Nation-Building: A Comparison, Part II

For the introduction to this series of essays, see the opening paragraphs of the April 2003 issue of “Reflections on Russia.”

Part II: Democracy Before Political Parties

Russia’s Democratic “Experiment”

The March 2000 election of President Vladimir Putin marked a critical point in the development of Russia’s post-Soviet political system. Starting with the March 1989 elections to the Soviet Union’s legislative bodies – the first free, multi-candidate national elections in its history, the country now had experienced more than a decade of competitive elections and had demonstrated it was capable of peacefully transferring power from one leader to another.

In this early stage of its development, Russia struggled through the difficult issue of how to organize its internal political life. In the March 1989 election, the Communist Party still monopolized the political landscape, although it was split into at least four different sub-groups – from neo-Stalinists on one end of the spectrum to democratic reformers on the other. Four years later, in the elections for the State Duma (parliament), more than one hundred political parties were formed and thirty-five parties and electoral blocs attempted to get on the ballot. Ultimately, only thirteen parties or associations were registered and allowed to compete on the ballot.

What is striking about this period in Russia’s history is how the founding president, Boris Yeltsin, clearly viewed himself as “above party politics.” Throughout the 1990s President Yeltsin consistently refused to connect his political fortunes to any single political party or movement and, although he responded positively to various factions who supported his candidacy for president in June 1991 and June 1996, he was unwilling to be identified in this way. He was “President of the Russian Federation,” the leader of the Russian people, not a politician representing some narrow slice of the Russian political landscape.

Political elections in Russia were opportunities to vote for different “personalities,” not detailed political agendas. When President Yeltsin ran for president in June 1991, he offered no specific political platform of any consequence. He positioned himself as the candidate for democratic reform, versus the former Soviet Prime Minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, a candidate of the former ruling elites. The same approach was evident in June 1996, when President Yeltsin was elected to his second term as President. Efforts were not spent developing a Yeltsin political party – the Founding President was above party politics. In this early period of Russia’s experiment with democracy, political parties were not yet critically important parts of the process. Their role had not been clearly established in the Russian Constitution of 1993 and what role they were to play in Russia’s democratic future was still an open question.

America’s Democratic “Experiment

During the first decade of America’s newly won independence, President George Washington had such a powerful presence in the new nation’s life that party politics held no real interest or value for him. He saw himself as a man above the petty competing interests of many of his contemporaries and refused to engage in partisan politics.

The framers of the U. S. Constitution did not envision political parties, and the role of political parties was not described in this foundational document of America’s new democracy. All of the first three Presidents of America had strong feelings against political parties and partisan bickering. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “If I could not go to heaven but with a [political] party, I would not go there at all.” But his political ambition for the presidency eventually made him change his views on this subject. Washington and Adams, however, did not waive in their convictions on this subject.

Yet within five years after the Constitution was written, many of these same framers began to organize a rudimentary party system. Federalists, who supported a strong central government, gathered around Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, while Republicans, who favored the diffusion of power, were drawn to James Madison and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Jefferson.

Democracy was launched on American soil without political parties firmly in place and with political interests widely scattered across the landscape. It was not until the presidential election campaign of 1796 that there were political parties in opposition to each other, the first time in America’s experience. While the presidential candidates, Adams and Jefferson, remained out of the fray and often isolated at their family homes, the campaign became a vicious, all-out battle between two newly formed political parties.

Finding Their Own Way

There is no single path to democracy, no well-worn instruction book that tells any inquirer what institutions have to be developed in order for a civil society to be built.

America has chosen a system with two political parties; Russia is still trying to sort out how its political parties will be organized. It is important to note that both countries built some of the essential structures of democracy before political parties were organized.