Historically, Russian politics has been shaped by those close to the head of state, whether the tsar, the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), or the president. During the late Soviet period, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics’ (USSR) governing ideology of Marxism-Leninism and the utter dominance of the CPSU over all aspects of society began to wane.
   Recognizing the difficulties of the Soviet system without the benefit of the high oil prices that had characterized the long rule of Leonid Brezhnev, the CPSU’s idealistic new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, instituted a series of reforms under the title of perestroika (restructuring). His ultimate goal was the acceleration (uskoreniie>) of the Soviet economy so that it would be able to compete with the industrialized nations of the so-called First World, particularly the United States, Germany, and Japan. In order to achieve this restructuring, Gorbachev was forced to open up the political structure of the Soviet system, which had stagnated over the previous decades.
   Soviet one-party rule, mild totalitarianism, and the state’s suffocation of civil society had bred a generation afflicted by political apathy. In order to stimulate the change he desired, Gorbachev instituted a new era of glasnost (transparency) into all aspects of the Soviet bureaucracy, government, and society. The press began to actively investigate and criticize the state, and media freedoms increased greatly during this period. Such reforms, however, were not welcomed by many political elites. The membership of the CPSU enjoyed substantially better living standards than the masses, and the apparatchik system guaranteed employment to the politically wellconnected, regardless of talent. Despite opposition from within the party, Gorbachev’s experiment in economic and political liberalization continued throughout the late 1980s.
   In 1987, Gorbachev moved forward on his boldest plan, the introduction of democratization (demokratizatsiia) of the one-party system. While opposition political parties were not permitted until late 1990, democratization did allow for competitive elections to take place, with multiple candidates on the same ballot. For the first time since 1918, Russians had a genuine choice in the selection of their leaders. During this period, Gorbachev went over the heads of the CPSU “old guard” in the Politburo and directly to the people, triggering a new interest in political life among the Soviet citizens. Cultural and social organizations began to flourish without the support of the state or the Party. In the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic’s (RSFSR) Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs) and the union republics, nationalist politicians— still operating as nominal Communists—began to gain ground against the nomenklatura>. Political developments in the Eastern Bloc kept pace with the USSR’s reforms, and by 1989, Gorbachev, preoccupied with ethnic violence in Nagorno-Karabakh and other parts of the Caucasus, signaled the Kremlin’s intent to let the Soviet satellites abandon one-party rule. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other Warsaw Pact allies of the USSR moved quickly to institute free elections and dismantle the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. The “loss” of the Soviet empire proved deeply unpopular among the old-guard politicians, the security services, and certain members of the military elite. More troubling to these centers of political influence, however, was the increasing centrifugal forces within the USSR.
   The Baltic States and Georgia took their lead from the new democracies of Eastern Europe and began to move toward ultimate secession from the Soviet Union. By the 28th Party Congress in July 1990, the Soviet political system was in a state of rapid flux. Nationalist and liberal elements within the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, led by the ex-Communist Boris Yeltsin, had undermined the authority of the CPSU. Under Yeltsin’s guidance, Russian institutions were strengthened at the expense of Soviet ones, including the federation’s vast natural resources. Yeltsin rode a wave of support based on the idea of “Russia for the Russians,” which condemned decades of subsidies to the country’s “internal empire” (the 14 other union republics) and its “external empire” (the Eastern Bloc, Mongolia, Cuba, Vietnam, etc.).
   In 1991, the CPSU was stripped of its central role in the government of the Soviet Union, and a host of opposition parties clamored for influence in the newly democratic country. Gorbachev, meanwhile, had relocated his base of political power out of the CPSU and assumed the presidency of the USSR. He was unable, however, to stop the unraveling of the union, and by the summer, it was readily apparent that the Baltic States (and perhaps Georgia, Moldova, and Armenia as well) were lost. In an effort to preserve what remained of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev called for the establishment of a Union of Soviet Sovereign Republics (later the Union of Sovereign States) that would allow for legal secession of its constituent members under certain conditions, thus abrogating the 1922 treaty of union. The signing of the proposed New Union Treaty by members of the RSFSR government triggered the ill-planned August Coup. Disaffected members of the old guard and the KGB detained Gorbachev in his Crimean dacha while they tried to reverse democratization and reintegrate the secessionist republics. Yeltsin, however, rallied popular elements and won over key members of the military, crushing the putsch. Events moved quickly in the autumn, with the center of political gravity shifting to Yeltsin, with Gorbachev being marginalized. In December, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus effectively dismantled the USSR with the Belavezha Accords. The formal dissolution of the Soviet Union occurred later that month in Alma-Ata, Kazakhstan, as the Soviet successor states (excluding the Baltics) joined the new Commonwealth of Independent States, an organization that allowed Russia to maintain some level of control over its so-called near abroad.
