Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk
Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk | Article 1

Russia: Haunting Western Democratic Imagination

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If a Martian were sent to earth with the secret mission to figure out the trends of world politics, he would certainly be puzzled by the outsized role that Putin’s Russia plays in the 21st century imagination of the West.

Defective democracies and electoral authoritarianism are not transitional phases, but regime types.Matthijs Bogaards, 2009The West today is obsessed with Russia: almost half of the Americans tend to believe that Moscow rigged the 2016 US presidential election; many Europeans suspect that the Kremlin shapes public opinion in their countries; and some of the leading Western media outlets insist that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is the world’s most influential political leader. While in the beginning of this century Russia was viewed as a mixture of failure and banality, today in the minds of many it has mutated into the model of the world to come.

Frankly speaking, neither Russia’s brutal annexation of Crimea, nor its military involvement in Syria or aggressive meddling in American elections could sufficiently explain this obsession of the West with Russia. It is true that Putin’s Russia is a military power and that the Kremlin has demonstrated its willingness to use force as an instrument for achieving its goals. But let us not forget that Russia is a resurgent rather than a rising power. Its power and influence are just a bleak copy of those of the Soviet Union. Russia suffers from low European-level birth rates and almost African-level life expectancy. Its population has one of the highest percentages of university-educated people, but with the lowest labour productivity per hour worked in the industrialised world. The country is profoundly corrupt and though President Putin is a strong leader, the prospects of Russia’s development after him (regardless of when that “after” will be) are highly uncertain. In the words of Vyacheslav Volodin, the current chairman of the Duma, “there is no Russia without Putin”. So why then is the Western political imagination as much or even more obsessed and preoccupied by Russia as by the economic success and geopolitical ambitions of communist China, the global spread of radical Islamist ideology or the craziness of the current North Korean dictator?

THE Dostoevskian “Double” OF THE WEST

The answer – like those of many big questions of our times – can be found in classical Russian literature. In this particular case, in Dostoevsky’s novel The Double, the story of a low-level clerk who ends up in the madhouse after meeting his double, a man who looks like him, talks like him, but who displays all the charm and self-confidence that the tortured protagonist profoundly lacks and who step by step is becoming “him”.

"Matrioshkas of Putin and former rulers of Russia"

When it comes to Russia, the West feels like Dostoevsky’s protagonist in the presence of his double. However, the difference between the novel and our reality is significant. While in Dostoevsky’s novel the double looks like a person that the protagonist always wanted to be, for the West Russia has become the double the West fears it could become. While some years ago Russia was perceived by the Western public as a shadow coming from the past, now it looks like an ambassador coming from the future. What happens in Russia today can take place in western countries tomorrow.

Russia is a classic example of a non-democracy functioning inside the institutional framework of democracy, a political regime in which elections are regularly held but in which the ruling party never loses power. It is a regime in which periodic pseudocompetitive elections are instruments for dis-empowering, not empowering, citizens. So the story of Russia’s stage-managed elections provides a historically vivid illustration of the way in which institutions and practices that originally emancipated citizens from the whim of unaccountable rulers can be refashioned into trompe l’oeil machinery that effectively disenfranchises citizens.Could it be that the global spread of democracy signals not the liberation of the masses but the liberation of elites from the electorate?  What Putin’s Russia teaches us is that the mere fact that elections take place and formally elected governments are in power does not mean that the electorate’s voice is heard. Could it be that competitive elections in the West – shaped by the manipulative power of money, disfigured by growing political polarisation and emptied of meaning by a lack of genuine political alternatives – resemble Kremlin-engineered elections more than we like to think? Could it be that the global spread of democracy signals not the liberation of the masses but the liberation of elites from the electorate?

Russia’s current experience prefigures a growing global disappointment with the classical ideal of an open society, with liberalism’s faith that the opening of borders and the existence of freely flowing information necessarily empower citizens and improve their lives.Russia is a classic example of a non-democracy functioning inside the institutional framework of democracy  Similar to the threatening flow of migrants coming to the West, Kremlin’s alleged attempts to interfere in the electoral process of Western democracies has also become a frightening illustration of the dark side of a world without borders.

