If nothing else, Vladimir Putin certainly has an impressive resume.
Lieutenant colonel in the KGB. Director of the Federal Security Service. Three-time president. Prime Minister. In his spare time, he wrestles bears, flies fighter jets, and takes topless photos on horseback.
And while he is an efficient executive—perhaps brutally so—he is not a proponent of democracy or its institutions. Putin has taken advantage of networks of personalized power, using them to subvert democracy and concentrate his own power over the Russian state.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russians wanted “not fixed rules but fixers,” turning again to systems of personalized power that concentrated authority in one individual, in order to rebuild their shattered nation; enter Putin—who, notably, was appointed as acting president before actually being elected (Shevtsova 176).
This is, unfortunately, very undemocratic. First, Putin’s initial appointment to the presidency shows he was not chosen by the will of the people, but a technicality. And once in power, Putin experienced a “lack of restraint” characteristic of Russian personalized power (Shevtsova 175).
Consider, for example, that Putin won a third term as president in 2012 by earning 107% of the vote—that is to say, he received more votes than registered voters, clearly indicative of fraud (NBC). The takeaway, however, is that Putin’s networks of personalized power are so effective that he is not even beholden to elections; he can stifle democracy and subvert the will of the people in order to preserve his place at the head of Russia’s government.
Not only has personalized power allowed Putin to remain in office, but also enabled him to consolidate authority. In an unprecedented move, Putin became the Chairman of the United Russia party, making him Russia’s chief executive and head of the legislature and thus making it impossible for him to be removed from office according to the constitutional practice (KKJ 567).
Lastly, Putin uses personalized power to eliminate opponents. In 2006, after publishing articles critical of Putin and the Chechen Wars, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in her apartment building (BBC). However, since her death occurred on October 7—Putin’s birthday—certain critics have seen her killing as a murderous “gift.”
Personalized power, therefore, has been an anchor dragging down Russian democracy. It sacrifices rule of law for rule by personality. It trades free and fair elections for efficiency. It subverts the democratic values and principles under which people can have their voice heard by concentrating power in the hands of an individual. Personalized power creates and enables thugs like Putin.
Personalized power existed during the Soviet Union and it lives again during Putin’s regime. Its continued existence begs the question: Will Russian politics ever change?
If current trends continue, then the answer is nyet, comrade.
Joseph, William A, Mark Kesselman, and Joel Krieger. Introduction to Comparative Politics. 7th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2013.
“Obituary: Anna Politkovskaya.” BBC News, October 7, 2006. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/5416238.stm
Shevtsova, Lilia. “Russia’s Political System: Imperialism and Decay.” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 1 (2015): 171-182.
“107 percent turnout? Another side to Russia’s vote.” NBC News, March 6, 2012. http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/03/06/10592169-107-percent-turnout-another-side-to-russias-vote