In the article, “How Democracies Fall Apart,” Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz name various populist leaders that have come to power since the end of the Cold War, and they discuss how these “populist-fueled strongmen” have sought to gradually erode democracy after they come into power (2). Among the leaders, Kendall-Taylor and Frantz name Vladimir Putin, who has held positions of power within the Russian government for the past nineteen years. However, I argue that Putin may not, in fact, be as populist as individuals like Kendall-Taylor and Frantz may think. Rather, I believe him to fall more into the stealth authoritarian category that Ozan Varol discusses in “Stealth Authoritarianism.”
While Russia’s leading strongman might exhibit some characteristics of a populist leader, he seems to lack in some key behaviors that would define him as a truly populist leader. I draw my definition of a populist leader mainly from Jan-Werner Mueller’s book, What is Populism?, in which Mueller outlines these characteristics that define populist politicians. In his book, Mueller presents the essential behaviors that make a politician a populist: the strongman must be critical of elites, anti-pluralist, and exclusionary of certain groups of individuals in the greater idea of “the people” (20). Yet, Putin’s platform and rhetoric does not seem to include discussion of any of these points. In fact, William Burns, former ambassador to Russia, stated in an interview that Putin is a “cynic” about the people around him, as well as his own people. This is not the type of rhetoric and outlook that one would expect from a populist leader, who should be presenting himself as a representative of the people. If anything, Putin has become the elite. If we continue to apply Mueller’s definition of populism, this lack of criticism for the elites- and being instead part of the corrupt elites himself- will immediately disqualify Putin from being a populist leader, as Mueller considers criticism of elites to be a “necessary but not sufficient condition…in order to count as a populist” (2). Even if Putin might not be considered a fully populist leader by Mueller’s definition, we must acknowledge that some of Putin’s behaviors still fall into the category of being populist. Populists will engage in power consolidation, mass clientelism, and corruption, all of which Russia has witnessed during Putin’s regime. A report on Russian corruption gives further insight into the clientelism and corruption that Putin’s government conducts. In terms of power consolidation, Putin has been recently considering constitutional changes that will allow him to continue to remain in power even after the end of his current term.
While Putin may not necessarily be a wholly populist leader, he most certainly could be considered a stealth authoritarian. In fact, Ozan Varol frequently discusses Putin’s practices in his writing and states that Putin has met criteria to be deemed a stealth authoritarian. According to Varol, Putin has “deployed judician review” to help consolidate his power, used civil libel lawsuits in cases against government critics, and increased the electoral threshold in order to establish the “dominance” of Putin’s political party over others, to name a few (1690, 1696, 1705).
Regardless of the behaviors that Putin has indicated during his regime- populist or stealth authoritarian- it is clear that Putin poses a threat to democracy in Russia. Though Russia has had tenuous democratic implementations since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin seems to have prevented true democracy from ever forming in the Russian Federation since his rise to power in 2000. Russia’s increasing distance from democratic ideals should be a cause of concern for the United States, as Russia plays a major role within the international community and could be considered a great power in its own right. The US is no longer in a unipolar era as a result of the rise of Russia and China as great powers. Thus, the threat of Putin’s actions lie not simply in the harm that Putin inflict upon Russia’s democracy, but also in what he can do to ours.As Putin seeks to further erode democracy within Russia, the United States must be vigilant in ensuring that Russia does not erode our own.
- Kendall-Taylor, Andrea and Erica Frantz. “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs.December 5, 2016.
- Mueller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism?Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Varol, Ozan. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review100 (2015): 1673- 1742.
Photo, originally from Getty Images, was used by The Hill in this article.