Revolutions from below are led by elements within society. Opposition forces seize power––eschewing, destroying, and replacing the old order’s leaders and institutions. Revolutions from below can be peaceful, as in Czeckoslovakia in 1989 and the Phillippines in the 1990s, or they can be violent as they were in France at the end of the 18th century, also in Russia and China during the first half of the 20th century. Violent revolutions from below rarely produce democracy. Peaceful ones often do. Revolutions from above, however, can be led by state actors who take control of some state institutions legally, but then use them against other state actors (illegally or extra-constititonally) in order to dismantle some of the old order’s state institutions and replace with them with new ones to enact a new form of rule. Whether military-led (as in the Meiji era in Japan, Ataturk’s Turkey, or Nasser’s Egypt) or civilian-led (as in Russia’s revolution from above led by Soviet party and state bureaucrats against the CPSU and Soviet state apparati), revolutions from above tend to produce authoritarian regimes or weak democracies.
By leaving some of the old institutions and power-holders in place, the revolutions from above tend to weaken the democratic impulse. This seems especially true in the case of military-led revolutions from above. But even in the civilian-led Russian/Soviet case of the 1990s, the initial impulse towards democracy was soon replaced by stagnation and then backsliding to a predominantly soft authoritarian, if still hybrid system.
The difference between revolutions from above and below is that, in the former, a credible alternative of competing claims to authority is established inside the state by one group of officials, in order to overthrow the other traditionalist state officials; while in the latter, a credible alternative sovereignty is established ‘below’ in society by a movement which plays the leading role in seizing power from the present state groups. In contrast to revolutions, transitional forms of regime transformation are more reliable producers of democracy, because they use the old order’s instititions as a vehicle for gradually replacing or radically reforming the state and society. The two basic kinds of transitional regime transformations are imposed and pacted (negotiated). Imposed transitions occur when the ruling elite gradually reforms the regime, with few or no negotiations and little input from opposition groups. Eventually this allows the internal opposition to take power by winning a mostly free and fair election. This seems to be more frequent in countries with single-party dominant, soft authoritarian regimes like Russia’s system today. Examples include the democratization processes overseen in Taiwan, South Korea, and Mexico by their respective ruling parties in the 1990s. Imposed transitions may be less reliable democracy producers than pacted transitions, because they may be aborted or they experience backsliding––since there is no opposing force to restrain regime elements who can get cold feet once reforms begin to produce unintended consequences.
A negotiated or ‘pacted’ transition occurs when the old regime’s elite negotiates with societal opposition and forces a process for the gradual replacement (or fundamental transformation) of existing state and eventually societal institutions. The pacting process may include both implicit and explicit negotiations. There are numerous examples of this type of transition stretching from Latin America to Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia. Two classic examples are Poland’s and Hungary’s transitions from communism to democracy. Pacted transitions are good producers of consolidated democracies. They typically occur under regimes where the state elite is more divided over the strategy of reform; factionalization is facilitated by the lack of institutionalization relative to one-party dominant regimes. The ensuing ‘regime split’ prompts state softliners and radical reformers to negotiate with––or defect to the societal opposition, thus opening up the possibility of revolution from below and forcing state softliners to negotiate a transition to democracy or to ‘put the genie back in the bottle’ and crackdown.
Which of these regime transformation models corresponds more closely with the present mode of political change occurring in Russia (which I have referred to first as a thaw or liberalization, and later as perestroika 2.0)? Or is a fifth outcome most likely: a crackdown with end to reforms, stabilization of the present system, and more muddling through under a hybrid regime?
Recent talks between the Kremlin and leading opposition figures concerning the design of the reforms of Russia’s political system (proposed by President Dmitrii Medvedev in December 2011), mark the beginning of a potential pacted transition to democracy in Russia. However, some of the main features of this form of regime transformation have been evident since late in Putin’s second term. In any transformational period, the regime often begins by liberalizing aspects of the regime. This may be preceeded by signals of the upcoming liberalization process.
In the present Russian case, these signals have included: Putin’s selection of the liberal Medvedev as his choice to run in the presidential election to succeed himself as president; Medvedev’s December 2007 declaration during the presidential campaign that “freedom is better than non-freedom” (uttering a word that Putin had hitherto stayed away from); Putin’s last speech as president in which he mentioned an upcoming period of democratic reforms; Putin’s nods during his last months as president, to the liberal democratic ‘Yabloko’ party and its leader Grigorii Yavlinskii; and statements made by Medvedev in the first few months of his presidency describing Russia as either a non-democracy or an imperfect democracy that needed political reforms (see, for example, Gordon M. Hahn, “Is A Russian ‘Thaw’ Coming?,” Russia: Other Points of View, 18 April 2008; Gordon M. Hahn, “More Signs of a Possible Thaw Under Medvedev,” Russia: Other Points of View, 2 June 2008; Gordon M. Hahn, “Medvedev, Putin, and Perestroika 2.0,” Demokratizatsia, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 2010, pp. 228-259; Gordon M. Hahn, “Russia and Its Early ‘New Political Thinking’,” Russia Other Points of View, 27 May 2010; and Gordon M. Hahn, “The Thaw Continues,” Russia Other Points of View, 9 November 2010).
