“Under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s ruling class again claims to represent a superior alternative to liberal democracy. How can we theorize this regime? Putinism is a form of autocracy that is conservative, populist, and personalistic” – Steven Fish, Berkeley
As Vladimir Putin prepares for his fourth presidential election, some observers warn that he has achieved such centralised control that Russia’s future is tied to him and will be defined by how he acts over the next five years.
When he first came to power in 1999, Putin was seen as a reformer. The former KGB officer had risen through the ranks of Boris Yeltsin‘s administration to be appointed his successor. Taking on an economy in turmoil, war in Chechnya and society subject to the whims of a tiny elite, he gained respect at home and abroad as a man with a plan, and a determined political operator. His election was a sign that Russia was turning away from the era in which oligarchs had split the country’s resources between them, and toward a future governed by the rule of law.
Putin’s first decade in power coincided with strong rates of GDP growth. This is seen by his supporters as a direct result of Putin’s strong leadership, as the economy had only stagnated and declined under Yeltsin. At the same time, key public health indicators improved, such as the infant mortality rate which declined markedly.
Earlier this year, the Washington-based Pew Research Centre found that 87 percent of Russians trust Putin on foreign policy; his approval ratings generally remain high. Though often criticised as repressive, supporters praise his uncompromising stance on domestic and foreign policy.
The Putinist State
“There’s a famous expression that absolute power corrupts absolutely … All of the basic pillars of society that could challenge Putin for misbehaving or doing bad things don’t exist any more, and that’s given him more and more power” – Bill Browder – advocate for Magnitsky Act
Today, activists complain of a stifling of political and social freedoms, and a state increasingly hostile towards any opposition.
“The situation changed in 2011 when a lot of people disagreed with the results of the parliamentary elections,” Grigory Durnovo, a member of rights monitoring group OVDinfo, toldWikiTribune.
The right to demonstrate has been severely limited, says Durnovo, with fewer protest permits issued and heavier sanctions for participating in unauthorised demonstrations. OVDinfo reports that activists are increasingly subject to politically-motivated criminal cases and religious groups are banned for alleged links to terrorism.
The so-called “foreign agent law”, introduced in 2012, was part of this trend, making it more difficult for a civil society group to operate and easier for the state to arrest its members.
Under the law, a non-governmental organization (NGO) can be considered a “foreign agent” if it receives money from abroad and is using it for “political activity”, according to Durnovo. This term effectively covers almost any kind of social and civil activity.
Putin’s most high-profile domestic critic is Alexei Navalny, who campaigns against corruption. He ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, but has since been arrested repeatedly on charges that the European Court of Human Rights recently termed “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable”.
“This year, we see very strong pressure against those who support Alexei Navalny because his campaign started to draw a lot of people to the street,” said Durnovo.
Allowing Navalny to run for mayor of Moscow was a “calculated risk” on Putin’s part, says Graeme Robertson, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina.
In parliamentary politics, Putin has been incrementally limiting access to the ballot almost since he has been in power, says Robertson.
To exist as a political party, a group now needs over 500 members in at least half of Russia’s regions. Effectively, Putin’s United Russia party “get to veto people they don’t want on the ballot”, says Robertson. He believes that Putin pivoted sharply towards social conservatism for the 2011 election. This included embracing the Russian Orthodox church and reducing rights of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans) people.
Putin used this to present himself as a protector of “traditional” Russian values, aligning with senior churchmen and the “orthodox oligarchs” who put money into the Russian church. Putin’s government simultaneously sought to draw attention to LGBT groups and their allies in other liberal rights groups, says Robertson.
Pointing to protesters such as Pussy Riot, the feminist punk band which held sensational demonstrations against government and church, Putin painted opposition groups with a broad, pro-Western brush. The message, says Robertson, was that the West spreads immorality and sexual deviance, while a “real Russian” is naturally opposed to such things.
The depiction of Ksenia Sobchak, the opposition candidate who will stand against Putin in next year’s election, is a classic example, says Robertson. Sobchak is a wealthy socialite who Putin and state media can denigrate, suggesting “they’re frivolous, they’re rich, they’re sleazy, and they’re in bed with the West,” said Robertson
Putin’s wholesome traditionalist image is best cultivated when the president can place himself as a polar opposite to the West, which can help observers understand Putin’s foreign policy agenda.
On the world stage
“The example of the West is a subversive factor. And the best way to deal with that is to try to discredit the West, to disorient the West, to try to persuade Russians that the West is interested in nothing good for Russia” – David Satter
Putin, and Russia more broadly, have always loomed large in Western media, but for a particular reason in the past year. The extent to which Russian actors influenced the U.S. 2016 election may never be known, but the story does not go away.
Senior officials from Facebook, Twitter and Google appeared before Congress to answer questions about Russian influence-pedalling via social media. Facebook revealed that by its estimates 146 million U.S. citizens were subject to Russian posts that attempted to influence the electoral process. In Britain, a parliamentary committee has asked Facebook if there is evidence that Russia used a similar tactic to influence last year’s referendum on exiting the European Union.
