While officially a democracy, the Russian Federation has been slowly sliding back towards authoritarianism under the guise of patriotism and nationalism. Vladimir Putin has reformed the Russian state, crafting a post-Soviet domineering regime that controls the media and suppresses dissent.
Putin’s United Russia party dominates Russian politics, occupying a majority of seats in the Duma, Russia’s parliament. Effectively able to pass any law, Putin has progressively undermined civil liberties and slowly consolidated power in the hands of the central government. Using a variety of aggressive tactics such as intimidation and slander to silence domestic opposition and solidify his office, Putin has managed to remain in power for over 15 years. His allies have even rewritten the constitution to allow Putin to run for a third, extended term as president.
While Russia’s blatant invasion of Ukraine has resulted in harsh economic sanctions from the west meant to harm Putin’s domestic support, he’s seen a surge in support. With a current approval rating of 84%, Putin has used his popularity to push extended repressive reforms through the Duma, further cementing his seat of power.
Rise to power
Vladimir Putin’s initial rise to power results from a series of bizarre promotions that turned him from a medium-clearance KGB agent into the most powerful man in Russia. Putin served for sixteen years as an unknown officer in the KGB, slowly rising through the ranks. Putin’s assertive directness eventually earned him the rank of lieutenant general, a respected but politically insignificant position. But for unknown reasons, Putin was picked from obscurity by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and named Deputy Chief of Staff in 1997, surprising just about everybody.
Many criticized Yeltsin’s choice; but in the hectic political aftermath of the collapse of the USSR, Putin proved himself to be a crucial ally. In his new position of power, Putin quickly worked to neutralize threats against Yeltsin’s government, playing a key role in silencing of Russian Attorney General Yury Skuratov. A year after Putin’s appointment, Attorney General Skurato opened an investigation in to high-level corruption in the Kremlin and was threatening to expose inner members of Yeltsin’s government. Putin quickly responded by airing an illicit sex video involving Skuratov on national TV, who was dismissed by the pleased Yeltsin shortly after as a result of the scandal.
Impressed, President Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation in 1999, publically announcing that he saw Putin as his successor. At the time, Putin was Russia’s fifth Prime Minister in fewer than eighteen months. Dealing with a divided government and a poor economic situation, few expected the virtually unknown new Prime Minister to last any longer than his predecessors. But in a surprising show of strength, Putin took a harsh approach to the Second Chechen War and invaded Chechnya with Russian troops. As a result, an outpouring of Russian support and nationalism raised Putin’s approval ratings and quieted opposition. In the 2000 presidential elections, Putin would go on to win in the first round with 53% of the vote.
Federal and constitutional reforms
Through a complexly orchestrated series of events, Putin has been in power for over 15 years. He’s bounced back and forth between president and prime minister, even getting his allies to rewrite the constitution to allow him to run for a third, extended presidential term. By removing legal checks and balances and institutionalizing power, Putin’s become a democratically elected permanent leader.
To consolidate his grip on power, Putin’s centralized power in the hands of the federal government. He’s filled the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, with loyal members of his United Russia party. Dominated by Putin’s allies and friends, the Duma has become a rubberstamping, puppet parliament which regularly passes any Kremlin sponsored bill. Over the past decade, Russia has progressively become more authoritarian under laws restricting civil liberties and free speech.
Reminiscent of the USSR’s once omnipresent KGB, Putin has expanded the power and size of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB). He’s decreased legal restrictions on the FSB and placed 200,000 border guards and specific Special Forces under their control. Under the new Russian laws the FSB is a military service, just like the Armed Forces – however its commissioned officers do not wear military uniform. Under the guise of anti-terrorism, the expanded and federally controlled FSB has become Putin’s crown jewel in his new Russia.
Rewriting the Soviet past
Previously a member of the USSR’s notorious secret police, Putin has worked hard to rehabilitate the Soviet past under the guise of Russian patriotism. When he took office in 2000, one of Putin’s first political acts was to reinstate the Soviet national anthem. He’s taken a sentimental tone towards the past, remembering it as the height of Russian strength:
Putin often nostalgically talks about the Soviet era as one full of honor and power, idealizing Joseph Stalin as a great leader who modernized the country and defeated the Nazis. He’s restored Soviet-era symbols and rewritten government sponsored textbooks to paint Stalin in a largely positive light. As a result, Stalin’s popularity has soared: whereas in 1989 only 12 percent of Russians described Stalin as the most influential figure in Russian history, in 2012, 42 percent did.
Eurasian Economic Union
Attempting to recreate soviet-era political structures that positioned Russia as the primary regional power in Eurasia, Putin has has endorsed the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The EEU is an economic, political, and military union of states located in Eastern Europe and northern Asia that came into force a month ago, on January 1st 2015. Consisting of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, the union forms integrated market with a combined GDP of over 4 trillion dollars. Russia has announced future plans for a single currency and further integration, prompting fears of the reemergence of a Russian dominated Eurasian bloc.
