While Russia masquerades characteristics of democracy, President Vladimir Putin presides over an authoritarian political system with power concentrated entirely in his regime. Lacking an independent judiciary, free and fair elections, a pluralistic legislator, and an open media environment, Russia continuously moves further from post-Soviet gleams of democratic transition. By suppressing key elements of democracy and privatizing state assets, the Kremlin imposes an autocratic system of government that sabotages liberal democratic order both within and beyond Russia’s borders.
Unlike violent political uprisings of the past, modern democratic breakdowns more often begin with insiders gaining initial power through elections. As scholars of democracy Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss in their book How Democracies Die, the contemporary path to democratic decay relies on actions that fall within the rule of law, sparking steady institutional erosions. As Russia sat on the cusp of a democratic transition after the Soviet Union’s collapse, political insider Vladimir Putin successfully worked within the confines of the law to impede democratic institutionalization.
In 1991, an unsuccessful coup staged by communist hard-liners sealed the fate of the Soviet Union, propelling democratic forces to power. As the first elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin caught the world’s attention by moving the country closer to a democratic political system. At the time, Bill Clinton’s administration emphasized Russia’s transition to both a liberal democracy and a market economy as the United States’ single most important foreign policy priority.
In an effort to transition the state to a market-based economy, then-President Yeltsin introduced a voucher-privatization program, converting state-owned enterprises into private shareholding companies. This push for privatization enabled a handful of Russian businessmen with government ties to become billionaires by cheaply acquiring state assets. By the end of the decade, Yeltsin stepped down and named Putin acting president—ushering in a new era of authoritarianism masked by faux democracy.
After assuming the presidency in 2000, Putin began to systematically consolidate his power, stripping the widely unpopular oligarchs of their political influence and media properties. He allowed many oligarchs to retain their assets in exchange for unequivocal support and alignment with his regime, imprisoning those who fell out of favor with the Kremlin on charges such as of tax evasion. By placing loyal allies into crucial bureaucratic positions, Putin positioned himself to wield authority over large sections of the economy.
While his predecessor’s privatization effort resembled a step forward for democratic hopefuls, Putin’s control of the economy allowed for vast state-wide corruption that solidified his dominance. His consolidation of economic and political power hindered the strength of civil society, allowing Putin’s regime fewer restraints on its movement toward more authoritarian control. The corrupted entanglements of the government and business world resulted in a lack of accountability that enabled Putin’s inner circle to increasingly act with impunity.
According to the independent research organization Freedom House, Russia’s rampant corruption facilitates shifting links among organized crime groups and government bureaucrats. Russian courts prove subordinate to political authorities, and due process cannot be guaranteed to those whom threaten government bureaucrats. For example, journalistic investigations revealed that the members of Putin’s inner circle who offshored billions of dollars to acquire private homes did not receive any legal reprimands. Meanwhile, authorities jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny several times on various charges—including organizing an unauthorized gathering—after Navalny announced his intent to challenge Putin for the presidency. In a judicial system that operates at the will of Putin’s regime, the political interests of the Kremlin dominate.
When scoring the freedom status of nations’ electoral processes, Freedom House allocated 0 out of 12 possible points to Russia. The publication argued that Russia’s electoral system ensures the party of Putin—United Russia—maintains domination with little chance of success by opposition candidates. While the 1993 Russian constitution established a two-term limit, Putin served both terms before becoming Prime Minister, then subsequently won a third presidential term. Earlier this month, Putin won a fourth term with low voter turnout and no credible opposition. Due to Russia’s lack of free and fair elections, only Kremlin-approved candidates dominate regional and national races each election cycle. Like Navalny, opposition politicians frequently face contrived criminal cases designed to thwart their political participation.
Kremlin not only quells opposition candidates, but it also restricts freedoms of assembly and association that conflict with government interests. Routine arrests, the use of force, and harsh prison sentences frequently discourage unsanctioned protests, while pro-Kremlin groups demonstrate without disturbance. When Navalny organized a demonstration in Moscow that mobilized large numbers of opposition supporters, over a thousand people were detained. In February, a Moscow court sentenced eight participants to prison terms ranging from 2.5 to 4 years for unjustified charges of violence against the police. In Russia, authorities commonly meet peaceful rallies by civil society with excessive force and incarceration.
Further suppressing a pillar of democracy, the Russian government controls all of the national television networks as well as many print and radio outlets through state-owned companies. Freedom House allocated 0 out of 4 possible points when scoring the freedom status of Russian media. While the constitution included freedom of speech, any activity that lack official government support receives heavy policing. Therefore, independent media in Russia faces constant legal, political, and even physical attacks from the government.
In 2017, Nikolay Andrushchenko and Dmitriy Popkov—two independent investigative reporters known for their criticism of the ruling party—were killed by unidentified assailants. After writing about corruption in the Russian army in 2006, journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in her apartment on Putin’s birthday. Further, investigative journalist and radio host Yulia Latynina fled Russia last September after receiving several threats of arson on her home as well as an assassination attempt. Meanwhile, a Russian media group angered the Kremlin when it published articles critical of business owners close to Putin. Shortly thereafter, the news service was sold to a Putin ally, forcing many of its journalists to resign. As actions of political and physical harm against journalists operating outside of the Kremlin-approved media remain common, informed opposition to Putin’s regime continues to stagnate.
Putin not only subverts democratic rule in his own country, but also works to undermine democracy abroad. His regime conducts sophisticated campaigns to destabilize democracies and bend them towards his interest. Western intelligence agencies continue to monitor a Russian strategy to support European parties that express sympathy to Putin, including far-right anti-immigrant parties like the Nation Front of France. More recently, U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Through his effort to sabotage democracy abroad, Putin moves closer to making the world safe for autocracy.
By showing a weak commitment to democratic rules, denying the legitimacy of opponents, tolerating violence, and demonstrating willingness to curb civil liberties and the media, Vladimir Putin far surpasses the criteria to identify a dangerous authoritarian laid out by Levitsky and Ziblatt. Due to the privatization of state assets and suppression of democratic accountability, Putin consolidated his power and swiftly moved Russia from democratic transition to authoritarianism. Although falling within the rule of law, Putin strategically suppresses the independence of Russia’s judiciary, elections, and media—moving the nation further from democratic order for decades to come.
(Photo by Planton/Trunk Archive, Creative Commons Zero license.)