Upon assuming office, Medvedev immediately established a more liberal style that contrasted noticeably from Putin’s pre-thaw style. He continued to meet with opposition figures and extended his condolences to the families of killed journalists, rather than ignoring such crimes or belittling such journalists’ work in the hours immediately following their deaths, as Putin did in the case of Anna Politkovskaya. Medvedec then initiated a series of reforms: strengthening anti-corruption legislation at least four times; carried out reform of the MVD police; softened Russia’s legal codes to de-felonize many petty and white collar crimes; began a more robust NGO inspection regime for Russian prisons; and created minor political reforms which rolled back some of Putin’s legislation. New laws established “equal time” requirements for election candidates’ advertisements and debate appearances. They also stipulated a return to lower barrier of 5 percent of the votes for parties to take a percentage of the seats in the Duma, rather than Putin’s 7 percent barrier.
Medvedev also appointed Nikita Belykh as the governor of Kirov Oblast. Belykh allowed opposition demonstrations and the local media to proceed freely. Medvedev also fired Moscow mayor Yurii Luzhkov, after which his successor, Sergei Sobyanin, immediately established a much more liberal demonstration licensing process, which allowed demonstrations, especially those carried out by democrats, to proceed unhindered for the most part. From late 2010 and early 2011 some ten new political talk shows premiered on state television featuring heated discussions of all of the most prescient political, social, and economic issues facing Russia––including participation by societal opposition’s leaders like Vladimir Ryzhkov, Ilya Yashin, Ilya Ponomarev, Boris Nemtsov, Leonid Gozman, even Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s son, among many others. Thus, contrary to the point of view now being put forward by western journalists, analysts, and scholars, perestroika 2.0 began well before December’s mass demonstrations protesting the recent Duma elections. Just like Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika 1.0, and almost all other regime transformational moments, the process began with reforms instituted from above by softliners atop the state apparatus and ruling elite. Those reforms included a liberalization opening, a societal reawakening, and apparent unintended consequences like the mass demonstrations by a broad ideological front of opposition elements in this past December and January. Society received the signal of liberalization sent by Medvedev’s reformist thaw. By December 2011, fear of the state had subsided, and a coalition of democrats, nationalists, socialists, and communists organized massive pro-democracy, anti-Putin demonstrations to protest December’s unfree and unfair Duma elections in Moscow and across Russia. Moscow’s mass demonstrations, drawing several tens of thousands, were permitted by the authorities and organized peacefully by the protesters, with minor exceptions in some regions.
Implicit negotiating began when Medvedev offered his most radical package of political reforms yet in his annual presidential address to both houses of parliament. They included a return to the free election of regional governors rather than their appointments as instituted by Putin in 2003; a repeal of the requirement that political parties gather signatures to register for federal State Duma elections and regional legislative assemblies; a reduction of the number of members needed to register a political party from Putin’s 45,000 to a mere 500; the re-institution of proportional system in the 225 voting districts from which the Duma is elected, rather than the single federation-wide district voting according to party lists established by Putin; reduction of the number of signatures needed for parliamentary parties to register a presidential candidate to 300,000 rather than the 2 million required under Putin’s counter-reforms; a lower signature requirement of 100,000 for non-parliamentary parties seeking to run presidential candidates; the establishment of an independent public television station; and further decentralization of power from the federal to the regional and local levels.
Some opposition elements responded positively, some negatively, but eventually a group of opposition leaders agreed to sit down with President Medvedev and organize negotiations set around these proposals. In early February, President Medvedev invited leaders of both the parliamentary or systemic opposition parties (which are often in the Kremlin’s pocket––voting as instructed or paid) and the non-parliamentary or non-systemic parties of the latest movement’s nascent peaceful revolution from below.
A first meeting was convened on February 20th to discuss Medvedev’s December proposals, specifically the first bill of amendments to reduce the party membership and other rules for registering political parties. The non-system opposition representatives included: People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS) leader Boris Nemtsov; chairman of the then-banned but now reinstated and soon to be registered Republican Party of Russia (RPR) Vladimir Ryzhkov; United Left Front (OFT) leader Sergei Udaltsov; and Russian Union chairman Sergei Baburin. The meeting also included representatives of the parliamentary opposition parties, including the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the ‘Fair Russia’ party, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). The non-parliamentary opposition’s representatives from PARNAS, RPR, and OFT submitted a joint set of proposed changes to Medvedev’s proposals, most importantly the right for parties to form electoral blocs so they might consolidate the large number of parties that are sure to emerge once the registration rules proposed by Medvedev come into force.
