by Erielle Delzer, 04 May 2015
“If you can’t suppress them, squeeze them.”
While this quote may sound like the fierce, bold, and masculine motto to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s presidential reign over Russia, it is actually from Boris Makarenko, a Russianist for the Center for Political Technologies. Makarenko argues that since Putin took power in the year 2000, the Russian government has consistently been tightening the political structure via rule of law and economic restraints in an effort to “suffocate” those that oppose Putin’s political tactics. In sum -- as Russian history even in the past twenty to twenty-five years alone is extremely complex -- Makarenko is correct; Russia has indeed reverted back to its tried-and-true authoritarian political style over the past two decades… but why?
The Russian Federation has withstood numerous structural changes in regards to their government and their legal system since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Stemming from a mass sense of insecurity and unease within the Russian peoples, akin to that of the Chinese after their “Century of Humiliation,” the Russian government has since deployed nationalistic campaigns to rally internal pride for the country. This paper will examine the causes for this rise in authoritarian tendencies and will argue that Russians need a strong, “macho” leader to stand firm against the West, which adds to the necessity of a dominating supreme government structure within Russia.
The rise in authoritarian tendencies
Russia’s chance at a democratic government came to a standstill when forward-thinking Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union from 1988 until its dissolution, was forcefully placed under house arrest in August of 1991, halting him in his “radical” tracks. Gorbachev’s focus on his political policies of perestroika (English: restructuring) and glasnost (English: transparency) that aimed to revolutionize and democratize the country resulted in a lack of necessary attention to the weakened economy of the Union and the increase in desire of independence of Soviet satellite states, like Belarus and Lithuania. From this, a coup d’état occurred and Boris Yeltsin, a “stronger” and more “traditional Russian” politician was elected in 1992.
As the Soviet Union transformed into the Russian Federation under Yeltsin’s presidency, the idea of derzahvnost’ (English: great powerdom) was once again brought to the forefront of Russian politics. Though President Yeltsin wanted a market economy and entertained the idea of a liberal democracy in the Russian political sphere via a semi-presidential system, he ultimately did not understand true democracy as well as Gorbachev had and thereby failed in continuing Russia’s transition to a democratic state. An example of his failure, or more so his incapability to properly lead Russia down the path of democracy, lies in the shootings of October 1993 when President Yeltsin attempted to dissolve the legislature after bitter feuds with the Russian Parliament. He did not actually have the power to do so under the existing Russian Constitution at the time, as the political structure stemmed from the 1978 SFSR Constitution which limited the power of the president, thus his “impeachment” pushed forward by the Russian Parliament and the violent conflict that resulted from his refusal. Hundreds to possibly a couple of thousand people died in the ten-day conflict, and President Yeltsin remained in power via numerous presidential decrees to consolidate his status as president.
In December 1993, he issued a new constitution that ultimately placed all political power in the acting president’s hands (his own), with a prime minister to cover the authoritarian structure he set in stone, legally speaking. President Yeltsin also limited the power of the parliament, rendering it a “rubber stamp” essentially, and made sure to cement his role in the new constitution by making it impossible for him to be impeached by the parliament (as was attempted in October ’93) while maintaining his ability to dissolve the legislature at any given moment. This shift from semi-presidentialism to “super-presidentialism” was only the beginning to Russia’s reversion to authoritarianism, but it was the most impactful domino to fall to set the chain off so that – come Putin in 2000 – the president found himself completely above the law.
President Yeltsin still tried to maintain a façade of bringing Russia nearer to a democracy. “The Yeltsin administration was committed to Russia becoming a democratic market state allied with the advanced Western nations and integrated in the world economy” (Sakwa 481). But in the mid-‘90s, a series of consecutive mistakes on President Yeltsin’s part plummeted Russia further into an economic downward spiral. The 1994 to 1996 war with Chechnya put a large bloodstain on his reputation in both Russia and with the outside world, and his 1995 policy of “loans for share” – aimed at liberalizing the economy – only served to further the wealth gap and aided in creating many of Russia’s contemporary oligarchs. President Yeltsin also pushed forward the concept of gubernatorial elections, creating governors in the oblasts (English: regions) around Russia. He gave them autonomy and did away with political parties to rid himself of competitors, which can be considered as another domino in the chain to fall down the route of authoritarianism.
