By Lukasz Kondraciuk
After nearly 20 years in power, Vladimir Putin has become more than just the symbol of an era – he is arguably its creator. A lawyer and former KGB officer, Putin is perceived by many to be one of the world’s most powerful leaders and his cult of personality in Russia is unmatched by any other contemporary Russian politician. His tenure as president (2000–2008; 2012-present) and prime minister (1999–2000; 2008–2012) have left a permanent mark on Russia’s history. But is this regime sustainable? Does “Putinism” mean anything independent of its namesake?
The origins of Putinism
When Putin became acting president of the Russian Federation back in 1999, the country was in shambles. The fledgling democratic institutions that had man- aged to emerge in the post-Soviet 1990s were compromised by economic chaos, political uncertainty and popular despair. In this context – and once the economy finally began to grow – it was relatively easy for Putin to quietly but firmly co-opt those institutions and build a clientelist state oriented around a strongman persona. Yet, it was not always evident that Putin would pursue this route. After winning the March 2000 presidential election, Putin appointed the pro-western and liberal former minister of finance, Mikhail Kasyanov, as his prime minister (Kasyanov was fired in 2004 and is now one of the leaders of the democratic opposition). In do- ing so, he displayed pragmatism and an initial interest in westernising Russia and bringing its economy back to life. Kasyanov implemented a number of fiscal and entitlement reforms that helped to stabilise the economy and allow for growth. By 2004, inflation was down to a manageable 11.7 per cent, and GDP rose steadily each year between 2000 and 2004.
Westernisation, however, came to a quick halt. The old Soviet elite, many of whom retained power after the collapse of the USSR, were hostile toward the lib- eral reforms, and the chaos of the 1990s only bolstered their fear of change. The latter sentiment was shared by many of the Russian people, who conflated the deprivation and chaos of the immediate post-Soviet period with liberal democracy. By stabilising the economy, Putin gained sufficient political capital to corrode the limited democratic gains made in the 1990s, while co-opting the elite and placing himself at the top of a clientelist state in which the principle currency of power is institutionalised theft.
Putinism at home
Putin’s Russia is essentially a dual power structure, consisting of an official state system with the outward appearance of an administrative state and a shadow power structure where the real power is located. While institutions like the police, courts and tax authorities appear to perform the functions with which they are charged – and may do so to varying degrees – they are predominantly concerned with the accumulation of wealth through the state and the exercise of power and influence. The organs of government are highly centralised and ineffective and the real decision-making power rests in the hands of a Kremlin-affiliated syndicate operating outside the rule of law. Moreover, these institutions are often locked in internecine struggles, further compromising their capacity to perform the func- tions with which they are nominally charged.
What does this mean for the average Russian? In practice, most matters are dealt with effectively through off-the-record contacts and bribery is a relatively normal part of life. Filing an official letter to the ministry of justice from the city of Kos- troma, for example, will likely have no effect. But if you know a judge who knows someone, who works at the justice ministry you may get a result. It is no wonder that Russia ranked 131 out of 176 in the 2016 Corruption Perception Index. One of the ways that Putin has shored up his popularity is by appealing to traditional notions of Russian identity and casting himself as the protector of the Russian people. This consists primarily of gestures towards traditional values as opposed to active policies to promote socially conservative behaviours and in this sense is consistent with public opinion polls suggesting that attachment to traditional institutions like the Orthodox Church is motivated primarily by cultural affinity as opposed to religious faith.
Over time, Putin steadily increased limits on political competition. According to credible observers like the Russian-based GOLOS monitoring group or the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly (which sends a delegation to observe Russian elections), Russia’s elections are far from free and fair. Real parliamentary opposition has been replaced with a façade, and “opposition” parties are tolerated only if they do not engage in meaningful opposition to Putin and the ruling United Russia party. The parties that are permitted to operate officially help to give Putin the veneer of a democratic mandate, but in practice hardly ever oppose legislation in the Kremlin.
Non-parliamentary and non-systemic opposition parties have almost no access to state-sponsored media unless as punching bags on talk shows or objects of mockery for the propagandists and are routinely harassed, prevented from participating in public life, or even imprisoned. However, recent gains in local elections by genuine opposition parties offer a glimmer of hope for the future.
Non-governmental organisations are allowed to exist and operate in Russia as long as they do not advocate against government policy or even go as far as criticising them. In the past, Vladimir Putin and Kremlin officials made it known that they had believed foreign and foreign-funded NGOs were inspiring pro- democracy revolutions in the region, and that they were determined not to allow this to happen in Russia. The crackdown on NGOs began with the introduction of a law requiring NGOs with foreign funding to register as “foreign agents” (a loaded term which was synonymous with “spy” during the Cold War), followed by an expansion of organisations deemed to be “undesirable”. This has greatly limited the ability of civil society to flourish and has targeted organisations (including the International Republican Institute where I am a program director) that are sup- portive of democratic development in Russia.
There is a misconception that Vladimir Putin has sought to exercise total control of the Russian population and that Putinism is in this sense similar to Stalinism. The fact is that Russia cannot afford Soviet-style surveillance of its citizens. In- stead, the state apparatus aims at controlling and intimidating selected influential individuals so that the costs of dissent are too high for most independent-minded people. Opposition politicians are often arrested on absurd pretexts for anywhere between days and years, as are their family members. Kremlin-controlled media outlets, such as Rossiya-1, NTV and Zvezda, spread fake news to control the narrative in Russia and make it virtually impossible to distinguish fact from fiction, while a combination of coercion and self-censorship keeps dissenting voices relatively quiet. In an environment with only limited experience with a free press, this has proven to be a highly successful technique.
