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The king of Russia: how Putin’s rise to power threatens any prospect of democracy

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Vladimir Putin has been the president of Russia for over 20 years. During his career not only did he reestablish Russia, turning it into a global superpower, but he’s created a convoluted and corrupt political system that has allowed him to stay in power for years. With fake referenda, oppression of opponents and prominence of oligarchic capitalism, the question arises: will Russia ever become a proper democracy?

For over 20 years, Vladimir Putin has been in control of Russian politics. Not only has he transformed a weak state into a global superpower, but he has been getting more attention given how corrupt the system is and how political opponents are treated. But the regime he has created is far from perfect. Mass corruption and manipulation of laws have led to creation of a state with no place for the opposition. With constant protests, arrests and imprisonments taking place, Russia’s future doesn’t seem too bright. 

The rise of the Putin era

Following the collapse of Soviet Union, Russia fell into the hands of Boris Yeltsin, a man who had been trying to become a leader for years. Having led the coup d’etat that forced Gorbachev out of office, Yeltsin became the state’s ruler. However, he soon proved to be a disappointment, as imposition of radical reforms left millions of citizens homeless and impoverished.

In the Yeltsin era, lasting from 1991 to 1999, a former KGB agent – Vladimir Putin – had started working as First Deputy Chairman in St Petersburg and eventually became the First Deputy Chief of the Presidential Staff – a position that allowed him to gain prominence and political power. The latter position and years spent in the Federal Security Service made him a trusted ally of Yeltsin who assigned him to be the Prime Minister, marking a turning point in his career. 

When Yeltsin announced his resignation in 1999, Putin, despite being despised by many in the government, became the Acting President of the Russian Federation. Although this post was temporary, Yeltsin’s resignation forced a new election, which resulted in Putin winning 53% of the votes.

But how come people voted for someone who once was the KGB spy and an ally of Yeltsin, a man hated by so many? Firstly, Vladimir Putin was able to distinguish himself from Yeltsin during the very first election. This is because Putin ran independently, promising a revitalised economy and continuation of liberal reforms. He stood out once compared to opponents who, for example, represented the well known Communist Party. For the people sick and tired of the old system, Putin was the hope for change. Secondly, it wasn’t only Yeltsin who saw Putin as a loyal successor, but also the majority of Russian oligarchs. This is because Putin, seen as Yeltsin’s ally, became a trusted person in the eyes of oligarchs, who expected him to help when dealing with massive taxation or court trials. By helping Putin climb to power, they were able to preserve the system of oligarchic capitalism and make the new leader serve their interests.

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At this point another question arises, why is Putin still in power? Although Russia often hides behind the image of a democracy, it is one of the biggest authoritarian states. Ever since 2000, Putin has been manipulating laws and passing policies that grant the state greater authority, leaving him with more power. For example, following the Beslan school siege in 2004, Putin passed a law granting more authority to the government and arguing that this was crucial for the protection of the state. Furthermore, the electoral system is so rigged that the true support for the current president is completely unclear. Yet, what is more worrying is the reforms that have been passed in the recent months, since they eliminate all prospects of a potential democracy.

Referenda and reforms: paving the path for eternal presidency

The Russian government has used electoral fraud and law manipulation for years, yet one recent event is especially worthy of attention. In July, 2020 Russia held a referendum on constitutional amendments. One of the latter was related to resetting presidential term limits. Prior to the vote, Putin was supposed to leave office in 2024, yet, having “received” the popular mandate, he will be able to remain the president of Russia until 2036, and this should not be taken lightly.

Ironically enough, people’s vote never mattered. Prior to the referendum, the new constitutional amendments, together with the one on presidential term limits, had been approved by the Duma, courts and regional governments. This is only a drop in the ocean of proof that Russia is not a democracy – it is a state ruled by Putin and his puppets, not people’s voices. Holding the referendum was simply a way to pretend that Russia is a democratic state. Regardless of the result, the referendum allowed Putin to shut down those who thought the state was authoritarian and to get Western watchdogs off his back.

