20 years under Putin: a timeline

Over the last year, the debate on how to describe Russia’s political regime has intensified. Levada Center sociologist Denis Volkov discusses this issue with Marc Plattner, vice president for research and studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and coeditor of the Journal of Democracy.


Marc Plattner describes Russian political system as “hegemonic authoritarian” or “hegemonic electoral authoritarian.”


Denis Volkov: For a while there has been a discussion in the Russian press and among experts about the essence of the Russian political order. Some prefer using the term “hybrid regime” to describe it; others label it as an “authoritarian regime.” Is there agreement among scholars in the West?

Marc Plattner: The categories that political scientists use can be somewhat confusing. You ask whether Russia is a hybrid regime or not, but the definition of a hybrid regime itself is not clear. It mixes democratic and authoritarian elements, but this mixture can take different forms. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way point out that what they call a “competitive authoritarian regime” is just one slice of the broader category of hybrid regimes. Some would say that illiberal “electoral democracies” fall into the hybrid regime category. Still others say that “hegemonic electoral authoritarian regimes” (Larry Diamond’s term) also belong to the [category of] hybrid regimes. Thus, calling Russia a hybrid regime does not give you much specificity. But I would say there is agreement that Russia can be called a kind of hybrid regime in the basic sense that it has some democratic characteristics, such as elections and multiple parties, along with many authoritarian features.

D.V.: Does it actually matter whether we call Russia an authoritarian or hybrid regime? Why should we care about the specifics of the Russian political order?

M.P: It depends on what your purpose is. A more sympathetic view of what political scientists do is that they are trying to describe new types of regimes and make reasonable distinctions between them. Even during the Cold War, there were always some regimes that did not quite fit into the existing categories—they were somewhat democratic, but they were also somewhat authoritarian. In the post—Cold War era the variations definitely increased and took different forms as democracy became an international standard. Many governments felt that they had to at least appear democratic in order to get foreign assistance, or to be treated well in international organizations. For that reason many regimes created a façade of democracy or put on a show of going through democratic procedures—multiparty elections and so on—but that does not mean that they are democracies. Political scientist Andreas Schedler puts it this way: “The distinction between electoral democracy and electoral authoritarianism builds upon the common affirmation that democracy requires elections, but not just any kind of elections. The idea of democratic self-government is incompatible with electoral farces. In the common phrasing, elections must be ‘free and fair’ in order to pass as democratic. Under electoral democracy, contests comply with minimal democratic norms; under electoral authoritarianism, they do not.”1

D.V.: What is your definition of a democratic country?

M.P: What we call “democracy” is really a shorthand for “liberal democracy.” And liberal democracy is a compound thing. It has a “liberal” part and a “majoritarian” part. The “majoritarian” part means free and fair elections. The “liberal” part has to do with protecting the rights of individuals and minorities. Not everything that the majority wants is democratic. In the very first issue of the Journal of Democracy Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote an article titled “Uncertainties of a Democratic Age,” in which he says that we would not call it democratic if 51 percent of the population voted to put the other 49 percent to death. The whole structure of liberal democracy is based on the premise that the rights of individuals and minority groups are respected by the majority. But there is always an issue of where you draw the line: Does the majority get to decide whether there should be gay rights or not, or is this a fundamental right of individuals that majorities cannot override? Still, it is accurate to say that liberal democracy is a regime where the fundamental rights of individuals and minorities are protected, while all other matters are decided by the will of the majority.

D.V.: What countries would you classify as authoritarian?

M.P.: In the fuzzy cases, it is always a judgment call. It is easy to determine that countries like China and Saudi Arabia, where there are no elections for meaningful government positions, are authoritarian. These are sometimes called “closed authoritarian regimes.” Countries that have at least the formality of multiparty elections can be broken down into three categories. One is where elections meet minimum democratic standards—they are more or less free and fair. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are countries where elections are not at all free and fair— the opposition has virtually no chance to win. And then in the middle you have what Levitsky and Way call “competitive authoritarian regimes,” which means that there is a huge built-in advantage for the incumbents, but the possibility that the opposition might win is not ruled out. The latest example of this is Sri Lanka, which everyone thought had become decisively authoritarian. But in January 2015, it had presidential elections in which the opposition figure won—that left everyone astonished. The reason for this turnover was defections within the elites: a cabinet minister who had backed the former president of Sri Lanka broke off from him and went to [the] opposition. And the opposition candidate won the elections.

D.V.: Where does Russia belong within these three categories?

M.P: I would use the term “hegemonic authoritarian” or “hegemonic electoral authoritarian” to describe Russia. These terms might sound a little clumsy, but they capture the point. Levitsky and Way use the term “full authoritarianism” to include both “closed regimes” (China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia) and “hegemonic regimes,” in which formal democratic institutions exist only on paper, creating a mere façade of democracy. According to Levitsky and Way, “in hegemonic regimes, elections are so marred by repression, candidate restrictions, and/or fraud that there is no uncertainty about their outcome. Much of the opposition is forced underground and leading critics are often imprisoned or banned from running.”2 There are variations, and Russia might not be the most restrictive among hegemonic regimes. Yet the way potential opposition candidates like Alexei Navalny are treated, and the way pseudo-opposition parties are propped up, lead people to believe that the opposition could not win presidential or parliamentary elections. But imagine if you had defections within the elites—if, say, Dmitry Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov came out and publicly challenged Putin. That would be interesting. If a person challenged Putin in that way and didn’t get repressed, Russia could start moving toward democracy.