Around this time began a period of serious anti-Americanism. Russians began to believe Americans were hoping for a second Russian breakdown, and were beginning to become fearful of NATO expansion towards Russian borders. Life in Russia was rather bleak, as well. The population was declining from 1991 onwards, poverty rates were high, and the social and economic structure of Russia in the mid-to-late-‘90s had basically collapsed. The 1993 Russian Constitution was worthless as President Yeltsin allowed corruption to grow and spread; in fact, he became a pushover to the governors around the oblasts of Russia by satiating their needs in return for the promise to keep Communists out of power. The 1990s in Russia was a decade of corruption, failure, and a sharp decline in pride from Russians for their faltering country. President Yeltsin formally resigned on December 31, 1999 – and what came next was only natural for a once-great power to return to its former “glory.”
In March 2000, Putin was elected as President of the Russian Federation. In a series of quick fixes as an attempt to solve the destitute Russian situation, he “erased” all of the governors of the oblasts by creating seven Federal Districts of Russia and used military officials to make them governors over these governors – essentially destroying the need for the oblast governors in the first place. He also puts it into legislation that these governors must be appointed by him, which is opposite of the notion of free and fair elections. President Putin, who studied law at Leningrad State University, then began to manipulate and use the law to arrest whomever he wanted as a scare tactic. This kept government officials and unruly citizens in line, while elevating his role as president above even that of former President Yeltsin.
Administrative reshuffling and rule by law solidified President Putin as the powerful leader that Russians had long-since desired. The 2004 Beslan hostage crisis near Chechnya resulted in him doing away with the Federal Council, the upper house to the Parliament of the Russian Federation, by putting his political party, United Russia, above that of the Council. By reinforcing this vertical of power, he reasserted control over the economy and polity to rebuild the Russian state. He also reshuffled the political structure so that he, the president, is above the power of not just the parliament but of the banks, the media, and the industry oligarchy elite, which again is demonstrative of complete authoritarianism.
By 2008, the only real institution left in Russia was that of President Putin, who despite switching to being the Prime Minister of Russia so as to give the appearance of following the 1993 Constitution, still remained influential and very much in power. Dmitri Medvedev, the actual “president” at the time, was considered more of a puppet. From 2008 to 2012, Prime Minister Putin rules from President Medvedev’s shadows while maintaining his façade of democracy, and then switches back to being president in 2012 as soon as the Constitution allows for. The economic crisis of 2008 as well as the Georgian War, also in 2008, and the attempt at a reset with America in 2009 led to hopes for real political reform within Russia. But as the colored revolutions began in the Middle East around 2011, Prime Minister/President Putin began to vehemently crack down in fear of internal Russian revolution, similar to that of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Bolotnaya Protests of 2012 furthered President Putin’s doctrine of “creeping authoritarianism.” He then began to crack down on NGOs and instill laws on treason and defamation. In 2013, he installed laws against the LGBT community, declaring gays and lesbians illegal in the eyes of the Russian state. As Ukraine swayed towards the West in a potential bid for NATO membership in 2013, President Putin seized the area of Crimea from the Ukrainians, triggering a war between pro-Russian separatists and pro-Western alliance Ukrainians that is still being fought today. Russian state media is almost entirely controlled by the Russian government and is the main propaganda tool keeping Russians happy with President Putin’s reign, while bolstering and fueling the hatred for the West. In all aspects, President Putin has his position locked down for many years to come, and his power will only increase as he tightens his grip on his people while the world watches carefully.
The Future of Russia
President Putin will be in power until 2022. His political reign may continue on or it may not, as his actions in the Crimea and in Ukraine have hampered his reputation internally and externally. Regardless of President Putin, authoritarianism will remain in Russia for a while to come until the next “radical” politician comes along, like former President Gorbachev. As Marshall T. Poe states in his book, “From the moment the autocratic system was constructed in the sixteenth century, the ruling class became solidly wedded to it. The reason is rather simple: Autocracy enabled the elite to successfully defend its interests both against external threats (Europe) and internal threats (its subjects)” (Poe 103). Russians are very traditional creatures, reverting to old habits that indeed die hard. For the future of Russia, a leader needs to come about with a strong presence, a delicate understanding of Russian history, and the diplomatic skills to negotiate with the West and with Western organizations – but until then, Russians are more than satisfied with the authoritarian likes of President Putin.
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