On March 4th, 2018, the Russian government, led by President Vladimir Putin, demonstrated once again what almost the entire world already knows: Russia is currently a highly aggressive, largely undemocratic country.
In the English city of Malisbury, on a peaceful Sunday morning, former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yuilia, were discovered foaming at the mouth and unconscious. Both were immediately transported to the nearest hospital, and remain in intensive care.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May revealed to the public that the two were exposed to a military-grade nerve agent called Novichok, a toxin developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and has been used in several Soviet and Russian assassination attempts since (Masters 2018).
This case is further evidence that the democratic erosion that has occurred in the Russian Federation since 2002, the beginning of the Putin regime, is a result of political violence, intimidation factors, and a fundamentally broad interpretation of Russian legal text. These tactics manifest themselves in forms of press and voter suppression, in addition to political violence.
In the very first paragraph of its constitution, Russia states that it will “asset the firmness of its democratic basic,” while “establishing human rights and freedom.” In its initial chapter, several provisions are laid out, including the following:
The Russian Federation – Russia is a democratic federal law-bound State with a republican form of government (Chapter 1, Article 1).
- Man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the State (Chapter 1, Article 2).
- The supreme direct expression of the power of the people shall be referenda and free elections (Chapter 1, Article 3).
Over the past two years, and as recently as this week, the global community has been exposed to countless evidence to the contrary. Though Putin was elected freely and fairly in theory, he certainly was not in practice. It is equally obvious that the current regime does not support free and fair elections outside of Russia, given its clear interference in the 2016 US elections.
In the 2012 Russian Presidential Election, Vladimir Putin received 63.6% of the vote, defeating second place Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party, who received only 17.2% of the vote. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Putin faced no legitimate competition and unfairly benefited from government spending on his behalf. Peaceful protestors after the election were detained and arrested, which served as further disturbing evidence of democratic backsliding (Barry, Scwirtz 2012).
Free and fair elections, however, are certainly not the only method of measuring democratic persistence or erosion. According to Freedom House, a US government funded organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are critical elements to forming a lasting democratic state.
Fortunately, according to its constitution, these are ideals that the Russian government hold in high regard:
- Everyone shall be guaranteed the freedom of ideas and speech (Chapter 2, Article 29, section 1).
- The freedom of mass communication shall be guaranteed. Censorship shall be banned (Chapter 2, Article 29, section 5)
It is for this reason that it is particularly interesting that FreedomHouse gives Russia a score of 83/100 in terms of press freedom, in which 100 is entirely unfree. According to Politifact, this ranks the Russian Federation 180th out of 199 qualifying countries. The situation has gotten significantly worse since Putin first became President in 2002, as its score rose from 60 to 83, and its subsequent ranking fell from 114 to 180 (Gunitsky 2015).
Evidently, there is a discrepancy between the text of the constitution and the practice of its content. Since the turn of the century, there have been at least 34 cases of work-related murder of Russian journalists. The breakdown of these murders is astonishing: Of the 56% of cases in which the perpetrator is known, nearly 75% of them are government, political, or military figures. Justice is fully served in only 2.9% of these cases (Qiu 2016).
Though experts assert that Putin did not personally order these deaths, “he created a climate” in which they were possible. This, of course, is the M.O of democratically eroding regimes. Broad interpretations of the law, indirect oppression, and crony government all allow the regime to stay in power while preserving an image of democracy.
Though the killing of journalists makes for flashy headlines, and is certainly the most egregious form of media censorship, it is not the most prominent. The most common method of limiting press freedom in the Russian Federation is legal authority and subsequent intimidation efforts.
According to a study conducted by PEN America, an organization devoted to free speech throughout the world, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) is one of the government’s primary tools for controlling the spread of information. It was established as a government agency in 2008, and has since increased in power and authority progressively (Rosenberg 2016).
Roskomnadzor uses laws like the Law on Protection of Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development, which allows government agencies to crack down on any information deemed harmful to the public, to suppress free speech. Moreover, the federal government has been known to prevent media companies that oppose its actions and policy from acquiring the necessary licenses to practice.
This cultivates a culture of fear and intimidation in Russia, one that prevents the free spread of ideas necessary to maintain a productive democracy.
This is an example of executive aggrandizement, the process by which an authoritarian executive seizes an increasing proportion of power from the legislature within a government through means of legality. Though Russia is technically considered a semi-Presidential system, in which the legislative branch and Prime Minister are responsible for the institution of law in the state, it is evident that a good deal of government control is coming unilaterally from the Kremlin.
Ultimately, the common theme tying the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal, the murder and suppression of journalists in Russia, and the Putin regime’s attacks on democratic institutions all over the world is intimidation. It is intimidation and fear that allows Putin to control his citizenry, just as it is the case for all authoritarian leaders. With the 2018 Russian election scheduled for March 18th, and his most vocal opponent, Alexei Navalny, already disqualified from the race, there is little doubt that Putin will win a 4th presidential term (Hincks 2018).
Many speculate that the attempted assassination was a wink and nod at the west, subtlety informing it that Mr. Putin is here to stay. It also serves as a thinly veiled threat to the Russian people and other government officials: toe the line, or suffer the consequences (Lane 2018).
This is textbook authoritarianism, and reflects on a long, unfortunate history of increased democratic erosion in Russia since Putin’s introduction to politics.
Gunitsky, Seva. “How Do You Measure ‘Democracy’?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 June 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/06/23/how-do-you-measure-democracy/?utm_term=.735cea244fef.
Hincks, Joseph. “Russia Presidential Election 2018: 6 Things You Should Know.” Time, Time, time.com/5196905/russia-presidential-election-2018-candidates/.
Lane, Anthony. “Sergei Skripal, Russia, and the Salisbury Conundrum.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 13 Mar. 2018, www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/sergei-skripal-russia-and-the-salisbury-conundrum.
Masters, James. “’Highly Likely’ Russia Poisoned Ex-Spy, UK’s Prime Minister Says.” CNN, Cable News Network, 12 Mar. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/03/12/europe/theresa-may-russia-spy-poisoning-intl/index.html.
Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Opinion | How Censorship Works in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 9 Feb. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2016/02/09/how-censorship-works-in-vladimir-putins-russia/?utm_term=.5103e58b23b5.
Schwirtz, Ellen Barry and Michael. “Observers Detail Fraud in Russian Election Won by Putin.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/world/europe/observers-detail-flaws-in-russian-election.html.
Qiu, Linda. “Does Vladimir Putin Kill Journalists?” PunditFact, 4 Jan. 2016, www.politifact.com/punditfact/article/2016/jan/04/does-vladimir-putin-kill-journalists/