Russian history has been marred by the trend of an authoritative head of state with centralized power with minimal checks in three different political regimes. “Personalized power” was present in imperialist Russia when ultimate political authority was manifested in a monarch, throughout the communist regime when leaders like Stalin were able to implement radical political change by using vanguard party philosophy as justification, and now, in Russia’s post-communist attempt at democracy.
Despite having regular elections, Russia’s experiment with democracy is clearly failing. The current system of “personalized power” is damaging the most basic democratic ideals; political dissidents are silenced, election fraud is common, political power is becoming increasingly centralized, and political competition is run through the current political party. When Boris Yeltsin modeled the new postcommunist government after Western-style democracy, it appeared hopeful that this pattern would end. However, the new “democratic” constitution gave the president so much power that today Russia’s political system is considered a form of “soft authoritarianism.” For example, the president is able to dissolve the Federal Assembly in some circumstances, one of the most important checks on the Head of State’s power, and can issue presidential decrees which can pass policy without involving parliament. This extreme power can be seen in the political dominance the United Russia party has enjoyed since the fall of the Soviet Union. It has allowed Vladimir Putin, current president of Russia, to handpick his successor after his first term as president, implement a law extending the presidential term, and return to the presidency after the following elections. According to Lilia Shevtosa, “Putin brought postcommunist Russia back to the model that had ended in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet state and the unraveling of the old system (177).” She believes that as long as this system of “personalized power” is in play, Russia will never be able to truly implement democracy, and in its inevitable decay it will lead to more aggressive methods of asserting its power, such as the recent annexation of Crimea. Unfortunately, in a country whose politics have been shaped by various authoritarian figures it appears that the trend of “personalized power” is unlikely to be broken, especially as it continues to reject western ideas and isolate itself through aggressive military and diplomatic actions.
Kesselman, Mark, Joel Krieger, and William A. Joseph. 2014. Introduction to Comparative Politics. 7th Ed. Cengage Learning.
Shevtsova Lila. 2015. “Russia’s Political System: Imperialism and Decay.” Journal of Democracy 26(1): 171-182.