An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2017

The Prospects for a Color Revolution in Russia

Valerie Jane Bunce

From 1998 to 2005, six elections took place in postcommunist Europe and Eurasia that led to the defeat of authoritarian incumbents or their anointed successors, the empowerment of opposition forces, and, thereafter, the introduction of democratic reforms. Because Putin’s regime closely resembles those regimes that were successfully challenged by these dramatic changes in politics, Russia is a logical candidate for such a “color revolution,” as these electoral turnovers have been termed. Moreover, the color revolutions have demonstrated an ability to spread among countries, including several that border Russia. However, the case for a color revolution in Russia is mixed. On the one hand, the many costs of personalized rule make Putin’s Russia vulnerable. On the other hand, Putin has been extraordinarily effective at home and abroad in preempting the possibility of an opposition victory in Russian presidential and parliamentary elections.

VALERIE BUNCE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2010, is the Aaron Binenkorb Professor of International Studies and Professor of Government at Cornell University. She is the author of Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries (with Sharon L. Wolchik, 2011), Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World (with Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss, 2009), Subversive Institutions: The Design and the Destruction of Socialism and the State (1999), and Do New Leaders Make a Difference: Executive Succession and Public Policy under Capitalism and Socialism (1981).

The global wave of democratization, which began in the mid-1970s and continued through the mid-1990s, had two effects. One was to significantly expand the number of democracies in the world. The other was to transform the nature of dictatorship. While military and Communist Party regimes served as the most common forms of autocratic rule during the Cold War, a relatively new type of dictatorship became the global norm after. This version of dictatorship has been variously termed “hybrid,” “competitive authoritarian,” or “electoral authoritarian.”1

These regimes originate in the failure of their predecessors to grow the economy and provide political order and national security.2 Their defining feature is that they straddle democracy and dictatorship. On the one hand, they claim and appear to be democratic, given their liberal constitutions, representative institutions, and competition among parties and among candidates for political office. On the other hand, their leaders purposefully compromise .  .  .


  • 1See, for example, Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); and Andreas Schedler, The Politics of Uncertainty: Sustaining and Subverting Electoral Authoritarianism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • 2See Aleksandar Matovski, Popular Dictators: The Attitudinal Roots of Electoral Authoritarianism (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 2015).
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