Perestroika, Russia today, and democratization

Risto Alapuro,
Professor of Sociology (Emeritus),
University of Helsinki,

Today, more than three decades after perestroika in the Soviet Union, Russia is falling more and more deeply into the abyss of authoritarianism. The promise of democracy, once apparently at hand, seems to be very far from today’s political horizon.

But is it really so? Vladimir Gel’man, Professor of Political Science at the University of Helsinki and the European University at St. Petersburg, has recently questioned this apparently self-evident view. In a Facebook post last spring he pointed out that even though 30 years ago the resistance to  democratization was half-hearted and incoherent, the popular support for perestroika faded away almost entirely. The disappointments of the perestroika made people give up rather easily the political freedoms they had gained.

Today the situation is very different. It is different, first, at the level of the elites. The status quo is based on a heavy pressure by the powerholders who have learned the lesson of the period of perestroika. They can also lean on a large-scale support by a substantial part of the population which was hit hard by the turbulent years of the perestroika.

But on the other hand, also the conditions for democratization among the population have made progress. At the time of perestroika democratization remained only one of many challenges facing the activists along with the economic crisis, ethnopolitical conflicts and the disintegration of the Soviet state. Democratization was then adopted as a magic formula that as such was supposed to solve pressing problems of the time. Now the naïve attitude toward democratization has made way for a more realist view of the efforts needed for its realization.

“Therefore my answer is that at this moment our country is at the intellectual level much better prepared to a reasonable, determined and consistent democratization than it was in the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, despite the fact that the political conditions for its realization are today immensely less favorable than they were three decades ago.”

Gel’man’s somewhat provocative conclusion appears to be based on the following reasoning. The Soviet system was decayed to the point that perestroika succeeded in making it fall without a large-scale pressure from below, without strength given by structured actors and organized collective action. Weakness was characteristic both of the defenders of the old system and of its challengers. But during the 30 years that have elapsed, not only the powerholding bloc has structured and organized itself but the same goes for what can be called civil society. There is a new generation for which the defense of democratization represents a more living and more concrete reality than it represented for the democracy activists of perestroika. Hence the readiness to the democratization “at the intellectual level.”

That is, on the one hand the authoritarian system has established itself, but on the other hand civil society – the primary field for controlling the state – has assumed a more concrete shape than it had before.

This is not all, however. Even if there were a potential to act collectively among the population, it cannot materialize itself without a crisis among the powerholding elites. Important in this respect is the fact that an authoritarian state is inherently susceptible to crises to a degree unknown in the established democracies in which voters can alternate between political decisionmakers through a well-established process. To cite Gel’man, the elite of an authoritarian state has to fear the formation of an organized political opposition in its own ranks, that is, it is aware of the chronic risk of a coup d’état. But a cleavage among the elites may also provide an opportunity for the popular discontent to emerge – and then it is important that an organized protest potential can be found among the population. Then the popular protest can contribute even to a profound change. The creation of a functioning civil society may be difficult, but if successful, it may have unanticipated consequences.


Expert article 3001

> Back to Baltic Rim Economies 4/2021

To receive the Baltic Rim Economies review free of charge, you may register to the mailing list.
The review is published 4-6 times a year.