Moreover, Russia provides the most radical example of the feudalisation and the incoherence of the state in the age of globalisation along with the emergence of postlabour society. Inside Russia’s deep state, different departments or agencies – the ministries, the police, the prosecutors, and so forth – may seem irresistibly dominant to ordinary citizens but they spend much of their time fighting each other, often over the control of liquid assets, and face no real incentive to cooperate for a shared purpose. Such a loose-knit and conflict-ridden state can neither impose itself consistently on society nor respond intelligently to social pressures and demands. What disturbs Western observers is that while reasons for the growing incoherence of Western states do not necessarily resemble the factors shaping the Russian case, the trend is similar. The loss of a shared national purpose radically undermines the interoperability, or capacity for rationally guided cooperative action, of increasingly fragmented state institutions worldwide.

The worldwide movement for the liberation of the rich

Significantly, the Russian experience also sheds light on the global phenomenon of “superfluous people” produced by a worldwide movement for the liberation of the rich. Russia is an impressive example of the global trend toward growing economic inequality in the 21st century. But at the same time Putin’s Russia is, in a sense, a socialist utopia: only nature is exploited! The quarrying of natural resources in Russia resembles the technological wizardry and the shenanigans of the financial industry in the West in one distressing way. Russia’s ruling class did not enrich itself by exploiting labour but by privatising the public patrimony, especially the country’s hydrocarbon industry. Ordinary Russians do not even seem to them to be worth exploiting. Nor is there much to be gained by oppressing them or forcing them to swear allegiance to an orthodox ideology. Rather than trying to dominate or control their fellow citizens, the privileged few have simply turned their backs on them. This strikingly new Russian pattern of spoliation and neglect tells us much more about what is going wrong in the West today than does the older pattern of repression and exploitation characteristic of most illiberal and undemocratic societies in the past. The fact that many of these newly superfluous Russians have university degrees also illuminates the dubious role of higher education in the world to come. Education may confer status but it does not necessarily provide access to jobs. 

Russia is a classic case of how a handful of very rich and politically unaccountable self-enriching rulers have, despite internal rivalries, managed to stay atop the country’s fragmented society without resorting to historically high levels of violence. This political model, neither democratic nor authoritarian, neither exploitative in the Marxist sense nor repressive in the liberal sense, is an image of the future that should keep us awake at night.

In short, what causes anxiety in the liberal West is not that Russia will run the world, but that much of the world will be run the way Russia is run today. What is disturbing is that the West has started to resemble Putin’s Russia more than we are ready to acknowledge.

By Ivan Krastev
Visiting Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Programmes, The Graduate Institute, Geneva
Permanent Fellow, Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna
Chairman, Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia

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Read also After Europe, Ivan Krastev’s latest book (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).

Header image caption: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tuva region, southern Siberia. Between 1 and 3 August 2017.

A complementary vision of democracy in the East

The Graduate Institute, Geneva

Russians Satisfied with their Country’s Direction

Source: PEW Research Center

Definitions of Democracy

Basic definition

Democracy can be defined as, literally, the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the 5th century BCE. At heart, democracy is based on three principles: popular sovereignty, political participation and political contestation. Democracies may take on different constitutional forms (constitutional monarchy, republic) and modes of territorial organisation (unitary, federal).

Thin vs. thick description of democracy

The ballot box (free, fair and regular elections) defines democracy at its most basic. This minimalist or “thin” conception of democracy can be opposed to a more substantial or “thick” definition holding that in addition to elections, democracy needs to satisfy a series of further constitutional, liberal and/or social criteria.

Direct democracy

In a direct democracy the people govern sovereignly by congregating in popular assemblies and taking decisions by popular vote (usually by show of hands, as in the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus). There is no political representation. For thousands of years direct democracy remained the principal model of democracy as exerted in city-states or other small-scale polities.

Example: ancient Athens.

Representative democracy

A representative or electoral democracy is a type of democracy where the people govern indirectly through elected representatives. It requires a set of political institutions different from those of direct democracy such as parliaments and regular elections. Representative democracy became prevalent in the 19th century with the emergence of large nation-states.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a subgenre of representative democracy defined not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers and the protection of basic civil liberties (freedom of speech, assembly and religion). Liberal democracies limit the exercise of executive power and majority rule through constitutions ensuring independent courts, the protection of minorities, and basic human rights.

