Democratic Transition in the History of France and Russia

Nikolai Marinichev,
2nd year student, School of Governance and Politics,
MGIMO University

Abstract: In modern actively changing and increasingly globalised world, the trend towards democratization, active borrowing and development of democratic institutions becomes an immanent process that largely determines the vector of the development of the majority of progressive nations. The historical experience of democratic transition often becomes the main inspirational factor of such transformations.

Keywords: democratization, political regime, democratic transition, democratic institutions, French Revolution, post-communist transition  in Russia.

Theory: Democratic transition is «… a concept that unites the diverse processes of transition from one social and political state (one or another type of non-democracy) to another (democratic)». [1] As a rule, the process of democratic transition  includes the primary liberalisation of public institutions, the confrontation between reformers and conservatives, democratic transformations and the creation of new institutions, the gradual achievement of public consensus. Ideally, one of the outcomes of democratic transition is the consolidation of democratic institutions and democratic societies.

 The activation of the processes of democratic transition  at the end of the 20th century enabled F. Fukuyama, American political analyst of Japanese origin, to talk in his work "The End of History and the Last Man" about the fall of socialist and authoritarian nations and their complete displacement by capitalist democratic states.  Modern political scientists connect the emergence of democratic transition, first of all, with the third wave of democratization. [2] Thus, the term "democratic transition" is quite modern, it touches on, first of all, the transitions to democratic regimes in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Post-Soviet space in the 1980s-1990s.

Methods: The ideas of the Enlightenment, that became widespread during the Great French Revolution (1789-1799), served as a deep ideological basis for the majority of democratic transitions, regardless of whether they were carried out in a revolutionary way or through evolutionary transformation.  It was the Great French Revolution that proclaimed the ideas of «liberty, equality, fraternity» (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité); it was in France that the transition to a constitutional monarchy and then to the republic took place; the principles of separation of powers, equality before the law, the principle of meritocracy (the principle of occupying senior positions by worthy citizens) came into effect; effective representative institutions (the National Assembly, the Legislative Corps, etc.) were formed; class privileges were abolished, the ideas of the French Enlighteners (J.-J. Rousseau, Voltaire, S.L. Montesquieu, D.Diderot, etc.) were disseminated.

 However, strictly speaking, the Great French Revolution can hardly be called a democratic transition in the modern sense because of its chaotic, length, lack of consensus on its outcome, obvious differences in the state of the French society of the XIX century and the idea of ​​classical liberal democracy, the formal end of the revolution only after the proclamation of the Directory and the assumption of power by Napoleon I (1799), which tried to combine the principles of monarchy and the republic.  [3]

 Nevertheless the ideas of the Great French Revolution had a colossal influence on the development of social and political thought, including in Russia: beginning with the Decembrist movement of 1825 (the young Decembrists have read a lot of the French philosophers-enlighteners) and till the parallels between the revolution in France and the October  revolution of 1917 in Russia. So, Lenin wrote: "The Jacobins of 1793 passed into history as a great example of a truly revolutionary struggle against the exploiter class.» [4]  Later, the Red Terror and then the actions of the Cheka and the NKVD were justified by comparing the Jacobins with the activities of the Bolsheviks.  What is more, there were the great legal and political influence of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 and of the First French Constitutions of 1791 and 1793 on the Constitution of Russia in 1993.

There are also series of striking parallels between the processes of transition from absolute monarchy to the republic in the XVIII century in France and the democratic transition from post-totalitarian authoritarianism in the USSR at the end of the 20th century. Both states had been characterised by active demographic growth, development of production and trade before the crises that gripped them.  However, both states economically lagged behind their direct competitors: France from Britain, the USSR from the United States. At the same time, France finished the XVIII century with several not very successful wars. And a huge part of the budget of France went to help the US in the war for independence. On the other hand, the participation of the USSR in the war in Afghanistan, for its part, cost 15 thousand lives of Soviet soldiers and 8 billion foreign currency rubles were spent only on humanitarian aid. [5] Real costs, obviously, undermined the national budget.  In both countries, there was a gradual increase in public discontent, understanding of the need for change. All this became a part of the reasons for the subsequent transformations.  The very course of reforms was characterised in both countries by the «swing politics»: of the royalists and Jacobins in France, and the democrats and conservatives in the USSR.

 Democratic transition in Russia has become, of course, a mixed phenomenon.  The transition from the communist system, the attempt to build a civil society, the liberalization of the economy, the development of pluralism have obviously become positive trends. However the transformation of the 1990s was characterised, at the same time, by deep structural socio-political, economic, national crises. In many ways, due to the peculiarities of Russia's historical path, the reforms of the 80s-90s were made «from top to bottom» in our state and this was typical for all major transformations in the history of Russian statehood. [6]

 The process of democratic transition has not been complete in Russia, it has become a kind of metamorphosis of the Soviet system while retaining a significant number of representatives of the Soviet nomenklatura. [7] In the 1990s, in the post-Soviet space, there were virtually no political institutions of democracy necessary for the mild implementation of economic reforms, for alleviation of the difficulties in building a new economy.[7] The lack of an institutional socio-political base, increased executive power, the results of «shock therapy», the parliamentary crisis of 1993 actually discredited the image of a cloudless ideal democracy. The superficial nature of democratization in Russia led to the lack of opportunities for democratic control over the actions of the authorities, according to the modern Russian political scientist L. Shvetsova. [8]

Tolerance, pluralism, and high legal culture, which are generally favourable to democratic transition, are still largely lacking in Russian civil society. The reason for this is the virtual lack of democratic experience.

Results: In summary, it is worth noting that democratic transition, obviously, implies the path of evolutionary changes. The processes of delegitimisation of autocratic rule, the liberalization of the market, the creation of conditions for the development and functioning of democratic institutions and active experimentation with them are becoming a key mechanism of it. The transition to liberal democracy does not always happen, the real consolidation of democracy becomes even more rare.  American political scientist R. Dal noted: "In every democratic country there is a significant gap between real democracy and ideal democracy". [9] This statement is true both for France of the XVIII century, and for Russia of the 1990s.

 Conclusions: It is obvious that if the influence of the ideas of the Great French Revolution stirred the minds of many reformers throughout Europe in the 19th century and found dissemination even in the XX century, the understanding of the results of democratic post-communist transition  in Russia and in the countries of the post-Soviet space is yet to be assessed. That's why the statement of the American writer of the 20th century William Faulkner is true: «The past is not dead, it is not even past».


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