Russia’s current system of government is characterized principally by the centralization of power. Politically, economically, geographically, and culturally, virtually all power resides in “apparatchiks” or elites – wealthy individuals who are close to the Kremlin. Vladimir Putin orchestrated this consolidation, serving as President from 1999 until March 2008. He was then forced by term limits to move into the role of Prime Minister. Although his former post is officially now occupied by his long-time deputy, Dmitry Medvedev, nearly all experts continue to see Putin’s influence both in the consolidation and exercise of power domestically and in foreign policy. Many experts anticipate Putin’s return to the Presidency in the future. Most would agree that currently, modern Russia remains Putin’s Russia.
The context of centralization in the Putin era is important:
- Elections are held for some legislative offices and for the Presidency. However, one political party, United Russia, dominates. Elections are not considered to be free or fair by international standards. Russia is no longer considered by independent analysts to be a democracy, but has instead been called an “electoral monarchy,” a “managed democracy,” or a “bureaucratic oligarchy.”
- Most significant government postings are appointed by the President and staffed by a group of elites loyal to the Kremlin. These elites are drawn primarily (75%) from Russia’s security forces – the KGB, the FSB that replaced the KGB, or from other police/intelligence sectors. These elites, also known as the “siloviki,” usually serve consecutively or simultaneously in the higher ranks of Russia’s corporate sector.
- Previously elected by the people, the leaders of Russia’s 89 provinces are now appointed, with representation at the national level consolidated into just seven super-governors who serve at the pleasure of the President. Regional sovereignty among Russia’s numerous internal republics is subject to Moscow’s oversight.
- All television stations and most of the radio news outlets are state-owned or state-controlled. The internet is considered mostly free, but vastly underutilized. Both state-dominated and independent print media exist, but government intimidation and harassment is common and inevitably leads to self-censorship. Russia regularly ranks among the world’s most dangerous places for journalists. There have been a number of unsolved murders of journalists in Russia in the past eight years, including the high profile execution-style murder of prominent Putin critic Anna Politkovsky.
- The actions of opposition parties and leaders are tightly controlled by the Kremlin, and the full force of the state is brought to bear against those stepping outside established boundaries. Full freedom of association does not exist. Civil society is highly restricted. NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations), especially those with international connections, are regulated by the state.
- The state reserves the right to breach private property protections for any reason; nationalization or seizure of businesses is common. No significant accumulation of wealth is generally tolerated outside the Kremlin-elite network.
- The courts provide little remedy for individuals or corporations. Judges and prosecutors are often seen as corrupt; defense lawyers are often harassed and intimidated. A culture of impunity reigns and abuse of power by public officials is common.
- The Kremlin promotes a youth movement known as Nashi, an ultra-patriotic group that receives government support and training.
- Putin’s government has also been involved in curriculum and textbook redesign in Russian schools, commissioning the rewriting of some history texts to sanitize them of the mention of Stalinist excesses. History texts memorialize the sacrifices of Soviet troops in defeating Hitler, glorify the tsarist past, and indulge in revisionist accounts of the abuses suffered under Communist rule.
How This Came To Be
The story of how Russia’s power base came to be so thoroughly consolidated following the Yeltsin years (1991-1999) is subject to much revision and contention. In all three scenarios there are three acknowledged periods:
- The fall of the Communist regime;
- The ill-fated Yeltsin reform era; and
- The formation of Modern Russia under Putin.
In one view, Putin’s autocratic regime represents a continuation of Russia’s long authoritarian past, following a brief window of largely meaningless liberal reforms. In another view, Putin and his cronies are seen as having ruthlessly crushed Russia’s nascent democracy, snatching the country back from the arms of the free world. In yet another view, Putin is seen as rescuing Russia from the meddling West and restoring its great power status after a period of humiliation and decline at the hands of Yeltsin and his corrupt pro-Western oligarchs. Finally, some see the West as having “lost Russia” by failing to understand and adequately support Yeltsin’s reforms or appreciate Putin’s designs until it was too late.
Whichever of these scenarios or combinations of scenarios is accurate, by most accounts, Putin has achieved near total consolidation of power. What Yeltsin’s reign really represented is still debated. Westerners may always see it as a missed opportunity to remake their Cold War foe into an image of themselves; however, Putin’s domestic popularity (consistently in the 70-80% range) seems to indicate that he has created a Russian system which has the overwhelming support of the Russian people themselves.
Next: Inside Modern Russia: The Russian System of Government: Potemkin Democracy