Semidirect democracy

Semidirect democracy is a mixed form of democracy where elected representatives govern and legislate but the citizens remain sovereign through referenda, initiatives and recalls. Even though today only Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy in the formal sense, many democracies have institutionalised elements of expression of popular will such as referenda.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch of government depends on the support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence. The party that wins the largest number of congressional seats selects the prime minister, who controls the legislative process. The executive is divided into a head of government and a ceremonial head of state.

Examples: Australia, Germany, India, Spain.

Presidential democracy

Presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch. The parliament controls the budget, legislates, approves appointments to cabinet positions and ratifies foreign treaties. The president appoints cabinet members, commands the army and serves as the head of state and the head of government.

Examples: Argentina, Indonesia, United States, Venezuela.

Semi-presidential democracy

Semi-presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where a president exists alongside a prime minister and a cabinet. It differs from the parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected head of state, who is more than a purely ceremonial figurehead, and from the presidential system in that the cabinet, although named by the president, is responsible to the legislature, who can move a motion of no confidence.

Examples: France, Russia, Tunisia.

Participatory democracy

Participatory democracy refers to a regime where citizens participate actively in public decision-making. Instruments to broaden citizen participation include e-democracy and e-voting.

Deliberative democracy

In a deliberative democracy authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy. Jürgen Habermas has made a fundamental contribution to deliberative democracy through his work on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

Voting systems: proportional, plurality and majority

In a proportional system parties obtain seats proportionally to the votes they win. In a plurality system, candidates who win most votes in an electoral district are elected. In a majority system, candidates who win more votes than all others combined in an electoral district are elected. Proportional representation usually leads to a multiparty system whereas plurality and majority election favour bipartisanism.

United States






This table shows the evolution of democracy in the USRussiaUgandaHungaryTurkeyVenezuela over 10 years. Arrows indicate the improvement (↗) or deterioration (↘) of a given indicator between 2006 and 2016. One arrow per 0.4 variance on a scale of 10.

Aspects of democracy Trend
Legislative constraints on the executive ↘↘
Judicial constraints on the executive = ↘↘
Government censorship (internet) ↘↘ = ↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Government censorship (media) ↘↘ = ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Freedom of association
Freedom house rule of law =
Freedom of academic and cultural expression ↘↘ ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Source: V-Dem Website provides 350 indicators and indices on democracy.
Caricature de @Chappatte - www.chappatte.com Caricature de Beatriz Tirado

Source: Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU)

What Is Illiberal Democracy?


In his 1997 contribution to Foreign Affairs, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracies as “democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, [but] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms”.

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is an Indian American journalist and author with a BA from Yale College and a PhD in Government from Harvard University. He worked as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and as managing editor of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2000 (a post he was appointed to at only 28 years old). Zakaria has also been a columnist and editor for Newsweek, Time Magazine and The Atlantic. Currently he hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS – CNN’s flagship international affairs programme – and writes columns for The Washington Post. Foreign Policy named Zakaria one of its top 100 global thinkers. He is the author of five books, including The Future of Freedom (2003), The Post-American World (2008) and In Defense of a Liberal Education (2016).

15 characteristics
  • Consolidation of power in the executive
  • Charismatic leader
  • Erosion of the independence of the judiciary
  • Weakening status of the parliament
  • Recourse to direct democracy (plebiscites/referenda)
  • Populist rhetoric/propaganda
  • Discrimination of minorities
  • Monitoring and moulding of civil society
  • Media and internet censorship
  • Curbs on academia and educational curricula
  • Targeted repression of opponents
  • Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly
  • Disregard for rule of law and human rights
  • Misuse of state resources (cronyism)
  • Emasculation of the electoral process
  • Forging of external enemies
Academic criticism

Illiberal democracy as a concept has been criticised for its diffuse meaning and close proximity to related, almost synonymous terms, such as: limited democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regimes, dysfunctional democracy, deconsolidating democracy, defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism. According to Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, the concept does not distinguish sharply enough democracies which have, in fact, never been truly democratic but claim to be so, from regimes that actually have successfully become or transitioned toward genuine democracy but are backsliding toward autocracy. Others, such as Jørgen Møller, have argued that electoral democracy is, if measured adequately, a better measure than illiberal democracy since truly competitive elections only take place in liberal democracies. Finally, it has also been contended that illiberal democracy is an unfortunate and potentially noxious misnomer since it offers the opportunity to populists and autocrats to promote illiberalism while preserving the veil of democracy.

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