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The jig is up for Russia’s disguised democracy

Authors: Daniel Ho & Jinghui Lao

Region Head: Kathyrn Chong

Editor: Sakshi Sanganeria


Russia, which proclaims to be a democratic state, is quite the opposite. Since 2000, there has been little room for the Opposition parties, and Mr Putin has been guilty of all sorts of illegal conduct, from rigging elections, controlling state media, and even eliminating individuals who spoke against him and his party (Kasparov, 2020). In this research article, we will analyse a few factors that have enabled Mr Putin to maintain his power, and we argue that these tactics are no longer sustainable. In the long run, the changing nature of the Opposition and the volatile economic conditions will weaken his grip and influence in Russia.

Political Manoeuvres to maintain power

Alternating between the role of President and Prime Minister, Mr Putin has managed to hold onto power for over 20 years. He first became President in 1999, succeeding Yeltsin. After serving two terms (8 years), he selected his close ally, Dmitri Medvedev as successor for President, while he became Prime Minister. In the 2012 elections, Mr Putin and Medvedev then switched roles, and he has remained President since then (Ekamanis, Newman, Reuters 2020).

His second tactic to maintain political power is to rewrite the Constitution. When Medvedev was President, the Constitution was amended to extend the Presidential term to 6 years, up from 4 years. In January 2020, Mr Putin pushed for a constitutional amendment that resets the count on president’s term limits (Partlett, 2020). This allows him to run for Presidency again in 2024 for 2 more terms, until 2036 (Ketchell, 2020).

Finally, he resorts to eliminating political opponents and journalists in order to control the media and solidify his political power. The Federal Security Service has poisoned or shot numerous political opponents (Rosenberg, 2014). The poisoning of Alexei Navalny is also suspected to be the act of Russian authorities, who wanted to eliminate him as he posed a threat to Russia United’s dominance in the 2021 Parliamentary elections (Kozenko, 2020). However, Mr Putin’s tactics to maintain power in Russia are unsustainable in the future. Analysing the present situation in Russia, there are three main reasons why his grip on power might be loosening:

Changes in conditions

Ironically, favourable economic conditions that enabled Mr Putin’s rise to prominence are now leading to his demise. Oil and gas comprise over 60% of Russian net export and over 30% of its GDP (Depersio, 2019) which renders it particularly vulnerable to fluctuating commodity prices. Brent Crude oil prices surged from $28.4USD in 2001 to $96.99USD per barrel in 2008 before tumbling during the global financial meltdown. Today it stands at a dismal $40.37 USD per barrel (Statista, 2020). Far from being an aberration, prices will continue to decline as global oil demand heads towards peak in 2033 due to a general shift away from road transportation (according to McKinsey). For an ossified economy that relies heavily on the industrial sector, depressed oil prices spell imminent disaster.

Increasing public dissatisfaction

Much of the underlying frustration that has festered for some time is directly attributed to Mr Putin’s own doing. As the de facto head of state for over two decades, he has failed to diversify Russian’s main source of revenue. Contribution of the industrial sector to GDP still stands at 32%- hardly any dynamic economic growth in sight (The World Bank, 2019). Mr Putin also reneged on many of his campaign promises on social welfare. Healthcare and education spending have barely balked in the last two decades; spending on healthcare and education as a percentage of GDP was 5.34% and 4.69% respectively (The World Bank, 2017)- well below other European economies. The deeply unpopular pension reforms saw his approval ratings plummet to 67%, the lowest level since annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Marc, 2018). Raising the national retirement age from 60 to 65 for men may seem like a reasonable plan to tackle budget imbalance. However, with life expectancy for men at 66 years old, the measly 13,342 rubles (£154) a month feels more like a death benefit than an annuity (Marc, 2018).

On foreign policy, he fared no better. While the illegal annexation of Crimea rejuvenated a wave of hypernationalism that rewarded Mr Putin with soaring approval ratings, the long-term picture may have been less rosy. Riddled with inefficiencies, Crimea, as with most Russian states, required huge subsidies to keep up the appearance of prosperity. Moscow pumped between 1-2.7 billion into the Crimea annually, inflating national deficits and diverting resources away from domestic priorities (Barclay, 2019). Meanwhile, the crippling effects of Western sanctions are beginning to manifest as analysts at Bloomberg Economics estimate that as much as 6% of the GDP may have been wiped out over the past five years.

The economic consequences go far beyond a slower growth. Wages have stagnated following the annexation and drop in oil prices. Foreign direct investments have shrunk significantly. Ordinary Russians grew disenchanted with the regime’s military adventurism. Just 39% think that the annexation did more good than harm in 2019 as compared to 67% who think that in 2014 according to a poll published by Public Opinion Foundation (Bloomberg, 2019).

Rise of opposition

While the television had in the past been the main channel through which Russians received information, today’s consumers are spoilt for choice. This has made it much harder for the government to regulate social media- which has enabled the rise of independent journalism. Russians are no longer restricted to the state propaganda shown on the television. A plethora of alternative platforms, such as Youtube, promote freedom of speech and criticisms of the central government (Kotrikadze, 2020). Alexei Navalny, a prominent opposition leader in Russia, was propelled to stardom on Youtube, after creating the nation’s most popular political channel. Some of the video content produced includes a video exposing Dmitri Medvedev, former Prime Minister and President of Russia for corruption. His video garnered more than 30 million views and contributed to one of the largest street demonstrations in Russia in the recent years (McFarquhar, 2019)

Opposition parties have also become increasingly coordinated and organized. According to Navalny, the best way forward is to reduce Mr Putin’s power and influence by ensuring that the United Russia candidates lose at the State elections. Therefore, people should vote for the opposition candidate who is most likely to defeat the United Russia candidate, disregarding any partisan allegiance (The Statesman, 2020). The “Smart voting” strategy, introduced by Navalny, has allowed opposition candidates to defeat the United Russia Party at local elections. Russians who wish to vote against United Russia candidates can google “Smart Vote” and acquire information about the political candidate in their region that has the highest probability of defeating the United Russia candidate. This allows them to make more informed decisions at the polls (Meduza, 2019).

What this means for Russia’s future

Truth be told, Mr Putin is not about to be unseated anytime soon. Disinformation and corruption are so deeply entrenched in Russia’s institutions that nothing short of an outright coup will oust him. The Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), established in 2015, extends Mr Putin’s power beyond its borders by countering outside influence on surrounding neighbor states, specifically the spread of democracy and Western integration schemes (Stronki, Sokolsky, 2020). Nevertheless, other countries must hold Mr Putin accountable for this egregious act of human rights abuse by piling on more sanctions. Mr Navalny has shown that the younger generation is no longer disillusioned by grandiose promises. Now that the Russians have seen through his act, it will only be a matter of time before his political career meets its bitter end- through peaceful means or otherwise.


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