“[I]t is impossible any more to call Vladimir Putin’s government ‘democratic,’” says Thomas Friedman, “given the way it has neutered the Russian Parliament, intimidated or taken over much of the Russian press, subordinated the judiciary and coercively extended its control over the country’s key energy companies.” And there’s certainly a clear enough sense of “democratic” for which this is true. Later, Friedman re-iterates that “The Yeltsin democratic experiment is over.”
This, though, is the question for America’s Putin-haters: What Yeltsin democratic experiment? Putin, after all, didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the handpicked successor of the Yeltsin regime, installed into office through some pretty dubious machinations. Putin didn’t neuter the Russian parliament, he inherited a neutered parliament from the architect of the modern Russian state — Boris Yeltsin. As nobody seems to remember, “in October 1993, President Boris Yeltsin chose a radical solution to settle his dispute with parliament: He called up tanks to shell the parliament building, blasting out his opponents.” Later he revised the constitution, creating the current one under which Putin has been enjoying the incredibly broad powers of the Russian presidency. Under Putin, the state directly controls the bulk of the mass media and used said control to prevent a meaningful challenge to Putin’s political authority. Under Yeltsin, by “contrast,” the media was under the control of a tiny number of close-to-the-regime “oligarchs” who’d benefitted financially from Yeltsin’s corruption and used their control over the press to prevent meaningful challenge to Yeltsin’s political authority.
What’s really changed since the Yeltsin era is the price of oil and gas. Russia under Yeltsin was a very weak country, reeling from decades of Communist mismanagement and a poorly-handled transition to a market economy. Yeltsin himself was heavily dependent on western countries and was unable to effectively challenge American or European strategic priorities. Putin, by contrast, has been enjoying an energy-led economic boom that’s allowed Russia to once again become a somewhat consequential player on the world stage, to refuse to cooperate with the United States on issues that are priorities to us. Once that happened, it suddenly dawned on everyone — hey! this isn’t much of a democracy! And it isn’t. But we should be spared the pretense that it ever was.