   After a brief honeymoon period in early 1992, Russia transitioned into a turbulent period in its domestic politics as competition between the executive branch, headed by President Yeltsin, and the legislative branch, which consisted of the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, raged. The principal dispute was over the limits of presidential power, which were ambiguous given the limited applicability of the 1977 constitution to the Russian Federation. Yeltsin’s powers had been beefed up in the wake of the August Coup; however, the legislature steadily stripped these new powers away over the next two years. The president’s failure to secure the election of his prime ministerial appointee, Yegor Gaydar, further poisoned relations with the legislature, which was growing increasingly nationalistic and conservative.
   In 1993, tensions continued to rise over power sharing and the drafting of the new constitution. During this period, known as the constitutional crisis, Ruslan Khasbulatov and Aleksandr Rutskoy emerged as Yeltsin’s most vociferous critics in the parliament. Confident of public support, Yeltsin ultimately used military force against the legislature. The anti-Yeltsin forces were arrested, the parliament dissolved, and the new constitution pushed through. In the wake of the crisis, the Russian political system was substantially recrafted. Claiming that Russians preferred a strong hand and a vertical of power, Yeltsin preserved the post of prime minister, retaining the greater share of powers. The legislature was shortly reconstituted as the Federal Assembly of Russia, divided between the upper house, known as the Federation Council, and the lower house, or State Duma.
   In an attempt to buy off allies in the provinces during this period, Yeltsin instituted a policy of asymmetrical federalism for Russia’s regions, particularly the ethnic republics. This radically shifted the balance of power away from the center, turning Russia into a genuine federation while simultaneously gifting the regional governors with extraordinary powers; rent seeking and rampant corruption soon followed. Yeltsin was unable to buy off the Chechens, however, and launched the first Chechen War. What had promised to be a quick public relations victory turned into a bloody civil war tinged with growing Islamist radicalism. Simmering discontent with Yeltsin translated into strong support for the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the newly formed Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). Over the next few election cycles, Yeltsin orchestrated “parties of power” to buttress his support in the Duma and the Federation Council; however, the extreme right- and left-wing parties continued to win a significant percentage of the electorate in parliamentary elections.
   During the 1996 presidential election, Yeltsin faced down impossible odds to keep his post. His alliance of convenience with the media and the oligarchs is seen as having negative impacts for the country’s nascent democracy despite having preserved it in the face of an almost guaranteed Communist victory. Clearly weakened by his unpopularity, Yeltsin placated conservative and patriotic elements in the country during his second administration. Yevgeny Primakov, appointed as foreign minister (1996–1998) and prime minister (1998–1999) in the aftermath of the ruble crisis, reversed the country’s Atlanticist orientation in foreign relations, opting instead for a Eurasianist approach combined with contestation of American hegemony of the world system. During this period, eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the war in Serbia turned Russian domestic opinion against the United States and Western European nations, while the ruble crisis soured Russians on globalization, free markets, and financial reform. In ill health and fabulously unpopular, Yeltsin orchestrated the rise of the hitherto-unknown KGB agent and St. Petersburger Vladimir Putin through his appointment as prime minister. Putin’s hard line on the second Chechen War and strong distinctions from Yeltsin in terms of fitness and youth won over enough of the electorate to give him the presidency. After a rocky start marred by the Kursk submarine disaster, Putin began to gain popularity. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, he gained international support for his crackdown on Chechen terrorism, though Russia would suffer scores of deaths over the next four years culminating in the Beslan hostage crisis.
   From the very beginning of his administration, Putin expressed a desire to truly implement the vertical of power, and used every opportunity to reduce asymmetrical federalism including enacting a presidential appointment system for regional governors. He also reduced the influence of the powerful oligarchs, allowing them to keep their fortunes as long as they refrained from politics; Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky failed to observe the “new rules” of the game and were forced into exile and imprisoned, respectively. Putin carefully orchestrated Russia’s political party system to ensure a pliable Duma, while using appointments and political favors to weaken the KPRF and the LDPR. His two administrations were defined by a sharp rise in oil and natural gas prices, resulting in a buoyant Russian economy and a return to great-power (derzhava) status. Meanwhile, he curtailed media freedoms, undermined civil society, and increased the influence of siloviki> within the government and industry, prompting criticism at home and abroad. Steadfast in his commitment to serve only the constitutionally mandated two terms, Putin oversaw the transfer of some presidential power to the office of the prime minister before stepping down to take up the premiership as the leader of the United Russia party in 2008. His hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvyedev, has done little to deviate from the path set by Putin, though some signs demonstrate a growing rift between the old and new presidents, particularly given Putin’s ever-growing portfolio as the new prime minister. Generally speaking, most Russians disdain politics, the result of decades of the Soviet monopolization of power, followed by Yeltsinera “politricks” and Putin’s creeping authoritarianism. Since 1991, the country’s anemic civil society, cowed media, and debilitating economic transition have done little to improve this attitude.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.


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