Russia: Putin, Political Culture and the Weakness of Institutions

Global Scholars Canada’s own Dr. David Koyzis offers a guest blog today. Dr. Koyzis has a running blog, and of late he has been following the war in Ukraine quite closely. What is exceptional about his blog is that its not just news, and neither is it only news within a wide frame of political science. It is both those things plus a discerning Christian take on what is transpiring there. Dr. Koyzis has connections to a seminary in Ukraine, and has recently published an article in a Ukrainian journal called Christian Opinion. Read more here and see his foundational book Political Visions and Illusions here.

For many Americans, their 18th-century founding era is surrounded by a reverential glow similar to the halos around the heads of the holy men and women in Byzantine iconography. Americans revere their Founding Fathers, the constitutional document they produced in 1787, and the political system it established. Here in Canada we are perhaps less in awe of our own Fathers of Confederation, one of whom, Sir John A. Macdonald, had an alcohol problem and pursued a less than fully just policy towards our aboriginal peoples. Nevertheless, both countries have inherited a tradition of respect for the rule of law from the mother country, and this is why they have been so successful in maintaining their respective political institutions for so long. Indeed, such a tradition ought not to be taken for granted, because it is absent in many places around the world.

Arms of the Russian Federation

Examples of these include Russia and other countries once part of the former Soviet Union. After communism’s collapse just over three decades ago, these new nations were compelled to create new constitutions or to heavily amend their existing constitutions. The former Soviet constitution of 1977 was on paper a reasonably good document, establishing a confederal form of government and theoretically guaranteeing the rights of citizens. Yet because the building of communism took priority over everything, an appeal to one’s formal rights would almost certainly be dismissed if one was thought to be obstructing this long-term goal. Freedom of speech did not extend to those deemed a hindrance to the cause of socialism. This meant that the succession of Soviet constitutions amounted to little more than dead letters, claiming normative status but subject ultimately to the whims of capricious rulers.

Some observers believed that this failure to live up to the rule of law was a feature peculiar to communism and that, once that distorting ideology was out of the way, circumstances would inevitably improve. Yet this is not how it turned out. In 1993 the Russian electorate approved a new Constitution of the Russian Federation under the leadership of then President Boris Yeltsin, who had defeated the remnants of the old order in a confrontation earlier that year with the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People’s Deputies. Efforts to build communism and to eradicate it were both conducted in autocratic fashion.

When the new Constitution was published in English translation, political scientist Ronald C. Monticone made this observation in his introductory essay:

The Constitution of the Russian Federation creates a genuine western democracy. There is, however, an old adage that a constitution will succeed only if it reflects the wishes of the people for whom it is written. It will not succeed if it reflects only the wishes of the people who wrote it.

“Putinocracy” Overruns Constitution

On the surface, the Constitution of the Russian Federation is a reasonably good one that does what most written constitutions do: it establishes the various “branches” of government and the respective powers assigned to each; it establishes a federal division of powers and assigns responsibilities to each of these levels; it sets out and claims to guarantee the rights and freedoms of citizens; and it contains provisions for amending the Constitution. However, none of these formal provisions has prevented Vladimir Putin gradually establishing a “putinocracy,” that is, autocratic personal rule, over Russia. Although such institutions as a bicameral Federal Assembly, the presidency, the Government of the Russian Federation, and the court system continue to exist, they have not effectively stood in the way of Putin’s aspirations.

Dr. Koyzis allows us to see Putin in context — historical, political, and religious.

This tells us that a constitution is more than a scrap of paper and is dependent on what some label an “unwritten constitution” and others call a “political culture.” Where a community has long experience with representative government, it is likely to function quite well under a constitution establishing such a government. However, where a community has been governed by some form of autocracy—especially one which routinely flouts the law—then it will be more difficult for it to operate under representative institutions. In short, to become a reality, a constitution needs supportive traditions.

Russia quite evidently lacks such traditions, which cannot be created ex nihilo. It is possible that a nation can overcome the limitations of its own history and establish a working democratic constitution. Germany and France were both able to accomplish this unlikely feat in the latter half of the 20th century, despite the unpromising precedents they had to transcend. However, many other countries have been weighed down by their past as one autocratic regime replaces another, thereby seemingly vindicating Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic definition of a revolution as “an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.”

An anonymous 19th-century Russian is said to have observed that “every country has its own constitution; ours is absolutism moderated by assassination.” Sad to say, Russia is not alone in having such an unwritten constitution. But if a political system is so inflexible and brittle that it can only be altered by removing the person at the top, something is obviously amiss. Traditions of fair play, loyal opposition, respect for the law, and limits on political power cannot be decreed from on high. They cannot be legislated into existence. They have to live within the hearts of the people. The development of such traditions of civility, as Walter Lippmann famously called them, takes time. A long time. Perhaps even centuries.

From the outset, post-Soviet Russia had huge historical obstacles to overcome in its journey towards a system embodying a modicum of just governance. Its written constitution did not prevent another autocracy from developing. But we have reason to hope that younger Russians for whom the Soviet Union belongs to an increasingly distant past may have the determination to make something better of their country. It took a war to move Germany in this direction. Perhaps the current conflict will have a similar effect on Russia.

More of Dr. Koyzis blogs on the Ukrainian front can be found here.

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