The Transition Project: Post-Soviet Experience and Russia’s Recent Track Record

We see that Russia has slid towards authoritarianism. Does this mean that the democratic experiment of the 1990s was an absolute failure?

Despite very difficult conditions (centralized Soviet economy, consistently low oil prices), Russia managed to complete the decade of reforms with economic growth. The transition to a market economy happened: according to the EBRD, the private sector’s share of Russian GDP reached 70% by the end of the 1990s.

In the 1990s, Russia succeeded in creating a space of freedom and a prototype of democratic institutions that would have a huge impact on its future development. Parliamentary elections in December 1999 were recognized by the international community as free and fair and resulted in a highly competitive parliament of 9 factions, which was able to pass key reform packages that ensured economic growth in the 2000s. Until 2005, Russia was ranked «partly free» in Freedom House’s index of democracies. The experience of more than a decade of political pluralism, freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and political competition will have a profound impact on the thinking of generations to come. The political resistance of the last decade, the mass protests of 2012-2021, the emergence of popular political leaders and intellectuals (Alexei Navalny, Yevgeny Roizman, Ilya Yashin, etc.) are the result of the 1990s.

Russians were never happy about corruption or weakness of the law, they were against the war in Chechnya — Boris Nemtsov, then governor of Nizhny Novgorod, collected a million signatures against the war in 10 days and brought the folders to the Kremlin. Unfortunately, no real mechanisms of public influence on the situation in the country were formed. This allowed Vladimir Putin to gradually seize power, imitating democratic institutions along the way. The «Great Awakening» began only in 2011 with the protests on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue, but it was too late, the nascent democratic institutions had been dismantled.

What went wrong, could it have been worse, and what lessons can we learn from the reforms of the 1990s? We continue to publish chapters of The Transition Project, a step-by-step expert guide to democratic transformations in Russia after the change of power.

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