By Logan Ma
Flying warplanes over Chechnya. Driving a Formula 1 racecar. Swimming bare-chested in a freezing Siberian river. Riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at a Biker festival. Tranquilizing tigers and polar bears. Demonstrating black belt judo techniques in Japan. Leading endangered cranes to their migration routes via hang glider. These are some of the many accomplishments of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the former KGB agent-turned-politician may soon have another addition to his impressive resume—bringing an end to Russia’s turbulent experiment with democracy.
For many, Russia under Putin’s governance has seen a positive about face from the failures of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin became president of the newly formed Russian Federation in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the country’s first democratically elected leader, many expected him to consolidate democracy and painlessly make the transition from a command to a market economy. However, that was not the case. Yeltsin’s attempts to build a market economy failed miserably. For a country accustomed to state control, the almost overnight transition to a market economy led to an economic crisis. Two events in the political sphere further weakened faith in Yeltsin’s abilities. A 1993 constitutional crisis saw troops loyal to Yeltsin shell the Russian parliament building. A year later, the violent First Chechen War broke out. Yeltsin’s mishandling of these two events reflected poorly on his leadership. Despite being narrowly reelected in 1996, Yeltsin abruptly resigned from the presidency in 1999, ending a turbulent period that left many with a bitter first impression of democratic rule.
Where Yeltsin’s tenure saw Russia experience a Wild West of sorts, Putin brought prosperity, stability and predictability. His first two terms in office from 2000 to 2008 saw Russia experience an economic boom driven by prudent macroeconomic management, fiscal reform and price increases of Russia’s main export, natural gas. Putin presided over eight straight years of economic growth while living conditions improved as real wages tripled and unemployment halved. In addition, he curbed the power of the business oligarchs who dominated politics in the Yeltsin era, a move that received much adulation since many Russians attributed the economic malaise of the 1990s to the hubris of these wealthy figures. Powerful business magnates such as the late Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky either fled abroad or spent time in prison. Although the Chechen problem that plagued the latter half of Yeltsin’s administration persisted, Putin’s tough-minded approach won him more admirers than detractors. Putin consistently maintains immense popularity with most Russians. Through his first two terms in office from 2000 and 2008, his tenure as prime minister under the Medvedev administration from 2008 to 2012 and his resumption of the presidency since 2012, Putin consistently achieved approval ratings of over 60 percent, with his popularity peaking at 81 percent in 2007.
While Russia has indeed come a long way from the turbulent 90s, its turnaround comes at a cost for its fragile democracy. The state has increasingly exhibited authoritarian tendencies that dim the hopes for democracy. In 2011, the Democracy Index, an annual report conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, stated that Russia was on the way to transforming from a hybrid democracy to an authoritarian state. Meanwhile, a leaked cable written by American diplomats revealed that they personally saw Putin’s Russia as a “virtual mafia state.”
The political succession following the end of Putin’s second presidential term is a case in point. At the time, the Russian constitution had stipulated that presidents could not serve for more than two consecutive four-year terms. In order to maintain a façade of legitimacy, Putin stepped down as president in 2008, but not before extending the presidential term to six years. His protégé and handpicked successor Dmitry Medvedev, riding on the wave of the outgoing president’s popularity, cruised to victory in the ensuing election. In preparation for Putin’s return to the presidency, Medvedev signed a law extending the presidential term to six years. Meanwhile, Putin took up the role of prime minister. Once Medvedev’s term ended in 2012, Putin ran for president and handily won the election.
Since Putin entered his unprecedented third presidential term, state controls have tightened. Crackdowns in his previous terms were somewhat justified as they came at the heels of incidents that required a strong government response, such as the security threat posed by the Chechen insurgency and the overarching power of Russia’s business oligarchs. But in the last two years or so, the state’s tolerance for dissent has seen a drastic downturn.
The months leading up to and after Putin’s reelection saw the state arrest thousands protesting what they perceived as an assault on democracy. In response, the Russian parliament, now a mere rubber stamp for Putin and his cronies’ designs, passed laws that imposed restrictions on public assemblies, re-criminalized libel and brought increased restrictions on internet content. In addition, the parliament introduced new measures stipulating that NGOs accepting foreign funding register as “foreign agents.” These measures coincide with a recent wave of unwarranted government inspections of NGO offices in the name of protecting the country from hostile foreign interests.
By entering an unprecedented third term as president, Putin has already shown that he is unwilling to relinquish political control anytime soon. To buttress his power, he has centralized political authority while silencing those critical of his rule. What happens between now and the end of his third presidential term is still a matter of speculation, but given current trends, the likelihood that Russia becomes an authoritarian state is very possible. Just last month, in another display of the growing strength of central power, Putin revoked the direct election of regional governors, opting to appoint them personally instead. It is too early to say, but one wonders what will happen at the end of six years. Will Putin step down and preside over a peaceful democratic transition in 2018? Or will he refuse to cede power, becoming the longest-serving Russian leader since Josef Stalin and bringing an end to Russia’s fragile democracy? Only time will tell.
Photo by Piotr Drabik