There are alternative explanations for Russia’s apparent attempts to distort Western democratic processes.
Bill Browder, the businessman who spearheaded a campaign for sanctions against Russian individuals linked to corruption and human rights abuses — the so-called Magnitsky Act, told WikiTribune that Putin’s agenda is to distract and disorganise the West.
“They want to create as much chaos in the West so that we’re all fighting among ourselves and not focusing any time on trying to look our nose down on Russian crimes,” said Browder, who was sentenced in absentia to nine years in jail on charges related to tax by a Russian court in 2013.
“Brexit is now a full-fledged civil war,” he said, while “in the U.S. you now have effectively a culture war going on.”
“It’s very difficult for any of us to be spending time focusing on Russian corruption, which is a great win for Vladimir Putin,” said Browder.
David Satter, a journalist and author, who was expelled from Russia following his fierce criticism of Putin’s rule, has an alternative view. Through its existence, Western democracy acts as an example to Russian pro-democracy activists, so Putin views it as a subversive factor.
“The best way to deal with that is to try to discredit the West, to disorient the West, to try to persuade Russians that the West is interested in nothing good for Russia,” said Satter. He thinks Putin had little preference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but his aim was to discredit the whole democratic process.
Using foreign policy to discredit the West also explains some of Putin’s activity closer to home, the author says.
The annexation of Crimea, in 2014, throwing Ukraine into years of war, was done “in order to distract attention from the democratic example of what happened in Ukraine – the Euromaidan revolt,” he says.
Crimea was a boost to Putin, Robertson agrees. In the immediate aftermath, “what you saw was this really big emotional rally around Putin himself,” explaining that many Russians saw the annexation as a sign that Putin had moved Russia into a position of strength on the world stage.
Wielding influence over neighbours like these brings Putin support from Russian nationalists, as well as so-called “Eurasianists”, who believe in some form of united greater Russia, a return to the Tsarist empire or Soviet Union.
Andrei Sannikov, who ran for the presidency of Belarus in 2010, before being imprisoned by incumbent Alexander Lukashenko, told WikiTribune that Russian influence permeates life in the Eastern European state.
“[Russian] TV channels, orthodox church … paramilitary training for children by pro-Russian instructors,” have all increased through Lukashenko’s political relationship with Putin, said Sannikov.
“The main tool of Russian propaganda is TV which is still more popular in Belarus that its own state TV channels. That explains the fact that about 60 percent in Belarus support Putin’s policy in Ukraine,” Sannikov said.
“[The] Kremlin never abandoned the revisionist idea of restoring Russia’s imperial ‘greatness’,” he says.
Defending Russia’s apparently expansionist foreign policy, some argue that it could be seen as a reasonable self-defensive response to the creeping expansion of Nato along Russia’s borders. However, writing in the Guardian, historians Christopher Clark and Kristina Spohr describe the idea that the West promised not to expand Nato as a “mythical” narrative, created by Putin supporters.
What is perhaps more important is whether this narrative is believed by Russians, as fundamentally Putin’s activity on the world stage serves to shore up his authority at home.
What does this mean for the future?
Putin’s approach to diplomatic leverage works because the West tolerates his tactics, according to David Satter.
Next year, Russia will host the World Cup. It is widely suspected that bribery figured in the bidding process, while the war in Ukraine, the violence of Russian fans at the Euro 2016 tournament in France, repression of LGBT rights and systematic state-sponsored doping in athletics have all variously been cited as reasons to block Russia from playing host. None of these calls have got very far, and next summer the world will watch as Russia hosts a pageantry display that governments covet as an invaluable branding exercise.
If Putin wins the election in March, he will enter his fourth term as President of Russia. He is 65 now and although Russia’s electoral system prevents incumbents from sitting for more than two consecutive terms, most observers say that it is impossible to predict what he will do when that term approaches its end.
Putin must be understood through his relationship with his high-level backers and the Russian people en masse, says Robertson. On the one hand, his government has created a sense of inevitability about his continued rule, based on his relationship with the people as a popular and almost parental figure, says Robertson. On the other hand, he relies on a powerful cast of cronies in the military and wealthy elite.
In Berkeley professor of comparative political science Steven Fish’s definition of Putinism, he writes that “Putinism is a form of autocracy that is conservative, populist, and personalistic,” relying simultaneously on avoiding instability, homophobia and xenophobia, and his personal strong-man image.
By this definition though, Putinism inherently may not be a strong enough ideology to last in a post-Putin world. “The identification of the regime with a single person may fatally undermine Putinism’s effectiveness in its self-appointed role as a bulwark against upheaval,” writes Fish.
Russia’s future will be defined by how Putin’s next term plays out, and the type of transition that follows.
“If you think Putin is bad, there are worse guys in the wings,” warns Robertson, “the West needs to be careful in thinking about what would happen after Putin … we need to be a little bit careful what we wish for.”
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