Putin talks about selectively importing Western technologies necessary to strengthen Russia’s defense and energy industries. Far from breaking ground, this is a traditional Russian catch-up model for modernization. It has been in place at least since Peter the Great, the stern and westernizing monarch who brought European fashions – and military tactics – to Russia. This founder of St. Petersburg, the home town of Putin and Medvedev, is Putin’s hero.
Political modernization, including the return to the cacophonous multi-party democracy of the Yeltsin era, will be tough to pull off in Putin’s third term. This is regrettable, but not surprising. For over three centuries, western institutions that were imported to Russia underwent such degradation that they became mere contraptions.
Under the czars, after the 1905 revolution, political parties were tiny and impotent. Parliaments (Dumas) have almost never had a true lawmaking function. In the best case, they became talking clubs. At their worst, the Supreme Soviet rubber stamped the most egregious legislation.
The evolution of the post-communist Duma and presidency is a sad testimony to the same process. As before, the all-powerful executive branch – be it the czar, the secretary general, president, or prime minister – more often than not rules by an ukaz, a fiat.