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Gel'man, Vladimir. Iz ognia da v polymia: Rossiiskaia politika posle SSSR. St. Petersburg: BHV, 2013. 256 pp. R179.00. ISBN 978-5-9775-0827-8.
Vladimir Gel'man’s From the Fire Into the Frying Pan offers a highly engaging, exceptionally lucid, and theoretically well-informed analysis of post-Soviet politics in Russia. Gel'man’s work unites a firm grasp of comparative theory and experience with an intimate knowledge of the ups and downs of Russian politics. These ingredients are brought together with a lively writing style that makes Gel'man’s book a unique contribution both to understanding contemporary Russian politics and to teaching the subject at the undergraduate and graduate levels.
Gel'man addresses three main issues—the failure of democracy in post-Communist Russia, the consolidation of the current authoritarian system, and the prospects for change following the protest cycle of 2011–12. In addressing each of these, Gel'man places the specifics of Russian experience in a broader comparative theoretical context that makes the analysis both fresh and quite persuasive.
A central element of Gel'man’s argument is his refusal to accept the simplistic conventional wisdom that the failure of democracy in Russia should be laid at the door of an authoritarian Vladimir Putin. However, while not simply blaming malevolent leadership, Gel'man also avoids the opposite error of attributing blame to deep and unreformable cultural or historical forces. Instead, Gel'man’s account lies firmly within mainstream political science thinking about authoritarian regimes, where political institutions, public opinion, state capacity, and economic factors intersect. As Gel'man rightly points out, Russia never really had a democratic project, but rather self-interested elites who used democratic-sounding rhetoric to further their private interests and, after Yeltsin’s violent consolidation of power in 1993, the kinds of domestic or international pressures on the ruling clique present in most successful cases of democratization were almost entirely absent. Without restraints on the self-interest of ruling elites, the failure of democracy in Russia was over-determined.
A great analytic strength of the book is the separation of the question of why democracy failed from that of how authoritarianism was built. Consolidated authoritarianism is not the only alternative to democracy, and the successful construction of an authoritarian system, in fact, took time. In explaining Putin’s success in fashioning a new system, Gel'man focuses on state capacity and institutional innovations that gradually centralized authority. A key part of this process was the use of 1990s-era political institutions, most notably elections and parliaments, to co-opt part of the ruling elite. Also important in Gel'man’s account is the relatively low level of repression exercised by the regime (at least outside of the North Caucasus).
In the section of the book on the protests of 2011–12, Gel'man presents an insightful account of how, quite paradoxically, those same political institutions designed to co-opt part of the elite created an opportunity for those who were excluded from elections to enter the political arena. While it was the Communist party that was the principal victim of electoral fraud in 2011, the Communists were highly compromised and quick to accept new positions of power in the Duma, leaving the field open to previously marginal figures like Alexei Navalny and others to enter the political arena. However, the opposition was only able to mobilize the most actively oppositionist sector of the electorate, and marginal voters were left unclear as to whether the opposition would be better than the incumbents.
The result was a very short lived political challenge to the regime. Nevertheless, as Gel'man quite rightly notes, past failures do not rule out future successes, and Russia today stands in a much more promising position for democracy than some countries that have more or less successfully made the transition. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that a wind of change is blowing in Moscow—or, if not a wind, then at least a breeze. As Gel'man nicely puts it, democracy in Russia might not have a whole window of opportunity, but it does have a fortochka. Though politics is less open now than immediately after the collapse of Communism, supporters of democracy are less naive and a new generation of activists and citizens has been emerging over the last decade who are less traumatized by the post-Soviet catastrophe and more ready to engage with winning and defending civic and political rights. Thus, while many different paths remain open over the coming years, Gel'man’s counsel of patience and cautious optimism is as wise as it is unfashionable these days.
Graeme Robertson, University of North Carolina
Наверное, более позитивные слова о моих достижениях теперь уже напишут разве что в некрологе? :)