When the Wave Hits a Shoal: The Internal and External Dimensions of Russia's Turn Away from Democracy

When Vladimir Putin was elected President of Russia in March 2000, the country bequeathed to him by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, was an unconsolidated, often disorderly and raucous electoral democracy. Gradually though, the Russian political system under Putin came to be described as first "managed democracy" then "illiberal democracy" or "delegated democracy" and finally, by 2005, a non-democracy.

What happened? Why did the fourth wave crash on Russia's shores, and what prospects are there for external factors to play a role in bringing about a rejuvenation of democracy in Russia in the next decade? Is Russia immune to the diffusion effect of democratization that purportedly swept the East in the late 1980's and that is again moving eastward in the last 4 years? What are the implications for this apparent resistance to the fourth wave for Russia's fragile newly democratic neighbors in Ukraine, Georgia and Serbia? In this essay, I will explore these and other questions as I try to assess the internal and external factors that might help us to understand why Russia has undergone a "reverse wave" in democratization even as its smaller neighbors have apparently resisted the authoritarian tide that struck parts of the post-communist world in the late 1990s.