Russia in Reverse


Project Syndicate, 7 May 2012: Vladimir Putin has just been inaugurated for a third term as President of the Russian Federation. But the event’s pageantry could not mask that his return to the presidency, after a four-year stint as Prime Minister, is far from triumphant. On the contrary, Putin, who has been in power since 2000, represents the specter of stagnation that haunts Russia – a specter that wants at least another two six-year terms as President.

The contrast between the transition at the Kremlin and China’s upcoming – and strictly choreographed – power transfer could hardly be starker. This autumn, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including the country’s president, Hu Jintao, and premier, Wen Jiabao, will step down, and at least 14 members of the 24-member Politburo will retire, making way for a new generation of leaders.

So, although China has the more authoritarian system, it is moving forward. The same cannot be said for Putin’s Russia.

Unlike China, a one-party state, where real power is insulated from direct voting by layers of Communist Party structures, Russia has a multi-party political system, with regular elections at most levels of government. To be sure, not all parties or candidates are allowed to run, and elections can be manipulated. Still, there is more room in Russia than in China for opposition voices to express themselves.

Indeed, Russian civil society and protest movements are more assertive and politicized, while protests in China are crushed without remorse. The Russian media, particularly newspapers and radio, have more freedom as well, and openly disparage Putin, whereas Chinese journalists can take on issues like corruption, but may not criticize the Party. Likewise, the Internet is not censored in Russia as it is in China.

Given that China is significantly more authoritarian than Russia, it seems counter-intuitive that China’s political system manages to produce some rotation of leaders, however imperfect and even tense, whereas Russia does not. In this way, China takes advantage of one of democracy’s key benefits – leadership turnover – without the risk of popular accountability.

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