When the law was passed in March; the right to form electoral blocs was not included. However, the government did make one concession to the opposition’s demands––to allow the law to come into effect immediately after the president signed the bill into law rather than at the beginning of 2013 as originally planned. This means the opposition will be in a much better position to contest at least 12 gubernatorial and regional parliamentary elections set for October. More importantly in terms of "pacting", the meeting resulted in an agreement to set up a permanent working group on Medvedev’s democratization proposals, and, according to Ryzhkov, Medvedev did not exclude the possibility of holding mid-term Duma elections to address the opposition’s view that the December vote was fraudulent and illegitimate (Vladimir Ryzhkov, “Medvedev’s Swan Song,” Moscow Times, 28 February 2012). A second meeting to discuss the details of the amendments regarding Medvedev’s proposals on gubernatorial elections was set for April 9th. Whether this negotiating procees will continue and evolve into a full-blown pacted transition remains to be seen, but negotiations have begun on the very kind of democratization issues that need to be addressed for any pacted transition to democracy to occur.
If a pacted transition is not consummated by full democratization and free and fair elections, then the regime’s ruling group still may continue to reform and democratize gradually as they engineer an imposed transition.
Recent opposition victories in several mayoral races, including in the major cities of Yaroslavl and Tolyatti, and upcoming regional gubenatorial and parliamentary elections under the new more democratic election and party legislation could facilitate an imposed transition like Mexico’s in the 1990s. In that case, the main opposition party was allowed to win state elections before the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) acceded to defeats at the federal level and allowed a democratic transfer of power. However, the PRI was much institutionalized within both the state and society than the Kremlin’s United Russia party, which will make it more difficult to limit societal opposition and defections from the regime. A pacted transition probably will require more peaceful political pressure on the part of Russian civil society and opposition groups––as well as more defections from the current regime to the opposition in order to force negotiations and compromise from the state. Civil society in Russia and the nascent ‘White Ribbon’ or ‘Snow’ revolution movement born ‘from below’ during Medvedev’s term, fall even far shorter of the capacity needed to pull off a peaceful or violent revolution from below. They have not yet established structures that could make a credible claim to alternative sovereignty to rule over Russia as the coalition of communists, socialists, anarchists, and democrats did in the network of Soviets in the first Russian revolution in 1917 hijacked by the Bolsheviks. This doesn't mean that this won't happen in the future. However, to make a revolution from below, the opposition will need to be strengthened, the state apparatus will need to be weakened, and the ruling regime group will need to suffer a more profound split than it has undergone so far. Defections like that of former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and others are but a trickle compared to the kinds of mass defections that the Soviet party-state experienced in 1990-1991.
If mass defection should occur, then the destination and political temperament of the defectors will determine the nature of any revolutionary outcome. If they ensconce themselves in state institutions, then the splitters could lead a revolution from below. If they join the opposition more directly by leaving their official offices, then they can either strengthen the opposition towards either making a revolution from below or negotiate a transition pact.
The political temperament of splitters and the original societal opposition will be critical in determining that choice. If opposition moderates, likely to be made up of former regime actors, can contain the more radical opposition elements during negotiations to avoid violence, then a transition to democracy can be negotiated. Similarly, state softliners will need to contain the hardline traditionalists. Both sides could be made more desperate and less amenable to cooperation if an economic or other crisis accelerates state breakdown and social and oppositional radicalization.
The fact that the mass demonstrations have subsided underscores the present predominance of the transitional processes over revolutionary ones––but transformational situations are highly volatile and contingent––and include several potential paths and outcomes simultaneously. In short, the issue is still very much undecided, and accidents of history and the ultimate role of leadership are key “unknowables” at the present time.
Finally, restabilization of state-society relations and continuing muddling through under the presently still hybrid system can occur if more liberal regime behaviors remain possible. However, the growing middle class and its intensifying discontent with Russia’s mass corruption, bureaucratic and police arbitrariness, in addition to limited economic opportunities, suggest there will be persistent and slowly growing pressure for democratic change throughout Russia. Ultimately, how the state and society seek to resolve their differences will go a long way towards determining the modality of regime transformation and its outcome.
Gordon M. Hahn
This article originally appeared on the web site Russia: Other Points of View. The views are the author's own.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Consultant for Russia- Other Points of View. Dr. Hahn is also Non-Resident Senior Associate, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington, D.C.; Senior Researcher, Monterey Terrorism Research and Education Program and an Adjunct Professor, Graduate School of International Policy Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is the author of two well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002) and Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, as well as hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics.