By Caroline Caywood
Russian democracy is in a precarious state today. Vladimir Putin, recently inaugurated to a fourth term as President of Russia, shows no sign of stepping away from power anytime soon. Freedom of speech is also under siege, highlighted by the arrests of over 1,600 people during a May 7th protest against Putin, including Alexei Navalny – an outspoken critic of the President known for his campaign against corruption. With such blatant disregard for the confines of the country’s Constitution, all fingers seem to point to Mr. Putin as the perpetrator of Russia’s illiberal downfall. However, the notion that Putin alone is responsible for the great decline of democratic liberalism is simply untrue. While Putin’s actions may be the final straw in weakening Russia’s rule of law, political freedom was never fully solidified in the Federation, in large part due to America’s role in fostering Russian autocratic rule during the 1990’s.
One of the United States’ top priorities after the collapse of the USSR was to promote the adoption of Western style capitalism in Russia by any means possible. To do accomplish this aim, the U.S. backed and encouraged a series of radical economic reforms by the Yeltsin administration, such as mass privatization and rapid abolition of price controls for many key consumer goods. While these policies aimed to alleviate the economic stagnation wrought by collectivization, in practice the “shock therapy” of 1992 did little to relieve Russia’s suffering. Instead, heavy American involvement from institutions like Harvard University for International Development (who wrote out decrees to be signed by Yeltsin) led to extreme hyperinflation and the creation of the oligarch ruling class.
Russia’s oligarchs originated as the beneficiaries of the Yeltsin government’s questionable privatization programs. American support, which included sending advisors to circumvent parliament and the democratic process that was still in its infancy, was indispensable to empowering Russia’s robber barons. Members of the Chubais Clan, a small group surrounding presidential aide Anatoly Chubais, gained enormous political leverage and wealth due to American funds and lobbying. Thus, instead of spurring a free and open economy under which all citizens could benefit, American backed privatization opened the door for a new class of elites while leaving behind a Russian populace even worse off than before. Although many of the tycoons who grew rich during the 90’s have since fallen from grace, the oligarchical system that emerged then remains and serves as a major obstacle to democratization.
Perhaps most egregious of all their oversights in the Yeltsin presidency, the United States condoned and even encouraged undemocratic measures taken by the Russian president in 1993 when he attempted to dissolve the Russian legislature due to high tensions between the two governing bodies. The parliament responded by impeaching Yeltsin, and appointing his Vice President, Alexander Rutskoi as the new President. This animosity culminated in the October Constitutional Crisis, wherein Yeltsin sent troops and tanks to subdue the the Russian parliament, leaving nearly 200 dead. Not only did the Clinton administration ignore Yeltsin’s orders for hostile action, it helped push Yeltsin’s actions by threatening to cut aid if a budget was not passed and expressed support for the September 1993 suspension of parliament that preceded the conflict. Coupled with a parallel power structure through which Yeltsin ruled by decree, the October 1993 crackdown directly led to a the dissolution of checks and balances in the state. This dangerous precedent has led to the current political climate under which Putin is free to eliminate all opposition and effectively institute one-man rule.
Despite the selective amnesia that permeates American memory on its involvement in Russian politics, the United States in fact did little to hide its heavy-handed effort to back a wildly unpopular Boris Yeltsin in his 1996 reelection. In a period marked by fraudulent actions and blatant constitutional breaches, the United States launched a desperate campaign to defeat Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who polls showed as the front-runner. American leadership actively pushed for International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans to be allocated to Yeltsin’s campaign (which spent millions of dollars above the legal limit for Russian campaigns) and turned the other cheek to clear evidence of a rigged election in his favor. American campaign strategists helped employ tactics like spreading rumors of a coup in the case of a Zyuganov victory as well as disrupting media access to the opposition and making false promises of halted NATO expansion and a peaceful settlement in Chechnya under Yeltsin. Now over two decades later, the slow buildup of illiberal actions has led to Putin’s autocratic rule – a system that has continuously backed totalitarian regimes and condoned human rights abuses.
One of the bloodiest conflicts on Russian soil since World War II, the First Chechen War raged from 1994 to 1996 and resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Chechens, most of whom were civilians. Beginning in 1991, Chechen leader Dzokhar Dudyaev signed a decree entitled On the State Sovereignty of the Chechen Republic which called for the secession of the republic from the newly formed Russian Federation. This decree fell on deaf ears, however, as Russia was reeling from the recent dissolution of the Soviet Union under the Belavezha Accords and its undergoing of extreme regime changes. As Dudyaev continued to press for sovereignty and arm his supporters, pro-Russian forces within Chechnya began to organize themselves under Umar Avturkhanov to counter any secessionist movements. Following violent clashes among the two groups, Avturkhanov’s men stormed Grozny in late November 1994, prompting Yelstin to sign the decree “On Actions [needed] to Restore Constitutional Law and Order Across the Territory of the Chechen Republic” and declare war on the Chechen dissenters.
During this period, the Russian Federation committed a number of atrocities and crimes against humanity which went largely ignored by the United States. Russian soldiers crossed the border into Chechnya on December 11, 1994, instituting a campaign of indiscriminate bombing, looting, and murder of innocent civilians in their own homes. Despite calls for action from human rights organizations, the response from the West and the U.S. in particular was abysmally lacking. Fearful of alienating Russia and undoing all post-cold war democratic progress, the Clinton administration elected not to suspend IMF loans or other forms of financial aid to the state. President Clinton went as far as to liken the Chechen War to the American Civil War, presenting the misguided quotation, “I would remind you that we once had a civil war in our country in which we lost, on a per capita basis, far more people than we lost in any of the wars of the 20th century, over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no state had a right to withdrawal from our union.” This statement solidifies the American policy of Chechnya being a part of Russia and the need for a diplomatic solution as opposed to Chechen solidarity. In 2000, during the Second Chechen War, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a visit to then Acting President Vladimir Putin but failed to address key abuses by the Russian military on civilians in Chechnya. By focusing on maintaining a strong relationship with Russian leadership instead of lambasting the administration for its brutalities, the United States helped set a precedent of excessive military force and an extremely fragile liberal democracy.
While recent actions by Vladimir Putin point to a rapid breakdown of Russian democratic ideals, it is crucial to remember just who played a large role in installing the government 27 years ago. The United States made clear its intentions to secure a liberal free market system which it aimed to achieve by backing a nominally democratic president and putting into place an economic “shock therapy”. In doing so, however, the Clinton administration set the foundation for the emergence of an aggressive and autocratic Russia.