Putinism in the world
In 2005 Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union the greatest geopoliti- cal catastrophe of the century – a remark that foreshadowed the reassertion of Russian power pursued over the past decade internationally. When Putin initially assumed power, such an ambition would have appeared ridiculous. The country was a basket case and the United States was the undisputed enforcer of the global system often referred to as Pax Americana. Yet, the geopolitical convulsions that followed the attacks of September 11th 2001 presented an opportunity for Rus- sia to assume a newly-aggressive stance – a tactic which has helped to reinforce Putin’s authorities as the negative consequences of his rule have started to hit the Russian people. In the first few years of his presidency, Putin did not appear to be attached to a particular ideological or strategic vision of international affairs beyond nostalgia for the Soviet Union. However, as the democratic revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004 threatened his influence over Russia’s “near abroad” and raised uncomfortable parallels with the abuses of power in Russia, Putin began to take increasingly assertive steps to control the futures of countries neighbouring Russia. In 2009, for example, he denied NATO’s request to allow cargo flyovers over Russia’s territory to Afghanistan.
But it was not until the 2007 Munich Security Conference when Putin publicly shared his intention to challenge what he viewed as a mendacious US global hegemony. Today, the US remains the pre-eminent global military power but Russia has managed to claim a disproportionate amount of influence with relatively meagre investment. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 came as a shock to the West, and portended more radical attempts to go reassert control of former Soviet states, gain international influence and shore up Putin’s power at home with adventurism abroad. The 2014 invasion of Ukraine resulted from a confluence of both the need to reassert con- trol inside Russia – rocked by anti-Putin protests in Russia and a decline in Putin’s popularity – and the desire to punish Ukraine for expelling the Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovych from power. The subsequent takeover of Crimea was a symbolic victory for Putin, bringing his ratings back up to more than 80 per cent from a low of around 50 per cent in 2013. He followed with an invasion of eastern Ukraine – an illegal act of aggression which continues today. Russia under Putin became even bolder in 2015 when he came to the aid of the Assad regime and emerge as a key player in the Middle East.
The Kremlin’s soft power campaign of meddling in the affairs of powerful de- mocracies is another symptom of a newly-aggressive posture and in some ways is reminiscent of the extensive interference that characterised the Cold War. Whether through fake news originating in social media or by co-opting extremist politicians spouting Moscow’s anti-NATO, anti-US and anti-EU narrative, this campaign seeks to exacerbate divisions in democracies in order to undermine the liberal democratic order. My own organisation, the International Republican Institute, was one of the first to recognise the seriousness of this campaign in Europe by launching an initiative known as the Beacon Project to counter Russian meddling.
Putinism under strain?
At its core, Putinism is characterised by a fundamentally kleptocratic system that appears incapable of meaningful reform. For this reason, it is far more vulnerable to fissure than it may appear. Consider the case of Alexey Ulyukaev, the former minister of economic development who was arrested and convicted to eight years in prison for allegedly accepting a two million dollar bribe from the state-controlled oil company Rosneft, managed by one of Putin’s closest allies Igor Sechin. The fact that Ulyakaev has been prosecuted in a system where insiders rarely face justice suggests divisions within the Kremlin’s power structure among competing interests. They are forcing Putin to cull the elite who have kept him in power – a dangerous game that may ultimately weaken the overall system and his grasp on power. Yet, the most dangerous fault line threatening Putin’s hold on power is the precipitous economic decline suffered in recent years, contrasting sharply with the conspicuous (stolen) wealth of Putin and his cadre. A perfect storm of low oil prices, crumbling infrastructure, massive theft from the state coffers and the consequences of economic sanctions are creating conditions that may well prove unsustainable for the regime. The Russian presidential election will take place on March 18th 2018 and with Alexey Navalny – the most powerful democratic opposi- tion leader – barred from participating, it is likely to unfold primarily as a theatri- cal exercise. Putin’s campaign is expected to be free of substance and will rely as usual on his cult of personality, as demonstrated by his campaign slogan: “Strong President, Strong Russia”. Putin’s decision to run as an independent candidate instead of as the candidate for the ruling United Russia party was likely influenced by the recognition that his party’s brand has become toxic to many voters due to its association with corruption and the declining economy.
Media reports have already cited numerous irregularities including students allegedly being forced to collect signatures in support of Putin. Additionally, the independent election observers’ association GOLOS reported numerous viola- tions of election law, with Kremlin-controlled media outlets promoting Putin while giving opposition candidates virtually no attention. Despite the absence of any of the elements needed for a free and fair election, there is some significance to this exercise – and certain vulnerabilities for Putin. Turnout must be high enough to give him the appearance of a strong mandate. According to inside observers, anything below 50 per cent will be considered a failure: the Russian media outlet RBK has reported that senior Kremlin officials want to see 70 per cent support for Putin and a 70 per cent turnout overall. Even if low turnout is covered up by the media, it will be interpreted as a bellwether of the regime’s health by both friends and foes of Putin. Combined with the potential for a serious crisis in the entitle- ment system and the poor economic conditions, the survival of Putinism may not be as assured as it may seem from the outside.
Łukasz Kondraciuk is a program director at the International Republican Institute.Top