The news out of Russia the past few years has been depressing for believers in liberal democracy. Twenty years ago, it was sometimes said that Russia had put political reform before economic reform, and China had started with economic reform. Many people, following the analysis of Fareed Zakaria in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, thought that China’s path was more likely to lead to the development of a middle class, civil society, and eventually democratic capitalism. And that may yet be the case.
But today, on the 20th anniversary of the attempted communist coup in Russia and Boris Yeltsin’s victory for democracy, Masha Lipman has some interesting things to say in the Washington Post about the state of freedom in Russia. She says the previous hopes for democracy have been replaced by Vladimir Putin’s “recentralizing power and reinstating state dominance over the people,” leading to a withdrawal of most citizens from political involvement and thus to “increasing corruption, cronyism and lawlessness.” But there’s good news beyond the headlines:
The freedom of individual pursuit — as long as one stays away from politics — is one undoubted achievement of Russia’s post-communist development. Putin’s government reinstated the Soviet-style political monopoly and uncontested governance but did not encroach on individual rights. The constraints that existed in the USSR on entrepreneurship, artistic or academic self-fulfillment and lifestyle were not brought back. If one views the events of August 1991 as people rising in defense of freedom against a communist comeback, today’s individual freedoms should be seen as a goal fulfilled.
Another post-communist achievement is the rise of a consumer society. Although a sizable number of Russians still have low incomes, never has the proportion of those who enjoy reasonable wealth and comfort been so high. During Soviet times, frustrated consumers faced chronic shortages and ubiquitous lines; after August 1991 and the adoption of a market economy, this cause of discontent was eliminated.
These days in Russia, individual freedoms and the developed consumer society are taken for granted.
That’s good news, 20 years after the fall of communism.