With all this in mind, a question about Russia’s future and its political progress arises. Given the “results” of the referendum, we are unlikely to see any changes in Russian leadership. The new reform can only be changed following the death or stepping down of the current president, yet even then we are likely to see another leader, close to the current government, in power. This is similar to the case of Dimitry Medvedev, a close ally of Putin who won the 2008 presidential elections, assigned Putin as his Prime Minister and left office in 2012, leaving the presidential post to his predecessor. Events like this prove that the current government is capable of manipulating the system in a way that allows it to stay in power forever. Hence, even after 2036 we are likely to see another ally of Putin in power. 

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With all this in mind, people are forced to live in fear and are brought back to the times of the Soviet Union, as opposition does not exist and a single comment or disagreement can cost a career, family or even life. The future also does not seem too bright since current events prove that the government can act completely independently. We are likely to see more authoritarian reforms like these taking place, yet the policies are likely to become even more radical, posing the risk of any opposition being shut down immediately.

Eradicating opposition, the Russian way

One name that’s been visible in all news media outlets is Alexei Navalny. Known as the biggest critic of Vladimir Putin, Navalny has organised countless public demonstrations and has created tons of online content with the goal of calling out the corrupt and authoritarian governmental system. Navalny is an active opposition member who, by using social media, has managed to gather tons of followers. Presence in the public eye has allowed him to point out flaws of the contemporary political system, yet, of course, he hasn’t remained unnoticed by the authorities.

Navalny has been under the supervision of the government for years, resulting in a recent murder attempt. A near fatal nerve agent attack that he endured during his stay in Berlin placed him in months of intense clinical care. After coming back to Moscow in January 2021, he was immediately arrested and is currently serving his sentence in jail. However, he’s not the only one suffering from the state’s oppression.

Over the past years, the number of political prisoners has been increasing. More importantly, a majority of them do not receive a fair trial and are punished for things like taking part in an “unauthorised assembly”. Yet, despite the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, people continue to take part in protests.

Ever since the 2011-12 protests, the amount of those arrested or detained has been increasing but people are not giving up. Over the past 10 years, there have been 41 mass anti-government protests in total. In 2020-21 alone, citizens have organised 11 protests that are taking place to this day. This gives 2 potential future scenarios. 

Firstly, given that the authoritarian regime is gradually gaining more power and Putin seems to be staying in office for quite some time, it’s likely that the number of arrests is going to continue to increase. After all, Navalny is not the first victim of the regime, as the world has already seen Russia deal with individuals like Alexander Litvinenko – a former Russian spy poisoned with polonium. Simultaneously, as explained prior, the world has seen how Russia has managed to place Dimitry Medvedev in power just to replace him with Putin after 4 years. Hence, given the amount of allies that Putin has across the state, this scenario is likely to repeat itself even if the current leader was to leave office at some point. In light of this, and given all the constitutional changes, Russia is likely to continue oppressing all political dissidents, leaving people without a voice. 

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However, the alternative scenario is that the opposition starts to gain more power. The fighting spirit of advocating for democracy may force the government to change. Crucially, given how much international support the protesters have gathered following Navalny’s arrest, there is hope for intervention and dissident protection made by other states. Even more importantly, Russia has seen political opponents running for political office in the past few years. Despite the fact that Navalny did not win the 2018 Presidential Election, it is an indication that Russia does have a well concentrated political opposition that is gaining more power. Further on, the fact that members of the opposition like Dmitry Gudkov and Vyacheslav Maltsev are able to work in Duma or hold important positions in political institutions shows that there still might be hope for the Opposition to take the lead. Regardless, for now, these people together with ordinary Russian citizens are in need of support, as the situation is not getting better.

With a corrupt political system and an authoritarian leader in power, Russian citizens are forced to live in fear. So don’t take the status quo lightly, labelling Russia as another troubled post-soviet state. With the amount of protests and dissent, the world is left to wonder what the future will look like, but we can all hope that the desire for democracy will win. 

Author profile

1st year BSc in International Politics and Government. Key interest areas: politics, international relations, history and social movements. Incredibly passionate about debating tournaments and techno raves.

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