In addition to economic integration, Putin demands that all EEU member states join the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a mutual defense alliance similar to the Warsaw pact. But due Russia’s murky involvement in Ukraine, many potential members have been hesitant to join the Union. As Russian weapons and troops have poured across the border into Ukraine, Belrusian president Alexander Lukashenko has already expressed doubt in the young union. While the EEU may crumble in its infancy, if it survives, the fledging economic alliance will serve to advance Russian economic interests in the region.
Domestic Media Control
Increasingly, Russia’s media has come under the control of the central government. He has constructed an impressive propaganda machine which feeds both native Russians and international audiences with a steady stream of pro-Russian news. Due to the Russian government’s extreme control, the BBC recently argued that Putin’s propaganda machine is even worse than it was under the Soviet Union.
The federal government has direct or indirect control of most television and newspapers outlets, allowing Putin to effectively dictate domestic media. Publications that challenge the government’s narrative are regularly harassed and eventually shut down. Unfavorable reports about Putin are suppressed – when Russian paper Moskovsky Korrespondent alleged that Putin was planning to marry a gymnast half his age, the company was shut down within the week.
Using the obedient media, Putin has cultivated an extensive cult of personality. Portrayed as a masculine, tough ex-KGB agent who enjoys judo and flying fighter jets, Putin benefits heavily from his macho persona. Seen as strong and capable by regular Russians, Putin is regarded as a reliable leader. Putin has even targeted kids by founding Marching Together, a pro-Putin youth group dubbed the ‘PutinJugend’ by opposition media.
The governmental pressure has resulted in a homogeneous domestic media that consistently reports the Kremlin’s narrative. When independent international media reports from the United States or other western countries undermined Putin’s official narrative surrounding the Ukrainian conflict, he took swift action. In October 2014, the Duma quietly passed a bill that will limit foreign ownership of media assets to 20 percent by the beginning of 2017. Within just two years, Russian nationals will control nearly all foreign media in Russia.
Internet activism and international media
To counter Putin’s grip on traditional media, democracy activists and political opponents have used the internet to attack the government. Alexei Navaly, an outspoken critic of Putin, organized a series of large-scale demonstrations promoting democracy and attacking political corruption using his blog. After Navaly published documents showing Putin and his allies engaged in unsavory behavior, Putin pushed multiple internet censorship bills through the Russian parliament.
Under the guise of protecting children and anti-terrorism, the new legislation gave the Russian government the ability to selectively block sites and prosecute their owners. Putin’s administration frequently abuses the legislation to block criticism of the federal government, silencing those who challenge their nationalistic narrative. Under the new laws, Navaly has been imprisoned and silenced. Convicted on a variety of charges related to embezzlement and fraud, he’s currently under house arrest and restricted from communicating with anyone but his family.
Interested in promoting a positive international view on Russia, the Kremlin has also founded Russia Today, a state-funded cable and satellite television channel directed towards foreign audiences. Seeking to paint Russia in a positive light, the station frequently presents a pro-Russian, biased view of the facts. Due to their slanted coverage, critics argue that Russia Today serves as a propaganda outlet for the Russian government. Just recently, English language Russia Today television correspondent Liz Wahl resigned live on air due to the network’s biased coverage of the Ukrainian conflict:
Militarism and the Ukrainian conflict
From the Chechen wars to Russian intervention in Georgia, Putin’s leadership has been marked by militarism and an assertive foreign policy. Putin’s even sent troops and jets to oil and gas rich artic regions, planting a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole. In 2012, he pledged to spend $770 billion to strengthen the country’s army over the next 10 years. By stressing unity and obedience in the face of conflict, Putin has used the various conflicts as excuses to further suspend civil liberties and rights.
In addition to Ukraine’s unique strategic defensive position, Russian intervention has caused Putin’s popularity to soar from 54 to 83 percent. Playing to Russian nationalism, Putin’s recent annexation of Crimea and continued involvement in Ukraine has cemented his power.
Russia is currently engaged in a ‘secret’ war in Ukraine, sending Russian troops, munitions, and armor across the border to combat regular Ukrainian troops. Despite Russian claims that their military is not deployed in Ukraine, irrefutable proof of Russian involvement has surfaced. In response the west has levied a series of economic sanctions against Russia, severely impacting the Russian economy. But contrary to the belief that sanctions would undermine Putin’s rule, they’ve only strengthened his domestic position.
Once again urging Russian unity and strength in the face of the ‘imperialist west’, Putin has galvanized the population and seen a surge in approval ratings. Enjoying an 83% approval rating, Putin has used the situation to pass even more expensive laws limiting free speech and civil liberties. Opposition media and bloggers are now forced to register their websites and are subject to official censorship. While some Russians have spoken up about the authoritarian reforms, most internal discontent has been silenced by the nationalistic fervor.
Putin uses the conflict to maintain a tight grip on power, securing his privileged position as the most powerful man in Russia. Any continued militarism will likely see his approval ratings remain high and allow him to pass more authoritarian reforms. On the precipice of a potential second cold war, Putin is becoming ever more entrenched as the permanent leader of Russia.