A lot of democracies haven’t been performing very well, but the popular demand for democracy is still very high. In the long term, the future of Russia’s regime depends on its internal evolution.

D.V.: How stable are such regimes? Some think they exist temporarily and should eventually either be transformed into more democratic regimes or become failed states.

M.P: I think it’s an unstable equilibrium. A competitive authoritarian regime is indeed likely either to become more repressive or to open up more. But a hegemonic hybrid regime could be more stable because it doesn’t allow for genuine competition, and sometimes people can get used to that, especially given constant repression. I wouldn’t be optimistic about change coming soon in Russia and other similar countries where the regime has a firm grip on all the levers of power. Russia has the formalities of elections and multiple parties, but everyone knows who is going to win. Economic problems, however, might cause defections within the elites or a popular uprising, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia, which had similar kinds of regimes. But these developments are always unpredictable. I wouldn’t rule them out for Russia, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on them happening soon.

D.V.: If the regime is so stable, what can the Russian opposition do?

M.P: I wouldn’t want to overstate the emphasis on stability—I’m talking about stability for the next five to ten years. 2018 will be an important test: Will Putin decide to run for the presidential office again or not? The weakest point of all types of authoritarian regimes is always the succession. As long as the same leader is in power, it is hard to disrupt stability, but when there is a change at the top, the regime is vulnerable.

It’s difficult to say what the Russian political opposition can do at this moment. I think what they are trying to do—run for council seats in Moscow districts, create pockets of pro-democratic people inside official power structures—is reasonable. Building civil society is a critical aspect—not that it can change things overnight, but it’s building for the future. So when a real opportunity does arise, you will have people and organizations in place who have some understanding and appreciation of democracy and of how to act collectively.

D.V.: It seems we have to balance between excessive optimism about the possibility of rapid change and the fear that we may once again miss an opportunity, as we did with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

M.P: I agree. Obviously the regime does not feel it can relax. It is very nervous about even the smallest stirrings of opposition. Foreign policy is a wild card too, because on the one hand adventures abroad build popular support for Putin, but on the other hand any foreign policy setback would really weaken the regime. In this sense, Putin is taking some risks, though so far they have been largely paying off.

D.V.: If you look back, do you think Russia was a democracy of any kind ten or twenty years ago?

M.P: I would say that while there is a consensus today that Russia is no longer democratic, there is a split among political scientists regarding Russia in the 1990s under [President Boris] Yeltsin. Some people would say that Russia wasn’t democratic back then either: the elections were not really free and fair, there was a certain amount of tampering and fraud, and constraints were put on opposition candidates. But on the other hand, the press was certainly much freer. It’s true that oligarchs had a lot of power, but many of them disagreed with one another, which created opportunities for opposition figures to get funding from them and gave more space for media outlets owned by rival oligarchs. So there was more competition in the 1990s, civil liberties were protected better, and the atmosphere was more open in general. It is hard to say when exactly this changed. I believe that Freedom House first described Russia as “not free” in its 2005 Freedom in the World report. Some people say that they waited too long to make that designation. There is some ambiguity and room for argument here, but most political scientists agree that since around 2005 Russia is no longer democratic.

D.V.: You have already quoted Levitsky, Way, and Schedler and mentioned Larry Diamond. All of them are contributors to the Journal of Democracy, which has just turned 25. Over the years, how has the debate on democracy issues changed?

M.P: When we started, there were no publications focusing directly on these issues of democracy around the world. Now the American Political Science Association has a whole section on comparative democratization, which a couple of years ago was the fourth-largest section in the entire association. So there is now a whole sub-discipline in comparative political science focusing on democratization, and the Journal of Democracy has played a central role in fostering it. We also played a particularly critical role in starting the debate on the issue of “hybrid regimes.” In April 2002, we published four articles under the title “Elections Without Democracy?,” which included articles by Diamond, Schedler, and Levitsky and Way on the new kinds of electoral authoritarian regimes.

D.V.: How important is Russia’s case for studies of democracy and authoritarianism today?

M.P: There is general agreement now that democracy was booming globally in the 1990s, then it slowed down in the 2000s, and since around 2005 it has been slightly declining. Russia slipped back into authoritarianism in the early 2000s, which was probably the biggest single setback for global democratic progress in the last few decades. If Russia had proceeded to become a real democracy, the world would look very different now. So in terms of studies of the worldwide progress and decline of democracy, Russia is the central case. But its regime is not unique—Azerbaijan and Belarus are not much different.

D.V.: What are Russia’s chances of becoming more democratic in the future?

M.P: I think it’s possible. A lot of democracies haven’t been performing very well, but the popular demand for democracy is still very high. In the long term, the future of Russia’s regime depends on its internal evolution. When countries become richer, they are more likely to support democracy, mainly because the general level of education grows. Look at Ukraine: I think if it is left to its own devices, this country would have pretty good chances for building a solid and stable democracy. But given Russia’s involvement, it’s hard to be optimistic about Ukraine’s democratic path. If you look at the Balkans, many countries there are not authoritarian now, but they are certainly hybrid regimes. If the EU remains the primary external influence on those countries in the next few decades, they are likely to gradually become democratic. But if they start falling under Russian influence, if parties in these countries continue receiving funding from Russia, if they continue distancing themselves from the EU fearing Russian power—this changes the calculus. Still, when it comes to Russia, I am fairly optimistic over the longer term, because it is a well-educated, relatively prosperous country—one that has prospects of becoming democratic.



  1. Andreas Schedler, “Elections Without Democracy: The Menu of Manipulation,” Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2 (April 2002).
  2. Levitsky, S., and L. Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).