over the bureaucracy. Although he exhibits a substantial degree of independence from US political culture, it may have influenced Bjorkman?s paying virtually no explicit attention to the new rich oligarchs who dominated the Yeltsin era and have been, at least selectively, engaged by Putin. The oligarchs, politicians and the bureaucracy all contribute to a high corruption rating for Russia by Transparency International. Bjorkman suggests that support for ?managed democracy? (9-10) with a market economy is primarily a response to Yeltsin chaotic era. He advocates strengthening judicial independence, executive accountability to Parliament, a stronger party system, a freer press and safeguards for the integrity of the electoral system, as a (very conventional) set of proposals for democratic change.

A brief mention of the war in Chechnya is the nearest Bjorkman comes to engaging with ethnic conflict directly. However, his book as a whole may be read as a thoughtful engagement with active western prejudice against Russia, which may have roots in ethnicity as well as cultural hangovers from the Cold War era. In his first and last chapters Bjorkman argues that the west dealing with Russia ?as part of the West rather than as a country whose choice is still to be made can become a self-fulfilling prophecy? (94) that would foster the deepening of Russian democracy. Bjorkman is too discreet to mention that this would involve a significant departure from the Western posture that the Bush administration has promoted, particularly on the NATO missile defence issue.

Dr. David Lundberg, Senior Lecturer, School of International Studies, University of South Australia

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