By one count, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the countries in the world are neither fish nor fowl in terms of their political systems -- that is, neither sufficiently democratic nor authoritarian enough to be considered one or the other. Robertson calls these “hybrid regimes,” environments where political competition exists but in unfair conditions. Robertson, after long and detailed study, focuses on the dynamics surrounding protest efforts in Russia, both on the street and in the factory. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a model hybrid regime that sees contestation -- provided it is controlled by the state -- as functional and therefore desirable. The durability of such a regime depends on three factors: the coherence of opposition protests, the regime’s willingness to mobilize against opposition, and the level of unity among the political elite.
In an equally thorough study of nine countries, Bunce and Wolchik concentrate on elections held between 1998 and 2005, some of which led to the overthrow of relatively authoritarian leaders and others of which did not. They conclude that elections pose a genuine challenge to hybrid regimes, but whether they succeed or not depends on how innovative, ambitious, unified, and sanguine the opposition is. Opposition movements with those qualities can produce what Bunce and Wolchik call an “electoral model” of change. Once successful, this model spread to other eastern European countries, aided in important ways by transnational democracy advocates, although not aligning precisely with U.S. “democracy-building” schemes.
The arguments in both books provide complementary explanations for why the Russian presidential elections in March will likely leave Putin in power. But neither book does much to explain the outcome of the Russian parliamentary elections last December, which produced an important shift in political momentum away from Putinism and toward some still-unformed political alternative.