Nominally, Russia is a democracy. It holds free, competitive, multi-party elections to vote candidates into different branches of the government and guarantees basic freedoms to its people under its constitution. However, ever since Putin attained power in 1999 as Prime Minister then President of Russia, he has centralized Russian politics to create a distinct, highly personalized system of rule in his country to serve his own political agenda.
Putin’s government consists largely of officials who support Putin and his objectives:
The administration is composed disproportionately of members of the militocracy—military and security officers with connections to Putin during his days as a KGB officer. Almost his entire entourage of personal advisors, people who comprise his “inner circle,” consists of such personal contacts. Furthermore, in 2004, Putin abolished the practice of electing provincial governors in favor of presidentially appointing them instead (Kryshtanovskaya and White 296, Lynch 25). Putin, in essence, has created his own nepotistic executive service class with people who are trained to obey their superior and act as a collective to achieve his aims.
Although the Duma (Russian Parliament) consists of representatives elected by the Russian people, in reality, the legislative branch has essentially been fused with Putin’s office. Putin has managed to merge the political parties into a singular pro-government body. When combined with its allies in the legislature, Putin’s party, United Russia, achieves a super majority large enough to even change the constitution (Lynch 26). Without any significant opposition coalition in the legislature, Putin has managed to craft veto-proof support for his policies under the veil of democracy.
Even the courts are subsumed under Putin’s control. In 2003, a renowned oil baron known for his liberal economic beliefs and Russia’s richest oligarch, Mikhail Khodorkovsky
, dared challenge Putin over large-scale corruption in Russia. Eight months later, he was arrested on trumped up charges of tax evasion, fraud, and embezzlement and sent to prison camps. Interestingly, the verdict delivered by the court was an exact replica of the prosecutor’s indictment, down to the same typographical errors (Lynch, 2015). The case of Khodorkovsky serves as a dire warning to Putin’s detractors—not even Lady Justice can protect them when they challenge Putin’s rule.
Although Russia continues to hold competitive, multi-party elections to vote legislative and presidential candidates into political power, it is merely a democratic façade.
During the 2012 presidential election, four candidates from different political parties ran against Putin’s bid for reelection as President:
- Gennady Zyuganov was the nominee of the popular Russian Communist Party, but he had consistently placed second in the last three presidential elections he participated in.
- Vladimir Zhironovsky, a liberal democrat, and Sergey Mironov campaigned on different platforms, but during their tenures in the Duma (Russian Parliament), they consistently voted in favor of Putin’s policies.
- Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the Brooklyn Nets, ran as an independent candidate.
These campaigns, thus, did not actually challenge Putin’s extremely popular incumbency. They supported, instead, Putin’s qualifications to seek a (highly controversial) second stint as President of Russia and win through “fair, multi-candidate democratic means.”* The elections gave Putin’s third term as President an impression of political legitimacy.
Meanwhile, individuals with substantial grassroots support
who could pose a legitimate challenge to Putin’s rule, like popular anti-corruption blogger and leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny
, are barred from running for election through political persecution. In 2014, Navalny was convicted of fraud and placed on house arrest. As a result, he was ineligible to run for public office in Moscow
. In this way, the system of popular support has been rigged to root out any potential political alternatives to Putin’s regime.
Elections in Russia are structured to favor Putin and show him as the only viable candidate to rule the country. They help Putin sustain his hold on Russia.
*Putin’s 2012 reelection campaign was highly controversial–setting off protests in Russia–because then Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s former deputy Prime Minister, announced the previous year that the two would essentially“swap places.”
A provision in the Russian constitution prevented Putin from seeking another term as President at the end of his second term in 2008. Medvedev became President in 2008, and he appointed Putin as his Prime Minister. When Putin was reelected as President in 2012, he appointed Medvedev as his Prime Minister.
Putin for Life?
Putin has created a highly centralized system of rule revolving around him, effectively making himself indispensable as the leader of Russia. He has ensured, through his political machine, that he is the ultimate arbiter and rules the government with an iron fist.
If he wins again, Putin’s time in power could match or even surpass Joseph Stalin’s 24 year-long dictatorship of the Soviet Union.
More on Elections:
Shlapentokh, Vladimir. “Hobbes and Locke at Odds in Putin’s Russia.” Europe-Asia Studies 55, no. 7 (2003). Accessed December 10, 2015.
More on Putin’s Regime:
Luhn, Alec. “15 Years of Vladimir Putin: 15 Ways he has Changed Russia and the World.” The Guardian. May 6, 2015. Accessed December 10, 2015.