For all the numerous definitions of democracy offered by political scientists and international organizations, one simple test stands out: an election that results in an opposition victory and a peaceful transfer of power.
By this standard, Ukraine “graduated” to the democratic club in 1994, barely three years after the fall of the Soviet Union, when then-President Leonid Kravchuk lost to his challenger, Leonid Kuchma, and duly passed the baton. A decade later, in 2004, it took thousands of people on Kiev’s Independence Square and a principled stand by Western powers to defend Ukrainians’ democratic choice, but in the end the presidency was handed to the opposition. This year, Ukrainians cemented the tradition, choosing an opponent over both the incumbent president and prime minister. Paradoxically, while rejecting leaders of the Orange Revolution, Ukrainian voters upheld its ideals.
Many republics of the former Soviet Union passed the “democratic test” early on—including, ironically, the now-autocratic Belarus, where in 1994 populist candidate Alexander Lukashenko prevailed over Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich. In Moldova, opposition came to power through elections in 1996, 2001, and 2009. In Latvia, the first re-election of a sitting government occurred in 2006, a full 15 years after independence—all previous votes resulted in prime ministerial reshuffles.
Russia has yet to pass this test on the national level. To be sure, the country did hold free elections that were won by the government’s opponents, and it did undergo numerous transfers of power. But the two somehow never went together.
Elections for the first-ever Russian parliament in 1906 were won by the opposition Constitutional Democrats—a party that strove to transform Russia along the British model of parliamentary monarchy. Yet the majority in the Duma in Russia’s post-1905 “semi-constitutional” system did not translate into executive power, and parliament was dissolved by Nicholas II after just 72 days of existence. The same fate the following year awaited its successor, after which the regime simply rewrote electoral rules to limit the opposition’s support.
In recent memory, Russian voters handed victory to the opposition in 1991, 1993, and 1995. The latter two were elections for parliament that, as in the early 1900s, did not control the executive. The 1991 presidential election, overwhelmingly won by the democratic opposition’s Boris Yeltsin over Communist candidate Nikolai Ryzhkov (57 to 17 percent), was held under the continuing Soviet rule, when Russia did not have sovereignty over its affairs. The real transfer of power from the Communists to President Yeltsin came later, after a democratic revolution in August and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.
We cannot know when and under what circumstances Russia’s current authoritarianism will give way (or, more likely, will be made to give way) to democracy. But when an opposition leader, duly elected by voters, walks down the aisle of the Kremlin’s St. Andrew Hall to place his or her right hand on the constitution, we will know that it is happening.